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  • Jun 17, 2024

Guy Warren, 1921–2024

Portrait of GUY WARREN in his home and studio, March 2021. Courtesy the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Australia’s oldest working artist, Guy Warren, has passed away at the age of 103. Sydney’s King Street Gallery on William announced that he had died in the early hours of June 14, after a short period in palliative care. 

Born in Goulburn in 1921, Warren left school when he was 14 to work as an assistant proofreader at the Sydney-based weekly magazine The Bulletin. With the encouragement of art editor John Frith he began attending evening classes at JS Watkins Art School, but at the age of 21 he was enlisted into the Australian army during the Second World War and served in New Guinea and Bougainville. This period of his life yielded many sketches of fellow soldiers, landscapes of New Guinea, its locals, and the rainforests of southeastern Queensland.    

After the war, Warren studied at Sydney’s National Art School alongside abstract expressionist Tony Tuckson (1921–1973) and the sculptor Herbert “Bert” Flugelman (1923–2013) under the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme, a vocational training program established to assist returned servicemen. 

Warren was part of Sydney’s abstract expressionist movement that developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, along with Tuckson and landscape painter John Olsen (1928–2023). Warren’s works are predominantly known for their inclusion of figurative elements in relation to the landscape, often taking inspiration from the rainforest at Jamberoo in southern Sydney. As for the themes of his paintings, Warren said that he takes inspiration from “mythology and the metaphors we construct . . . to make sense of man in nature—and, equally, the presence of nature in man.” 

In 1994 Warren created his largest work, The Fall of Icarus, a temporary “sky drawing” created using plane exhaust that spanned four kilometres above the Sydney Harbour. The imagery is commonly found in his art and is based on the Greek legend of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun. The Fall was later recreated over Armidale and Bondi in New South Wales.

Throughout his long career, Warren served as a mentor to many young artists. He was given the role of principal lecturer and head of painting at the Sydney College of the Arts in 1976, and was the director of the University of Wollongong Art Collection from 1992 until 2002.

In 1985, the artist was honored with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s (AGNSW) Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious award for portraiture, for his oil-on-canvas painting Flugelman with Wingman. The work once again made reference to the Greek myth of Icarus. For the prize’s centenary year, Warren’s likeness was captured by Melbourne painter Peter Wegner in the 2021 Archibald-winning portrait. 

Warren was also the recipient of the AGNSW Wynne Trustees’ Watercolour Award in 1979, and was a bronze medalist at the 4th International Triennial of Drawing in Poland in 1988. He also received the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Australia Medal for his services to the arts in 1999 and 2013, respectively.

His career spanned more than 80 years and included more than 50 solo exhibitions around the world—one of which is currently on view at the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, showcasing the late artist’s drawings and photographs from his time in the military; the exhibition will run until August 2024. Warren’s work is featured in the collections of every state gallery in Australia, as well as the British Museum in London, the National Library of China in Beijing, and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Guy Warren is survived by his two children, Paul and Joanna.

Camilla Alvarez-Chow is an editorial assistant at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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