Seven Painters / The Eighties

The politics of abstraction


Seven Painters / The Eighties is quite a show. Full of pleasures, surprises, and significances. Abstract art, which is what (more or less) this is, is so they say, 'art for art's sake', each painting being about itself rather than the price of fish. Well, that's a half-truth, dangerous too. And the risk I'm going to run here is that of writing around the paintings overmuch, of writing about them, in that sense. Because the occasion, the fact of its taking place, is particularly noteworthy.

Seven Painters / The Eighties:
installation at the
Auckland City Art Gallery, 1983

Seven Painters is an update, albeit casual (where's Thornley, McLeod?), of a major exhibition of the mid-seventies which never did take place. But should've. It would have traced the recent emergence (from the ranks of realists) of a new generation of abstract painters. It would have served to accord Mrkusich, Peebles, and particularly Walters, more prominent positions in the canon of New Zealand painting than previously. And, taken together with the burst of new sculpture and para-sculptural work of the time, it would have identified an irreversible change underway: modernism making (finally) a decisive entry into New Zealand art. There, anyway, is a proposal for you. The debate which has mattered in New Zealand over the last twenty years is that between realism and modernism (and/or post-modernism): in painting, usually that between, on the one hand, a realism which appropriates elements of modernist style for expressive purposes and, on the other, an abstraction which is modernist without qualification. Since these realists were the first to defend 'distortion' and to campaign to make the culture safe for 'modern art' the label is perhaps unjust, but the fact remains they did and do in their work and opinions draw the line, so to speak, at abstraction. Worse, if we're to go by my compilation of quotes, my verbal identikit portrait of an expressive realist, they tend to treat the abstractionists' position as the antithesis of their own.

For most of the last twenty years this brand of realism has dominated contemporary New Zealand art. In 1974 Gordon Walters referred to a series of gouaches he painted between 1953 and 1959, some of which are included in his current retrospective; he said: 'they were not shown at the time because I considered the artistic climate to be unsympathetic if not downright hostile to abstraction'. of course, the climate's grown much warmer since then, but as a comparison between attendances for the Angus and Walters retrospective shows it's not yet one hot for abstract art. As does the fact Seven Painters was artist-initiated and curated. Abstract painters have felt it necessary to band together before; they did so under the banner of the short-lived Data Gallery, and almost all have been associated at one time or another with the fiercely anti-realist Petar/James Gallery. They've been an avant-garde, sort of.

Cutting Edge 1982
acryllic on canvas, 1680 x 2130 mm

The debates which have mattered over the last twenty years internationally however, are those between modernism and post-modernism, and between differing post-modernisms.1 The seven painters think of themselves as participants in these debates also., indeed, they're the ones which mean the most to them. Rothko, Newman, Reinhardt, Marden, Ryman are among the artists of interest to this group. Through Max Gimblett connections have been made with New York monochrome abstractionists such as Philip Sims and Joseph Marioni.2 James Ross is recently back from six months painting in New York. So these painters are far more involved and aware of what's happening internationally than most New Zealand artists are or wish to be.

Their situation has, however, a particular complexity characterized by what might be called a provincial proximity to realism. It's significant that six of these artists started out as realists; their entry into modernism was not to be taken for granted: it was one each had to force for him/herself, and in doing so leave behind not only most local opinion but that part of themselves represented by their earlier work. Gretchen Albrecht's paintings in this exhibition are a triumphing over the work for which she's best known: those abstract-looking landscapes which feature in BP ads. But the artists who best exemplify the proximity of realism are Richard Killeen, James Ross and Mervyn Williams. Each, for quite different reasons, might be thought the odd-man-out in this show. Killeen because his commitment to abstraction, which was never complete, now seems negligible. He said once: 'I've tried to work out a style that will let me do the abstract and pictorial things at once'. Gordon Walters has such a style - though he's not keen to admit it - and Killeen seems to have benefited by his example, the koru motif being kin to his own 'second-hand' images. However, it wasn't till he hit on the compositional solution the cut-outs permitted that he could junk abstraction for an image-rich art which didn't compromise the critique of realism that abstraction involves. So Killeen does look misplaced here. His work lacks 'presence', looks light, is obviously not into any heavy trips. On the other hand, there are matters in common which don't meet the eye. For instance, in so far as Killeen's cut-outs embrace multiplicity, and aspire to all-inclusiveness they make common cause with, say, Gimblett's monochrome paintings, which seek to give us an 'experience of our wholeness'.

Union 1982
acrylic on canvas,
1525 x 3050 mm

Curiously, the art of everything and the art of one thing or no thing are alike precisely in the ways in which the art of some things is not ... Concentration on some things represents an artifical and arbitrary control.
Neil A Chassman, Parts of the Cities 1950-1960.

James Ross's paintings look at home here. Which's perhaps odd. Only a couple of years ago Neil Rowe used Ross's paintings as a realist stick with which to beat those 'dedicated internationalists'. Not a good idea, yet his work has changed and was for me the real surprise (pleasant) of the show. The change is that the literal features of the painting have come to play an all-but decisive role in his work - all but, because Ross is still a realist, still interested in mimesis. I'm reminded of some of the less prominent Abstract Expressionists, more particularly of some of Jake Berthot's work. Each of his paintings is a tall, narrow, slightly irregular rectangle - Yellow Myth is actually a parallelogram. Ross gives his paintings external shape not, as with the others, to avoid internal shape (composition) but to spatialize the ground on which his internal figure/shape stands. That is, the angled left side of the support tends to tip the picture plane away from the viewer, bringing out the uprightness and forthcomingness of the figure/shape. The paint surface relates ambivalently to these effects; a highly intriguing, active, tactile surface here draws attention to itself as flat, as painted (this way & that) and as only so deep, but there forgets itself in fictions of depth. These paintings are full of feeling; they represent an accomplishment which will I imagine become either more or less complicated in subsequent works.

Colour chord No. 2 1982
acrylic on canvas, 2060 x 2430 mm

Realism's proximity renders all abstraction one, collapsing its seventy-year history. In particular, an important distinction gets lost-that between (roughly) pre- and post-1945 types of abstract painting (important because major content changes are involved). A distinction between the work of say Walters, Mrkusich (much of it), Thorburn, on the one hand, and Scott, McLeod, Bambury say, on the other. So, although Mervyn Williams describes his current work as reacting against minimalism, it seems to me on the move from the first to the second type. No New Zealander without private means could become a professional writer or artist without making concessions to the devil.
A. R. D.Fairburn (1947)

Seven Painters / The Eighties, New Image, The Grid.3 It's remarkable, in fact it's unparalleled: never before have we had three major group shows of recent New Zealand art touring this country at one time. And it's about time we had some such opportunity to consider what's been going on. In this respect, the fact each show has a point to make helps. Most often our art galleries have selected group exhibitions on the basis of medium or size of works, age or locality of artist, and so on. That is, they have largely avoided their responsibility for interpreting contemporary New Zealand art. Seven Painters is an artists' reaction to that failure - it should be noted it was planned before there was word of the Auckland City Art Gallery's Aspects series - and all three shows are very welcome signs of a change in the gallery system.

No. 23 (orange/maroon) 1981/82
acrylic on canvas, 2020 x 2015 mm

These seven artists believed that a substantial touring show which reflected their more or less common concerns was long-overdue. Since no was else was doing anything about it they approached the Art Gallery Directors Council to see if it would tour an exhibition of their work chosen by themselves. Its agreement was an acquiescence in their belief, yet the show remains political. An art gallery's authority rests in part on its ability to make its own judgements as to what it will show, what it will collect, and so on. By permitting artists, for example, to make such judgements for it, the gallery becomes merely an instrument for their self-promotion. Yes or no?

What are the more or less common concerns of these artists? According to Bill Milbank, Director of the initiating Sarjeant Gallery, 'the issues behind their painting: that is, their situation as New Zealand artists, and how to project their concerns at this time.' In other words, SEVEN PAINTERS is about power. But what do these artists want with power? None of them is an upstart after all. Between them they've racked up more than a hundred one-person shows. Most are in their mid-to-late-thirties and could be described (if we felt confident of our terms) as established artists in midcareer. Don't they have power? It's my guess that it's success, New Zealand style, the problems of that, which brings them together. For that success is really no success at all. There's certainly no glamour attached to it, or power. No authority. It's the product of a culture so structured now that it encourages young artists to commit themselves to a career and then delivers all the goods it's got by the time they're thirty-five, leaving them short of a 'living' and with an audience which 's neither large nor sophisticated and is entirely confined to these shores. Scott, Ross, Killeen and Albrecht are currently without an Auckland dealer. Aside from Gimblett, whose situation is different, only Killeen has been seriously essayed critically - their catalogue doesn't bother with bibliographies. A silence, a dumbness, surrounds their work (and more or less everybody else's). None has had any significant international exposure, none has any reason to suppose that anything more than a New Zealand reputation is possible for a resident artist. So this exhibition shows them taking matters into their own hands, extracting certain goods, such as a wide-ranging discussion of their work, such as national exposure (five of the seven have had only one solo show in the South Island), goods which will help understanding, help keep them in the business of being artists.

Concretionary Structures
No. I
alkyd on aluminium,
12 pieces approximately
1800 x 1800 mm

Aside from their common political purpose what else is more or less in common? What I would say is that the paintings of Gimblett, Albrecht, Scott and Bambury are the heart of the show, that those four artists share a commitment to an aesthetic of immediacy or presence which dominates the show. The other three either lack such a commitment or hold it with qualifications. 'Art', wrote Charles Olson, 'does not seek to describe but to enact.' Not minesis, kinesis. These are paintings up-front about how they came to be, Stephen Bambury's works consist of two panels bolted together; evidently the pale green panel of No. 38 was painted before the other, the maroon panel. Also, it was close by, because splashes of the maroon's undercoats (check the outside edge: pink, orange, crimson, violet) fleck its bottom-right corner. You can see Albrecht's paintings hang at the height she painted them and that their half-tondo shapes are literally the measure of her reach. Painting appears to be a straightforward activity the purpose of which is the covering of the canvas with paint. Art-making for these painters is clearly not a matter of manipulating or exploiting materials to some expressive end but of engaging in a transaction with them which releases a content the artist shares with them.

It is probably never useful to describe content as being in a painting; here we should insist on locating content in the transaction between the viewer and the works. Paintings are normally lit from above with artificial light. Large works tend in consequence to be darker at the bottom than at the top. Some galleries, such as the Sarjeant, still have natural light, which means that paintings change their appearance throughout the day. Gimblett, Bambury and Ross, all use combinations of matt and gloss surfaces which actively engage the ambient light. (A dull or matt surface scatters the rays at all angles, but a very smooth surface acts as a mirror and reflects all rays so that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.) I first saw Crimson Red in Gimblett's High St. (Auckland) studio on Friday 17, 1981. There's a matt/gloss contrast between bar motif and field - an idea which goes back to Newman's Onement#2 (1948) but which at the time had me thinking of some Joseph Marioni paintings. These were so glossy you moved around the room looking for an angle which would give you a decent view of the surface. I saw them as aggressive paintings. Crimson Red was not that, but it was remarkable how 'cooled out' it was by the gloss plus the winter afternoon light. When that began to fail Max switched on the studio lights. What a change, Crimson Red was now the hot humming thing on show at the Auckland City Gallery. (At the Sarjeant, of course, it led the larger life I've sketched.) Along the wall from it hangs the magnificent Ivory Black / Thalo Blue. Near a corner so that from most angles the white of the adjacent wall is reflected in its glossy black depths are they? In the centre of this square painting is a bar which acts as a focus and it has a most amazingly velvet look and gallery staff keep finding finger prints on it.

Crimson Red 1981
acrylic on canvas, 1770 x 1270 mm

The locus, the position the viewer is given to occupy in front of Bambury's and Albrecht's paintings is right opposite the centre join where the relationship of the two colours is most intense (and these paintings, Bambury's especially, are alive with colour), and where the unity of the work seems to hinge (literally even) on the transaction, on its being clear and specific enough in feeling. These paintings aim at a single relationship-between two separate panels, two separate colours, between the viewer and the painted object. The only image involved is the external one, the shape the support takes on the wall. We don't talk about the frame, because that separation between the actual and the fictional is not wanted. For the same reason we don't talk about composition and the internal imagery which it implies. Ian Scott makes the boldest use of the shaped canvas. It's almost as if he had opened up one of Albrecht's hemisphere's, putting white wall between the halves. He can do that because he is less fussed about colour and in general seems to have a more secular attitude. He is not concerned with painting as act. All of which suggest that the works can be, I think should be, larger; at the moment they don't compete as well as they should with other works in the exhibition.

All of the work that has emerged to face the ending of the Modernist paradigm has been concerned, at base, with the problem of authority - both the authority of the individual act, and the institutional authority that act may reveal or conceal. But whereas earlier work could succeed by a bare epistemology, an absurdist reductivism serving to point to ideological contradiction, the work of a more advanced (in time) period must take into account a vastly more sophisticated defence. The issues central to that argument now revolve around awkward problems like the presentation and distribution of ideas and art in an increasingly spectacularized society in which critique is cynically appropriated as part of the show.
Thomas Lawson, 'The Dark Side of the Bright Light', ARTFORUM, November 1982,

For twenty years the power of the art market in the major centres has been, and continues to be, an issue influencing the directions art takes there. The equivalent local (or provincial) issue has been the absence of an adequate art market. And while the Arts Council continues to subsidize over a hundred dealer shows a year, and reputable dealers charge established artists rent as well as their 33 1/3 per cent on sales, it will remain an issue, and one which influences the directions art takes here.

Yellow-Myth 1982
oil/gel on hardboard, 2200 x 1020 mm

Stephen Bambury says 'he tends not to draw one context for New Zealand and another for somewhere else. For me its just one global context'. And so it is for all seven. But the point I want to make is that there's a certain innocence about this show which is of the local context. Of course, by Lawson's standards, the work in the New Image show has its own innocence. For experience we might, most conveniently, go to Billy Apple, whose ART FOR SALE was indeed a sell-out. One reason why abstract painting hasn't dominated the global context for some time is that in New York the 'colour field' abstraction of the 'sixties couldn't avoid looking like the ultimate in capitalist art'. (Brian O'Doherty) There was of course no likelihood (no fear) it'd look like that in 'sixties New Zealand; nor does the work of these seven look like that now (poor show). However, the politics of their exhibition begin to bring that innocence into the question. Then there's the continuing proximity of expressive realism. Feminism has given it new life. It is more political, but as ideologically and culturally naive as ever.London, Monday - a 50 centimetre square oil on canvas by Piet Mondrian fetched $3.57 million at Christie's in London tonight-a world auction record for an abstraction ... The previous record for an abstract sold at auction was $1.8 million.
THE AUCKLAND STAR June 28, 1983.

1. see, for example, my Post-modernism in Poet and the Visual Arts', Parallax 1, 1983.
2. see, for examples, 'Monochrome in New York'( discussion involving Doug Sanderson, Jerry Zeniuk, Joseph Marioni, Marcia Hafif, Olivie Mosset, Phil Sims, Raimund Girke), Flash Art, October/November, 1979; Carter Ratcliff, 'Mostly Monochrome,' ART IN AMERICA, April 1981; Marci Hafif, 'Beginning Again,' ARTFORUM, September 1978; Jesse Murry, Color: Four Painters (Max Gimblett, Joseph Marioni, Phil Sims, Thorton Willis), catalogue, Oscarsson Hood Gallery, New York, 1982.
3. Titles. In 1979 Barbara Rose curated an exhibition she titled American Painting: the Eighties. Even without the catalogue essay, one can see why the show was viewed as audacious or arrogant. What do the seven painters mean by thus echoing Rose's show? Or do they assume that no one would know about it? The same question might be put to Francis Pound, curator of the Auckland City Art Gallery's New Image exhibition In 1979 the Whitney put on an exhibition of the same name and for a time and for some people that label stuck, and to a type of painting very different from that chosen by Pound for his show.