MacPherson was an internationally renowned artist who received an honorary Doctorate from Griffith University in 1992 and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2020.
In 2015, he was recognised as a Queensland Great and honoured for his role in establishing Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art.
MacPherson had a profound influence on successive generations of Australian artists. His final solo exhibition took place earlier this year at the Griffith University Art Museum.
‘Nominal Gestures’ included the first presentation of “PELICAN DREAMING: 18 FROG POEMS, FOR GREG C.” 1984-2020, a major installation conceived by MacPherson in 1984. This work was acquired for the Griffith University collection.
Alongside his art practice, MacPherson was a jack of all trades, from stockman to painter and docker to antique dealer.
After leaving school at 13, he undertook a number of physically demanding jobs, from factory work to working on the land in the company of drovers and horsemen.
His life experience and origins as a self-trained artist became the foundation of his art practice.
He quit art school after one week, instead studying texts, magazines and exhibitions before appearing on the Brisbane art scene with an international scope and ambition. At the time, he was also working a ‘day job’ as a ship’s painter on the Brisbane wharves.
MacPherson followed a highly individual approach to art making, inspired by the conceptual art movement.
By the time he began exhibiting in the mid-1970s, MacPherson was in his late 30s and had been making art for well over a decade.
He was awarded several Visual Arts Board grants in the 1970s that allowed him to further his artistic education, travelling to Europe and working in the Greene Street studio in New York City.
In the 1980s, MacPherson’s ‘Frog Poems’ were structured around the act of naming and the seemingly simple relationships between object-and-word couplings. An avid bibliophile and lover of poetry, his connection to the world outside the gallery was evident in the ‘Mayfair’ roadside sign paintings, begun in the 1990s, which displayed MacPherson’s gentle sense of humour and great love of everyday language.
In recognition of his outstanding contribution to artistic culture, MacPherson was awarded an honorary Doctor of the University by Griffith University in 1992.
In 1994, his work was the subject of a large exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in 1995, the National Gallery of Victoria staged a survey of his work. In 1997 he was awarded an Artist Emeritus award from the Visual Arts/Craft Fund of the Australia Council. In 2001 a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, was curated by Trevor Smith, later touring to Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. In 2015, QAGOMA hosted a major solo exhibition ‘Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach’, curated by Ingrid Periz and accompanied by a substantial catalogue.
His work was represented in collections of all state galleries, the National Gallery of Australia and numerous regional and private collections.
He was also included in several Sydney Biennales and numerous major international exhibitions, including the 25th Bienal de São Paolo, Brazil, in 2002, Den Haag Sculptuur 07 in The Netherlands and the 9th Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates, in 2009.