From the mid-1950s New Zealand artists at last began to confront modernist abstract art.
The environment for serious art began to change. In 1956 Peter Tomory was appointed director of the Auckland Art Gallery. He took painting seriously as a profession and tried to expose Aucklanders to New Zealand art history and international modernism. An exhibition of British abstract art was shown in 1958. Colin McCahon had already moved north and worked at the gallery. Auckland became the new centre of painting.
When Peter Tomory arrived from Edinburgh as New Zealand’s first true professional art-gallery director, he surveyed the country’s art scene and decided it was a nation of 40 million sheep and 2 million Philistines. He did his best to change that situation.
From the mid-1960s new dealer galleries, such as the Barry Lett Gallery in Auckland and Peter McLeavey in Wellington, encouraged the display and purchase of contemporary New Zealand art. Progressive new public galleries were established, such as the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 1970 and the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt in 1971. Art in New Zealand had folded in 1946, but a new serious journal, Art New Zealand, began in 1976. There was now a new market – and a new appreciation – for art as international travel and cheap reproductions educated New Zealanders in modernism.
Pioneers of abstraction
Even before the 1960s there had been isolated painters interested in abstraction. In the 1940s Theo Schoon had discovered Māori rock drawings and began experimenting with the koru (unfurling fern) shape in the 1950s. He showed these to Gordon Walters, who had become interested in the work of Swiss German Paul Klee while overseas. On returning to New Zealand, Walters, under the influence of Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian, began experimenting and achieved an artistic breakthrough by straightening the koru shape and making the positive and negative, the figure and the ground, interchangeable. It was not until 1964 that he exhibited his first koru painting; they flowed from his brush for the next two decades to achieve a distinctive New Zealand modernism.
Another pioneer was Milan Mrkusich, born in Dargaville with Dalmatian ancestry, who, without going overseas, developed an interest in the abstract work of Russian Wassily Kandinsky and Mondrian, and by the 1950s was painting rectangular blocks of colour. His work evolved into larger geometric forms using warm colours.
Don’t paint landscapes
Milan Mrkusich was an uncompromising modernist. ‘You want a landscape?’ he said in 1969. ‘Take a drive in the country.’1
Mrkusich influenced Colin McCahon after his move to Auckland, and in 1958 McCahon visited New York and saw the work of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The result was sets of powerful paintings – the gate series, waterfalls, words and then numbers. His paintings grew in size and intensity.
Also in the 1950s two older painters, John Weeks and Louise Henderson, moved, like McCahon, from landscape painting to greater abstraction via cubism.
Three abstract painters returned in the early 1960s after periods overseas.
- Don Peebles began to paint on unstretched canvases.
- John Drawbridge’s work ranged from black and white prints to paintings of subtle abstracts in warm colours.
- By far the most significant was Ralph Hotere, of Māori background, who drew from the example of McCahon a fascination with words and the colour black. He painted many strong works with political references, such as his series in response to the planned aluminium smelter close to his home at Port Chalmers. A sculptor as well as painter, Hotere often used corrugated iron or hardboard in window frames as his painting surfaces.
A new generation
In the 1970s a generation of painters, mainly born in the 1940s and early 1950s, produced a rich output of abstract art, mainly in Auckland. They included:
- Gretchen Albrecht, who painted bands of colour and hemispheres using acrylic paints
- Ian Scott, influenced by Gordon Walters and American abstraction, who painted lattice shapes in acrylic before returning later to post-modern figurative work
- Geoff Thornley, who experimented with squares and delicate grids
- Stephen Bambury, whose uncompromising interest in formal abstraction aligned him with Milan Mrkusich
- Max Gimblett, who, although based in New York, continued to exhibit his distinctive quatrefoils in New Zealand.
In the 2000s Sara Hughes produced vivid abstractions exploring geometric shapes, often with a play on optical illusions; while Judy Millar, who was selected for the Venice Biennale in 2009, painted strong expressive works in which she often scratched or wiped the paint off the canvas.