By the late 1970s, John Brack had earned a reputation as a reclusive artist. For over ten years, he had adhered to a familiar regime, spending days alone painting in his studio in Melbourne's Surrey Hills and observing Australian suburban life on regular, solitary walks. Brack had already received great popular and critical acclaim for his images of urban life, scenes laced with an undertone of detachment, regimentation and alienation - Collins Street, 5pm (1955, National Gallery of Victoria collection), Mens Wear (1953, Australian National Gallery collection) and ordered social rituals: The Bride and Groom (1960, National Gallery of Australia collection) and Junior Latin American (1969, private collection).
In 1972, the artist travelled overseas for the first time, and in his diary extensively analysed Jacques-Louis David's The Rape of the Sabine Women (1799, The Louvre, Paris collection). In it, he observed "although the battle is ostensibly the subject, it is in the end a pretty picture. Actually, there is no real movement here, no disorder. Considering how important battle pieces were in the history up to the 20th century, how many of these deal with reality?.. Maybe it simply isn't possible. Close up it can't be seen and in the distance it becomes a slow ballet." (J. Brack in R. Lindsay, ed., John Brack, Melbourne, 1987, p.19).
In 1978, Brack began his Pencil series. Halt was one of the earliest of this series of works and, together with March (1978, private collection) and Confrontation (1978, Artbank collection) offers a commentary on public regimentation and social homogeneity in the guise of military manoeuvres and battle scenes populated by pencils and fountain pens. "The pencils and their pens stand as metaphors as much for soldiers and their commanders as for office workers and their chiefs, or any other grouping. Once a grouping has formed, then rivalry and opposition seem inevitable." (S. Grishin, The Art of John Brack, Vol. 1, Melbourne, 1990, p.146).
The imagery of Halt suggests an army grouping for battle, preliminary to the main action of Siege (1979-80, Sussan Corporation collection), in which pencils in a bowl are surrounded by an army of fountain pens, or the protests of Out (1979, Art Gallery of New South Wales collection). In Halt particularly, hierarchical structures and the tendency of humans to colonise into like-minded groups are the focus. Fountain pens lead their small battalions of pencils, and each leader displays its group's flag, a playing card; a minor and seemingly meaningless demarcation between one group and another.
Halt is at the vanguard of the Pencil series: a series that stands as Brack's most overtly analytical. It offers an artist's investigation into his perception of the world, ranging from "information about the painter's materials and the role and perception of art objects as well as information dealing with the artist's intellectual processes. Having created an emotional neutrality, an impersonal art free of passionate flourishes, and also having freed himself from the need to watch exhibitions, sales and the art market, Brack systematically plots this series as a planned progression towards an ultimate solution, with each painting a beautifully thought-through step. This is arguably the most intensely deliberate of all his series and also one that presents fewest parallels in contemporary art." (Ibid, p.145).