Virginia Cuppaidge by Una Rey

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

In 1973 when Virginia Cuppaidge held her first solo exhibition at New York’s AM Sachs Gallery, Lyon 1972 was the ‘hero’ image, reproduced on the invitation designed by Clement Lyon Meadmore. The two Australians had met when Cuppaidge landed in New York in 1969, and Meadmore’s mentoring and his passion for her elemental abstractions played a critical role in her navigating the New York art world. By the time of Cuppaidge’s exhibition, she had gifted Lyon to ‘Clem’ in a mutual exchange between muses: his monumental sculpture Virginia 1970 (commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia) was named after her, and for both artists the intimate titles were a tribute to the world of ideas they shared. Lyon remained in Meadmore’s collection for the next 30 years. After his death in 2005 the painting was returned to Cuppaidge, who gifted it once again—to the National Gallery of Australia.

Lyon was painted in Cuppaidge’s first studio in Hell’s Kitchen when she was 29 years old. It is a striking example of the Geometrics series where she first established her ‘personal geometry’, a distinct idiom within the domain of Abstract Expressionism.(1) In 1976 she said it was ‘work I really had in my mind in Australia, but never did’.(2) An adventurous colourist, Cuppaidge builds Lyon’s power through a complementary palette of reds, blues and greens, a hard‑edged landscape charged with ‘Australian space’ contrary to the vertical architecture of Manhattan. Simultaneously, Lyon’s weight, tension and horizontal grid reveals a dynamic formalist hand at work in tempo with the cultural milieu of 1970s New York.

A dedicated abstract painter who guarded her intellectual independence, Cuppaidge was nevertheless invigorated by the city’s artistic pluralism and feminist activism. In 1973 she exhibited and participated in the curatorium of women on the groundbreaking Women choose women exhibition at the New York Cultural Center and in the 1980s she contributed to the Guerrilla Girls’ projects.

Cuppaidge was born in 1943 into a cosmopolitan Brisbane home. Her mother Judy was an artist, Ian Fairweather’s paintings hung on the walls, and artists Jon Molvig, Andrew Sibley and Bronwyn Yeates were regular visitors and early teachers. She studied art in Sydney between 1965–68 and established her own textile label before creative restlessness took her to New York. Half a century later and half a globe away from its material origins, Lyon signposts contemporary art’s historical narratives, resisting nationalist and stylistic categories. Cuppaidge, now living in Newcastle, embodies the tall poppy who flowered abroad and maintained her stature on the soil of both countries.

(1) Corinne Robins, The pluralist era: American art 1968–1981, Harper & Row, New York, 1984, p 188.

(2) Geoffrey De Groen, Conversations with Australian artists, Quartet Books, Melbourne, 1978, p 88.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Rey, Una. "Virginia Cuppaidge" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 96–97.

Image caption: Virginia Cuppaidge, Lyon, 1972, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198.5 x 306 cm (stretched), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, gift of the artist 2012.

UNA REY is a painter, freelance curator and writer who lectures in visual art and art history at The University of Newcastle.

Virginia Cuppaidge appears in