From edition

Pat Larter from Kitchen to Gallery

Among the many works by the artist Richard Larter in the National Gallery of Australia, are four works catalogued as ‘Femail art, 1975’ (NGA Accessions register 80.1136 – 80.1139). These were donated by Daniel Thomas, who was then senior Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery. The National Gallery of Australia does not claim to own work by Richard’s wife, his model, Pat Larter. But not only was she the sole author of one of these works (80.1136), she also contributed to two of the others (80.1137 and 80.1138), and originated the name ‘femail art’.

Picture: Mail Art 1989

Pat Larter was one of the leading figures in the movement known as ‘international mail art’, an underground, subversive art movement that had its heyday approximately from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. International Mail Art, also known as Correspondence Art was born out of a flippant response to the crass commercialisation of the art market, and it moved toward death with the growth of the internet (Baroni).1 Pat Larter is a figure of significance because she is one of the few mail artists to make that transition to mainstream art, and also because she is a mail artist who was a woman. When talking about mail art, the culture is ‘bloke’. Even the 1978 Femail Art issue of Vile (6 Summer) was edited by Bill Gaglione, with his then wife Anna Banana, credited as Associate Editor (Mittendorf).2 Even more surprising — and significant — is Pat Larter’s other transition.

Picture: Pat Larter.

She is still best known as a subject, a muse .The very first work of Richard Larter’s that I saw was Dithyrambic Painting, (1965) in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (accession 52.1972). It was a gift from the art writer Sandra McGrath and her husband Tony McGrath. McGrath was then a prominent member of the Art Gallery Society who helped found the volunteer gallery guides. According to Daniel Thomas, who at that time was Senior Curator of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the painting was given to the gallery after their priest visited the McGrath home and was shocked at such explicit nudity. I never could understand why as this was so, as by the Larters’ standards, Dithyrambic Painting is a fairly tame work. It is a side rear view of a nude, painted using a hypodermic syringe in the years before heroin would have made that a political statement. In the background the artist has made a glorious pattern in iridescent colours. The model was the artist’s wife, Pat. The following year Art and Australia published Gary Catalano’s first scholarly article on Richard Larter.3 Many of Richard Larter’s paintings of nudes are reproduced here, most of them with Pat as the model, but the critic does not name her, does not even describe her persona. The closest he gets is to write:

but Larter points up the distinctions by the pose and the placement of the figure, and then works out from it, altering and deriving shapes, introducing colours as he goes.

To be fair, one of the reasons for this neglect of the model is that Catalano was writing in a purely formalist tradition. That is, he was able to write about complex figurative compositions, while totally ignoring the content, or its purpose.
A decade later, in 1985, Terence Maloon, a critic who did understand that figurative art, indeed all art, may have content as well as formal qualities of line and form and balance, wrote the introduction for a Queensland University exhibition of some of Richard Larter’s paintings:

Pat …has been an inveterate collaborator in Larter’s performance video and film works and in his involvement with mail art, as well as being his model, best friend, mother of his children… Pat’s talent for mugging in front of the camera has extended their collaboration to the point that she is more a performer than a model for Larter’s paintings.4

At least he got the collaborator bit right. But Richard’s mail art? By the 1980s in mail art circles it was generally accepted that Pat was the dominant mail artist, and Richard also said this long and loud to any critic who would listen. The trouble is, they weren’t listening. Until the 1990s most writers assumed that Richard Larter was the initiator of the Larters’ performances and that he decided on the detail of the explicit, often anti-erotic, frontal poses. After all, these works were totally full-on. They did shock many with their explicit, unsentimental sexuality. There was (and indeed still is) a feeling among some women that Pat Larter was exploited by her husband.

There are two problems with this theory. The first is the nature of Pat Larter’s own art, and the second is the direction of Richard Larter’s art since her death. In brief, Richard Larter’s recent art is more sedate than the art made in Pat’s lifetime (Richard Larter, ‘Julie’).5 There is a reasonable body of evidence to show that it is Pat the brave, Pat the transgressor, Pat the rule-breaker, who was the dominant influence on her husband’s art. He in turn influenced her towards making art, taught her techniques, and through his position in the Australian visual arts community, gave her access to a milieu where her talent was recognised.

What is the best starting point for Pat Larter’s art? Probably not the letter she wrote to her mother-in-law in Bournemouth about painting. On 6th January 1970 she wrote: ‘I have the painting bug again this time it’s the bathroom, painting it light green.’ (Pat Larter archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). The letters to Mrs Larter are gloriously informative about the Larter family dynamics — but only if taken in conjunction with their art and other information. This is the some of the context. Pat Larter was born Patricia Florence Holmes, one of two daughters of a painter and decorator, Leslie Homes, and his wife Pansy. They lived at Canvey Island on the mouth of the Thames, south of London. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was eight, and her mother took in boarders and foster children to make ends meet.

There is another story that I have only just uncovered. Her paternal grandmother was an Edwardian beauty, a music hall performer. The Larter children remember their mother performing for them with tap dances and jumping tricks to keep them distracted while Richard painted. For when the children were young, and Richard was teaching art at Liverpool Boys’ High, television was at first a luxury they could not afford. The family’s best chance was for Richard to paint in peace after a hard day of school teaching and his wife’s job was to keep the children quiet.

Because the Holmes family was poor, Patricia left school at the minimum age and the 15 year old girl travelled each day to London to work in a marine insurance office. The city was big and exciting. At the office she noticed a handsome, rebellious young man, training to be a surveyor. Richard Larter’s father was a senior insurance executive and his parents were in despair at their son’s conduct and attitudes (Larter, Richard, Memoirs ms July 2004 private collection). Even though he had the formal qualifications, he had refused their demand that he study medicine. He wanted to be an artist. His mother was a friend of the owner of the Mayor Gallery, one of London’s leading avant garde dealer galleries, so he was familiar with modern art. Richard wore a leather jacket and rode a motorbike. He liked Marx brothers’ movies, and took Pat to them (she had never before been to the movies). His family was scandalised at the relationship; her mother was supportive. He was asked to leave his insurance job after telling off a boss, so at the end of 1952 Pat Holmes’ dashing boyfriend moved out of his parents’ home to stay with her family at Canvey Island.

Picture: Blaster Tribute.

At the end of January 1953, without warning, the North Sea rose and flooded all the lowlands of England and Holland. Over 300 people died (‘Canvey Island —Floods’).6 Canvey Island was at the centre of the damage, and for some weeks was reclaimed by the sea. The Holmes family and their new boarder evacuated to a school on the mainland, but they lost all their possessions, including Richard’s early paintings. In the aftermath the young couple married. Neither of Richard Larter’s parents attended the wedding, and indeed his mother begged Pat’s mother to stop the marriage, as it was such a terrible mistake.

For approximately two years, until children were born, Pat Larter took some adventurous jobs, including fitting prosthetic limbs on ex-soldier amputees. She also attended classes in English at Toynbee Hall (Richard Larter, ‘Pat Larter Story’)7 and with Richard, she attended Eduardo Paolozzi’s revolutionary lectures at the Institute of Contemporary Art. She befriended Francis Bacon, who admired her cheekiness and wit, and I think may have enjoyed excluding her young husband from his more exclusive gatherings.

This context does explain in part why, after Richard Larter completed teacher training, and taught for two years in a London school, the Larter family, who by then had three children, immigrated to Australia. They arrived in 1962, just at the start of the NSW Government’s innovative Wyndham Scheme of school education. The new curriculum, with its emphasis on creativity, introduced art as a compulsory course for all high school students, which led to a demand for art teachers. A further two children were born in Australia.

They had a vision of open land, sun and outdoor living. Their sense of dislocation and adventure led Richard Larter to volunteer to teach in unfashionable western Sydney at Liverpool and Penrith High schools.8 The Larter family bought an old cottage on a large tract of wilderness land, at Luddenham in the bush outside Sydney. There was no running water, but they did have a tank and a dam. There was another, smaller, shack which served as a studio, but most of Richard Larter’s paintings were painted in the living room, with the linen tacked to the wall. Later Richard and Pat staged performances, and also made super 8 films and videos. Most of these films are catalogued ‘Richard Larter’ (Richard Larter archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales), but they star Pat. She is often the one whose imagination governs the direction taken in the performances in the films. In recent years Richard has indicated that the films should be catalogued as being by a joint effort.

By 1974 Richard Larter was a prominent Australian artist. He left school teaching. The family was trying to sell the house at Luddenham. The house was too small for their needs and life at the far edge of the city sprawl had not helped the children. Pat wrote of wanting to live in Glebe. She wanted a house with carpet and hot running water. The Luddenham house could not find a buyer, but in that year, Richard Larter was appointed visiting artist (with senior lecturer status) at Elam art school at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The youngest child, Eliza, started school. For the first time in many years, Pat Larter had time to think.

Pat wrote to her mother-in-law on Richard’s first lecture:

Dick given first lecture on 18 April (43 in class but 60 turned up) lecture called ‘Painting is Dead’… We had a happening — where I raised Dick from the dead — a film show, — episcope show, and a slide show, show of Dick’s paintings. Dick’s lecture was on tape, lasting almost 2 hrs, everyone agreed it was the best lecture they had had there for years. The Uni is worse than high school, they have no equipment and Dick has had to buy a lot of stuff for himself (Pat Larter archive).9

Even in Richard’s lectures, Pat is present, creating and performing. The reason she is not credited is the same reason that when Christo came to Sydney in 1969, he was praised while his collaborator Jeanne-Claude was hardly noticed. Until about 1975 most women collaborating with men were gloriously totally invisible.

It was not until October 1974 that Pat stepped out in her own right. The Inch exhibition of International Mail Art, ( Catalogue Inch Exhibition, Pat Larter archive) was a direct consequence of the growth of a highly mobile art underground, encouraged by cheap international air travel (the catalogue is printed as 1973, but this is a printing error). Terry Reid, a Canadian mail artist who had been active in the American neo-Dada movement Fluxus West, came to New Zealand for ‘a break’ after working for some time in Japan. Because he was there, and the local scene was receptive, he worked with the performance artist Phil Dadson to create ‘an art event which may involve International Mail Art’ (most mail art events have the word ‘International’ in the title). According to Reid ‘The idea was that people responded on the idea of ‘the inch’ being pretty much contrary to the sort of expansiveness of huge art’.10 There were works by some of the giants of International Mail Art, including Anna Banana, Ken Friedman, John Held, Al Ackerman, and Cees Francke. Pat Larter’s small collection of ‘inch’ pieces, Barely an Inch Dared: body inches by Pat Larter, were indeed small, but gained a great deal of attention by their direct, radical approach. According to Reid:

Pat’s [art] was perfect. It was a very nice piece of work. She had actually made prints from her body and each was a perfect inch. It was also very nice in that, you know I mean it would be like an inch of elbow, or clitoris or whatever and so there were this kind of … No part of the body became more important or more special than any other part which I thought was a really nice thing to do.

There was no stopping her. Pat Larter was awarded the ‘Sandie Shaw Prize’, her first and only art prize. This was in part a comment on the direct sexual nature of her work as ‘Sandie Shaw’ was one of the personas of Cees Francke, the Dutch mail artist whose work included an interest in pornography, body building and bodily fluids. And they indeed became friends.

Back in Australia, Pat sat at the kitchen table, and in moments snatched from children and husband began to send art in the mail. She used children’s stationery sets to make stamps, and so invented Fe-mail art. It did not matter to people in the USA, Argentina, Poland, Japan or Portugal that she was out of the art loop in her own country. Mail art never did depend on living in the cultural hub. In its devolved democratic modus operandi mail art acted as a counter to the view that the New York/London/ Berlin axis ruled the world.

In 1979 Richard Larter took a residency at Wagga Wagga in the far south of New South Wales and Pat left Luddenham to camp out in Sydney while she worked with Cees Francke and Terry Reid on Art Core Meltdown. This was a major mail art and performance event held at the University of Sydney Union. In the years afterwards, she became a major cult figure on the international mail art scene. People made tributes to her — many of these are in the Pat Larter archive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but also in the Getty, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate in London. What both intrigued and shocked people was the way Pat used her own body in these pieces (some of which were exhibited with the persona ‘Dick & Pat Larter’ even though she was directing her own poses). Then there was ‘Tailored Maids’, a performance piece against female circumcision. This was shown to audiences, as shadow play, where artist sat behind a sheet. As the implements of destruction (based on various domestic and gardening tools) went close to her, she threw pieces of raw meat into the audience. Other performances, which she described as pornography against sexism, attracted favourable attention in Latin America and Barcelona.

In 1982 the Larters managed to sell their house and move to a large two storeyed house in Yass near the New South Wales snowfields. Here they continued to make films, but not performances. Pat revelled in the carpet, the running water, and the easy walk to the centre of town. Mail art was unaffected by the move.

The factors that led Pat to the mainstream included the proximity of Yass to Australia’s capital of Canberra which meant that Pat and the children were able to go to see exhibitions. More importantly, in 1989 Richard purchased the house next door to become a dedicated studio for his art.

There is one drawing of 1989 which shows Pat’s work in transition. The small oil crayon piece was exhibited in a mail art event at Berne, but otherwise does not share the characteristics of Pat Larter’s mail art (Pat Larter archive Art Gallery of New South Wales). In 1989, on one of her excursions to Canberra, Pat saw an exhibition of art by Aboriginal women from Utopia in Central Australia. It was a revelation (Photographs from the exhibition are in the Pat Larter Archive). These women were mature age. Western arts advisors had taught them to be makers of craft, to make batik fabrics for the tourist trade,but they had turned to art. There are some diaries and sketchbooks where she drew abstract shapes, clearly influenced by the Aboriginal work. They made their art, painting from above, sitting on the ground. When Pat began to paint she did not sit on the ground as these years were the start of continual pain from damaged ligaments in her knees. She found it natural to sit at a table, and like the women of Utopia, to work from above. Her abstract paintings are so fluid, with so much joie de vivre, that it is hard to believe that this artist is new to painting (Legge Gallery accessed 20 December 2004 ). Richard was supportive of her work, but there was at first a problem.

In his diaries Richard Larter at first called the new studio, ‘My studio’ or ‘My house’ (Also ‘my lawn’ Richard Larter diaries, Art Gallery of New South Wales’ archive Saturday 15 February 1990). This led to a certain determination by Pat that she should exercise her own rights, and the matter was successfully resolved. (Richard Larter’s diary of the first mention of ‘our’ studio is 23 January 1993.) In early 1994, when Richard began to use computer generated scanned images of photographic models in his paintings, Pat also began to use both female and male images (Richard Larter’s diary of 15 November 1994 contains the first reference to laser prints). She used professional photographic models for the women, but for some of the men went to a male brothel (information from Sonia Legge). The way she treated her male subjects, posing with feather boas, strutting in leather, has been interpreted by some women as revenge on her husband for making her his model, but I can’t accept that reading. All the evidence is that Pat Larter enjoyed performing, and especially performing with her husband. Her studies of men are affectionate works; they relate closely to Richard Larter’s superscans of the same period. Both Pat and Richard Larter exhibited their works together, at Watters Gallery and then at the Adelaide Biennial of 1996. They saw each other as partners in art.

In 1991, Richard Larter said of the way they worked: ‘[There was] a Joe Cocker song about spacemen, ‘Learning to live together’, and we thought it was ‘living to learn together and learning to live together’, that’s what we were. It describes our relationship’ (Interview with the author, 10 August 1991).

Picture: Experiment Collage Naked Man.

This new direction in their art did not meet with widespread critical approval. There was one favourable notice in the Australian (Mendelssohn)11 but John McDonald’s attack in the Sydney Morning Herald was more noticed. He wrote damning their ‘voyeuristic pictures of naked men and women letting it all hang out. …The subject matter is so overwhelming that the painted borders are hardly visible, and the poses allow no room for subtlety…’.12

They shrugged off the abuse, and decided to continue to have fun with their art. But Pat did not feel well. This time it was more than her knees, and she was tired. A celebration of their films was planned for the Super 8 Festival in Melbourne in October, but she didn’t make it. She bought a bus ticket to travel to Sydney for her exhibition at Legge Gallery, but didn’t go as she died too quickly of lymphoma. A wake was held on the last day. Richard was bereft at her death. He has subsequently been heroic in his efforts to ensure that her name and her art was not lost. He donated her archive to the Art Gallery of New South Wales library, but as recently as October 2004 the National Gallery of Australia attributed her art to him, and for many she is still only the muse.

Picture: Position Vacant.

Joanne Mendelssohn

Notes:

1.Vittore Baroni (ed) Mail Art Encyclopaedia accessed 19 December 2004
2. Henning Mittendorf ‘What is Mail Art’ accessed 20 December 2004
3. (Gary Catalano, ‘The Earlier paintings of Richard Larter’, Art and Australia, 11:1 (July—September 1973): 66-75)
4. Maloon, Terence, Richard Larter: A Survey Brisbane: University of Queensland Art Museum, 1985.
5. Richard Larter, ‘Julie’ reproduced in ‘Jo Sonja’s Packsaddle Exhibition’, accessed 18 Dec. 2004 .
6. ‘Canvey Island —Floods’ BBC 18 Dec 2004 .
7. Richard Larter, ‘Pat Larter Story’ MS July 2004, private collection
8. Richard Larter, ‘Memoirs’ MS July 2004 private collection
9. Pat Larter archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
10. Terry Reid, interview with the author, 21 August 2003.
11. Joanna Mendelssohn The Australian, 29 March 1996.
12. McDonald, John, ‘Tit Bits’ Sydney Morning Herald 30 March 1996.

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