Obituary: Influential artist and educator, Robin Norling
Robin Carl Norling: May 1, 1939 to January 20, 2017
Robin Norling, painter, draughtsman, teacher and gallery director, was born in Windsor, New South Wales, but grew up in Taree. He studied at the National Art School (NAS), where he graduated with Honours, and Sydney Teachers College.
Contemporary art in the early 1960s in Sydney was largely dominated by abstract expressionism. Norling’s student paintings at this time shared something of the vigour, immediacy and painterliness of this style, but they also reveal, in their attention to space and draughtsmanship, his debt to Cézanne. Some of his drawings from his final year at NAS formed part of a submission which the following year won him the Le Gay Brereton Memorial Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In 1961, aged only 22 and still a student at Sydney Teacher’s College, he won the Sulman Prize, for a mural design, Sea movement and rocks. In 1962, having just started teaching art at Macquarie Boys High School, Norling was awarded the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship, which allowed him to travel to Europe and North Africa with his new wife, art teacher Elaine Odgers. During his Scholarship years he studied at the Royal College of Art London, where he obtained his postgraduate qualification.
In 1966 Norling and his wife, after extensive travels in Europe and north Africa, began their slow return to Australia, driving through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, immersing themselves in the many cultures they passed through.
On his return to Australia in late 1966, Norling returned to secondary school teaching and, in 1970, was appointed lecturer in art education at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education. He also began writing and presenting for a weekly ABC radio program, The Argonauts, in the role previously held by Jeffery Smart, Phidias the art-man. Television programs followed with Channel 9 and the ABC. From 1978 to 1986 he was senior education officer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, during which time he curated a number of educational exhibitions and led innovative programs in art museum education.
In 1986 Norling left the Gallery and took up a position at Meadowbank College of TAFE, teaching painting and drawing. In 1997 he retired from teaching and returned to full-time painting. During the later years of his life, he shared a studio and the Patonga Bakehouse Gallery on the New South Wales Central Coast, with fellow artist, Jocelyn Maughan.
Norling exhibited throughout his life and won many prizes. Three major solo exhibitions of his work were mounted in just the last two years, including a retrospective at Manning Regional Art Gallery in 2016.
In the story of modern Australian art, Robin Norling holds a special place: an innovator who honours artistic tradition (or, as the artist himself described it, “walking backward for the better leap forward”). His contact during his studies at the Royal College of Art with many of the pioneers of Pop art is partly reflected in his work of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly his “cut-outs”. However, at the heart of Pop art is an enthusiastic acceptance of consumerism, and this was never completely embraced by Norling. So, while it is quite possible that he was a conduit for Pop art into Australia, it may have been more as a “carrier”.
Artists, like Norling, who teach are not uncommon, and many do so with some reluctance. After all, teaching takes time and effort that could be spent making more art. However what sets Norling apart is that, for him, these two activities were inextricably linked. Every work of art by him is an invitation to a game of visual delights, which is the essence of aesthetic education.
Robin Norling is survived by Elaine, their children, Beth, Meg and Owen, grandchildren, Indigo, Juno, Quinn and Theo, and his beloved companion, Jocelyn, her sons, David and Stephen, and their children.