Artist, critic and cultural warrior Elwyn (Jack) Lynn was one of the most influential figures in mid-twentieth century Australian art. In the 1950s as his own painting became progressively more abstract, he educated his colleagues via his editorship of the Contemporary Art Society Bulletin. He was the first Curator of the Power Collection at the University of Sydney
Elwyn Augustus (Jack) Lynn was born on 6 November 1917 at Canowindra, New South Wales the son Leonora (née Johns) and William James Lynn, a labourer. When the boy was two his father obtained work as an assistant fitter on the NSW railways and the family moved to Junee. He attended primary school at Junee and high school at Wagga Wagga where he completed his Leaving Certificate. He was subsequently awarded a Teaching Scholarship to the University of Sydney. While his major was in English, he also studied philosophy and came under the influence of the philosopher John Anderson. He was introduced to art as a part of his Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers College, and subsequently became involved in the NSW branch of the Contemporary Art Society and in 1954 became its secretary. The society put out a newsletter, the CAS Broadsheet, which Lynn made the most influential publication of its day on Australian art. He arranged for air mail subscriptions of major international art journals, so that throughout the 1950s local artists were told of the activities of New York, Paris and other centres. In 1963 he was elected President of the Contemporary Art Society. Throughout the 1950s his own painting began to move towards abstraction. His love of language and the physical shape of letters sometimes led to titles that were word games and sometimes he included fragments of letters in paintings. He was awarded the Blake Prize in 1957 for Betrayal which was seen at the time as a radical abstract painting. In 1963 Lynn succeeded Robert Hughes as art critic for the tabloid Sunday Mirror. He was subsequently appointed an art critic for new publication, The Australian, but soon moved to the Bulletin. He returned as senior art critic for the Weekend Australian in 1983, a position he relinquished in 1995. His interest ideas of freedom led him to join the CIA influenced Australian Association for Cultural Freedom. He subsequently became associate editor, and then editor of their publication, Quadrant. In 1956 he married Lily Luise Walter, who had spent much of her girlhood in Weimar in Nazi Germany, where her father had managed to conceal knowledge of her Jewish ancestry from both herself and the authorities. In 1958 he took long service leave to travel with Lily to Europe, to get a sense of the culture that had shaped Australia’s European emigrés. At the Venice Biennale he was exposed to the rich textures of “matter painting”, which had a profound influence on his own work. His texture based works led to him being included in the 1961 Whitechapel Exhibition of Recent Australian Painting. In 1968, while he was teaching English and history at Cleveland Boys High, Bernard Smith, the Power Professor at the University of Sydney, suggested he apply for the position of curator at the Power Collection. In the following years he enriched the collection with innovative purchases of works by Josef Beuys, Enrico Baj, Marcel Duchamp, all at the height of their fame, as well as works by artists at the beginning of their careers, including Ed Keinholz and Sean Scully. There was an assumption at the time that Australian artists could not belong in a contemporary collection. While he could not buy their work, it could be given. As a result, the Power Collection soon boasted of works donated by Sidney Nolan. Lynn’s association with Quadrant led him into conflict with his colleagues, many of whom were vocal opponents of the war in Vietnam. As a result his years at the University of Sydney were not especially happy ones. In these years he forged closer personal relations with the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education (later the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, which later named a room in his honour. He was awarded an AM in 1975. In 1976 he was appointed Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council. This time coincided with an economic recession and a subsequent significant reduction in arts funding. As a result he advocated for more funds to be directed to contemporary art. Despite his failing health, including poor eyesight, Lynn continued to paint until shortly before he died. Unlike sone artists whose work declines with their health, Lynn’s vigorous last works look as though they were painted by an artist in his prime.