Alan Oldfield’s early work was characterised by crisp clean abstract paintings which combined a hedonist sensibility with the austerity of hard edge abstraction. His later paintings were in a more meditative style influenced by Italian Renaissance art and his deep and abiding religious faith. Also active as a theatre/set designer.
Alan Oldfield was born in Sydney’s industrial inner west,the son of a fitter and turner,whose success was very much a tribute to the quality of education made available to bright students in Australia in the immediate post war years. He discovered art because the local Marrickville library was designated to specialise in art books. At the age of eleven he was awarded the children’s prize in the local Rockdale Art Prize.
By the time Oldfield started high school the family had moved to a new house in Sydney’s south-west suburban sprawl where he attended East Hills Boys High, one of the new comprehensive schools that enabled all NSW school children to complete their secondary education. Bright boys were placed in the academic stream away from art, but his Latin teacher was Bill Collins, later to achieve national fame for his love of the cinema, so he was taught well. Oldfield left school at the age of fourteen with his Intermediate Certificate and enrolled in the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College. This introduced Oldfield to a world of freedom away from the restrictions of the suburbs. The camaraderie between staff and students and the self-conscious bohemianism of inner Sydney took him forever away from the restrictions of the suburbs. He enjoyed a robust social life, which included several spectacular appearances at the annual artists balls. He once recalled walking down Oxford Street as dawn was breaking, wearing nothing but glitter under his coat. The teaching was however less impressive. He later told James Gleeson that he found the teaching 'absolutely appalling’. Nevertheless it enabled him to join the lively young New York influenced radical artists gathered at Sydney’s Central Street Gallery, and he first made his mark as a hard edge colour field painter with an exhibition at the recently opened Watters Gallery. In 1968 he was one of the younger artists selected for the ground-breaking The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Also at this time he wrote articles for the short lived art magazine, Other Voices. Many years later, in 2000 he wrote the catalogue introduction for the Wendy Paramour catalogue. She was the only woman in the Central Street group, and he wanted to ensure that her art was not forgotten after her death. In 1970 he travelled to the USA and Europe for the first time. He had always loved saturated colour, and his initial aim was to see the great survey exhibition of Matisse in Paris. But in Europe he was confronted with the power and beauty of the whole western tradition. As a young man Oldfield had found spiritual solace in the Anglo Catholic traditions of Sydney’s Christ Church St Laurence, and this encouraged him to look more to the great aesthetic traditions of medieval and renaissance Europe. His partner, late Jim Davenport, was an academic so the young Oldfield came to Cambridge where he later claimed he disgraced himself at High Table at Kings College. His paintings of this time included a series of meticulously painted chairs, empty, but awaiting the presence of a human body. One work included a book placed on a beach chair: it was a monograph on Caravaggio. He had seen the definitive Caravaggio and the Caravagisti exhibition in Florence and the 17th century Italian master was to remain one of his great guides. Oldfield returned to Italy in 1974, to Rome on an Australia Council Visual Arts Board travel grant. Here he had the freedom and time to paint and further study renaissance and baroque art. He began to appreciate the beauty of subtle tones and of sculptural forms shown in paint. His growing interest in medieval mysticism led to Oldfield researching The Revelations of Divine Love, by the English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich. In 1985 he began to paint a series of works based on her visions and spirituality. His painting of Julian’s revelation A High and Spiritual Shewing of Christ’s Mother was awarded the Blake Prize in 1987. The entire cycle was exhibited in Norwich Cathedral in 1988 and his work still holds pride of place in St Julian’s Church, Norwich. Other residencies included Linacre College in Oxford, and Christchurch Cathedral Newcastle, NSW. Explorations and journeys, physical and spiritual, were a characteristic of much of his later painting. Oldfield’s connections to spiritual values led him to being awarded the Blake Prize again in 1991 and he also painted the shrines of Our Lady and Our Lord at Christ church St Laurence in Sydney. His last major series, Lizard Island, the Journey of Mary Watson, was published as a book, with text by Suzanne Falkiner. It was a finalist in the 2002 NSW Premier’s Literary Prize. Despite his involvement with interior lives and metaphysics, Alan Oldfield did not confine himself to religious art and ceremony. He was the designer for Rumours and Afterworlds for the Sydney Dance company from 1978 to 1980, and also designed Beyond Twelve for the Australian Ballet in 1987.
In 1976 Alan Oldfield joined the full-time lecturing staff at the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education in Sydney. He was to remain on the staff until just before his death, as the institution first renamed itself the City Art Institute and then College of Fine Arts, as part of the University of New South Wales. In 1991 he was promoted to Associate Professor. At various times he was head of undergraduate studies, head of studio studies, honours co-ordinator, acting director of the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, and most of the other academic administrative jobs undertaken by university staff. In committee meetings his sotto voce comments were usually scandalous, and much appreciated by his colleagues. As a teacher he was well-known for getting surprising results from the least promising of students. He would say with a chuckle, comments that others would not dare utter, After the student got over the initial shock of being told they needed to totally rethink their approach, they would respond. He was an inspirational teacher of art history on Renaissance art, and his passion for the art he loved was totally infectious. After the death of Jim Davenport in 1997, Oldfield was supported by his colleagues and came to realise that this art school, and indeed the wider arts community was part of his extended family, as well as his sister, her husband and their children. Later this family included his new church of St James King Street, where he served on the Parish Council, and it was here that he was farewelled in a great Anglo Catholic Requiem Mass. He had designed the ceremony in the full and gleeful knowledge that most of those inhaling the incense were atheists.