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 Tony O'Malley  (1913 - 2003)

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Lived/Active: England/Ireland      Known for: abstract painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Tony O'Malley was a self-taught Irish painter.  He was born in Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland and, while he drew and painted for private pleasure from childhood, he worked as a bank officìal until a long battle with tuberculosis in the 1940s knocked him off the normal course of his life.  He began painting in earnest while convalescing and, though he did at first return to bank work, he continued to paint and in 1951 he began exhibiting his work.

In 1955 he holidayed in St. Ives in Cornwall, then an important center of abstract art and home to Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, and Bryan Wynter, whom Tony O'Malley met and worked with on his trip.  He returned again in 1957, and in 1958 retired from the bank to paint full time.  Prompted by a mixture of frustration at the indifference shown in Ireland to his work, an attraction to the sense of freedom he felt among the artists in Cornwall, and an engagement with the attempt to represent natural forms current in their abstraction, he settled in St Ives in 1960. While he was strongly influenced by the St Ives artistic community, his relationship was one of engagement rather than direct participation.  His painting never completely assimilated the rigour and formality of the British abstract painters; it retained a muscular extravagance which is central to his artistic identity.  Speaking to John O'Regan in an interview reproduced in Works 14: Tony O'Malley he explained:

"Not so much abstract as essence. I could not paint for the sake of the pigment of whatever, but I like abstract form in the painting which instills it with meaning and power.  Abstraction does enable you to get under the surface, to get beyond appearance, and to express the mind. But abstraction for its own sake does not interest me."

Tony O'Malley's adopted a sombre palette in the second half of the 1960s and many of his paintings are dedicated to the memory of his friend and mentor Peter Lanyan who was killed when the glider he was piloting crashed in 1964.

In 1973 Tony O'Malley married and through the mid 70s he and his wife, Jane (Harris) O'Malley, spent time in the Bahamas and in O'Malley's native Callan.  During this period, his paintings became less sombre and the Bahamas paintings are extremely colourful and vibrant.

In 1990 he and his wife moved back to Ireland, and in 1993 he was elected a Saoi of Aosdána. When he died in 2003 he was regarded as one of Ireland's leading painters. The Irish Museum of Modern Art displayed a major retrospective of his work in 2005.


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