World Class New Zealand: Black, white and red – NZ artists engaging the world

When Peter McIntyre set out to learn his father’s craft, it was to London and the Slade School of Fine Art he went, rather than studio in his home town of Dunedin. Art was particularly metropolitan in the mid years of the 20th century and to learn to be truly fine painter time in major European city was considered as essential as it had been for Goldie generation earlier. And even as New Zealand shook off much of its colonial art baggage during the ’50s and ’60s, OE remained key for prospective artists, such as Pat Hanly, John Drawbridge, Don Peebles and Ralph Hotere.

It was as if an international sensibility was required to mature young artists into fully functioning creatives, some of whom, like Bill Culbert and Max Gimblett, have remained expatriates, working their cosmopolitan milieu into international careers of considerable repute while maintaining strong presence in New Zealand.

Gimblett, long-time resident in New York where he has developed strong support for his reduced abstract painting, has also managed to maintain profile in New Zealand as notable local artist, where he is one of leading dealer Gow Langsford’s stars. Gimblett, graduate of Auckland Grammar, learned how to be competent front rower in Auckland, but needed foreign travel to develop his creative potential in painting.
“I left New Zealand in 1959 because I had to get to the centre of things to learn how to paint,” Gimblett says.
“Eighty percent of painters are self taught, even if you go to art school. Your education is through looking at art, going to museums and looking, looking. It’s cultural process where you search for what interests you and you do lot of copying to understand the process. cultural process that is dependent on the museums, which means you have to get out of New Zealand.”
That is completely different position to the one adopted by our most illustrious modern painter, Colin McCahon, whose contact with outside art was by distance rather than continuous intimate contact. Some critics claim that it was his isolation that empowered his vision, as well as developing his individuality and sense of place.

However the contrary view is that it was his visit to the United States in 1958, around the same time as Gimblett felt obliged to leave, that stimulated McCahon’s seminal Northland Panels which laid the foundation for his future work. Northland, in McCahon’s sense, meant that place to the north of New Zealand, the rest of the world.

Ralph Hotere had similar experience, not just in the years of his first European experience before his return to New Zealand in the early ’60s, but his ongoing travel and regular contact with artists overseas, in particular, Bill Culbert. In Hotere’s case it was not so much discovery of inspirational work, although that was factor and he maintained lifelong engagement with the intellectual dialogue concerning international contemporary art.

For Hotere it was more about identifying paths of culture, where his own deep Maori identity intersected with those of other cultures, in particular those of Mediterranean Europe, which in turn was connected through his Catholic roots. As arguably the most profoundly Maori artist it was those pathways, especially when explored in collaboration with Bill Culbert, that made Hotere’s work so emphatically local while also being truly international in scope.
Gimblett acknowledges the influence of New Zealand in his work, deep reservoir that informs the painting of 40-year New York resident.

“We are starting to make our way in other cultures,” he says.
“Our writers are fairly well known and our films are shown around the world. New Zealand punches way about its weight globally, but it is tougher for painters where the global impulse comes from Paris, London and New York. Maori and Pacific artists do have an advantage internationally, they are curiosity, but they are hard to place in other cultures and humans are tribal. We identify with art, which is why my paintings are popular here. People still see me as one of them.
“I have come back to New Zealand every year since 1977, because I am loyal and I am in love with this country. The light here still influences my paintings and is factor in my strong interest in black and white and red,” Gimblett explains.
As Ralph Hotere put it, “Black is the New Zealand colour.”
But as much as he references his learning via museums, and the influence of another New Zealand New Yorker, artist Len Lye, it is words that fired Gimblett’s painting passion and continue to drive him.

“I was fathered by books. I learned to paint abstracts by reading Hemingway,” he says.
“I went to Spain looking for Hemingway, where I found the real art in the churches and realised that painting is esoteric, it is the domain of the church and the monastery. That is where I realised modernism can create significant spiritual values in the community.
“While we have been buoyed up by our poetry and our fiction, with painting it is modernism that is transportable between cultures. It is the chi’ I aspect of our secularism, which is why modernism is such strong feature of contemporary New Zealand art.”

Given Ralph Hotere’s modernism and his lifelong association with crosses, poets and poetry, as well as McCahon’s biblical focus and Gimblett’s own Buddhism there is evidence of this view in the “catch up modernism” that Gimblett refers to about our art practice. But deeper than that, it is there in the purely secular work of Gordon Walters, the grand master of New Zealand’s particular modernism – spiritual without any direct reference to religiosity.

Walters, too, made foreign adventure part of his learning to paint, but the ultimate inspiration he found here, localism that would be quaint if it were not so powerfully universal in its humanity. Exactly what Gimblett strives for in his quest for secular spiritual intersection somewhere between New York and Auckland.
“It is at our intellectual level that we have been occupied with internationalism, not local,” Gimblett explains.
But as Walters and Gimblett himself reveal in their work, you can never really take the local away from the artist.
“I have predominant interest in black, white and red,” the New Yorker who comes home every year says. M

Keith Stewart is Mediaweb’s writer at large.

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