For now we see in a mirror dimly; but then we will
see face to face. Now I know
only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully
Ralph Hotere is the first artist of Maori descent to
have been written, by Pakeha,
as early as 1968, into a history of New Zealand art.1
Despite his ambivalence about being labelled as any kind of
cultural or ethnic artist, he
is also often claimed as a founding figure, half a century ago, of
today’s burgeoning contemporary Maori art movement. Hotere has been
positioned as such in a number of exhibitions, most notably Korurangi:
New Maori Art which opened Auckland Art Gallery’s New Gallery in
1995. Yet of our indigenous artists he could also be said to be,
paradoxically, the country’s most European.
RALPH HOTERE Black Phoenix 1984-88
wood and metal, 5000 x 12900 x 5650 mm.
(Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)
But what kind of European? Certainly not British,2 Germanic,
Scandinavian or Slav, not Northern. In London where Hotere studied,
on a New Zealand Art
Societies Fellowship at the Central School of Art and Design from 1961,
his work was shown at the Redfern Gallery,3 the Royal Society of British Artists, the
Royal College of Art (where Bill Culbert had recently completed an
Associate Diploma with First Class Honours), the Whitechapel Art Gallery,
and the QANTAS Gallery.
In 1999, Black Water, a
large-scale installation by Hotere and Culbert, featured in Toi
Toi Toi: Three Generations of Artists from New Zealand
at the Museum Friedericianum Kassel, Germany, returned Hotere to
Northern Europe. But in the exhibition Ralph
Hotere: Black Light. Major works including collaborations with Bill
Culbert, and its accompanying publication—’a collaborative project
between Dunedin Public Art Gallery
and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa’4—there is abundant evidence of a Mediterranean
sensibility, of affinities with the French (which he shares with Culbert),
the Italians and the Spanish, with whose Latin cultures his biography and
temperament are richly inflected.
In a magnificently evocative essay, ‘Tenebrae-transfigured Night.
Ralph Hotere, a viable religious art and its traditions’, in the Black Light exhibition publication, Gregory O’Brien refers to
‘the hybridised Maori-Catholic tradition of his (the artist’s)
Hone Papita Raukura Hotere was brought up in a devout Roman
Catholic family. His father, Tangirau, was a katikita (catechist); his
mother, Ana Maria, was named for St Ann and her daughter, St Mary, the
mother of Jesus. The Hahi Katorika tradition into which he was born near
Mitimiti and baptised in 1931 had originated with French missionaries of
the Society of Mary, under the leadership of Bishop Pompallier, active in
Northland from 1838. (Hotere’s first two Christian names, Hone Papita,
are transliterations, not of
John the Baptist but of Jean-Baptiste, which was the Bishop’s name.)
Although the French Marists had been succeeded at Mitimiti by an English
order in the 1880s, the Mill Hill priests who served there had come from
mainland Europe and, as O’Brien reasons, ‘may well have had a lasting
influence on Hotere’.6
He completed his secondary school education at St Peter’s Maori College
(Hato Petera) in Auckland. Steeped in Catholic liturgy, theology,
sacramentalism, mysticism, iconography and Latin texts, the young Hotere
had been provided with a magnificent resource from which, as an artist, he would
||RALPH HOTERE Illustration for Te Ao
Hou magazine, September 1963
draw inspiration for the rest of his life. The cross
mounted on a heart motif he often employs (in Rosemary (1984) for example) relates to the peculiarly French cult of devotion to the Sacred Heart
(Sacré Coeur). From this
Catholic heritage the Stations of the Cross, the Sacred Heart and the
Requiem occur quite naturally in his
work, as James K. Baxter, a convert to Roman Catholicism and one of
several poets with whom
Hotere has famously collaborated, would have immediately
Hotere’s affinity with mainland European modern religious art was
already apparent in an expressionist painting of Christ illustrated
in the Maori magazine Te Ao Hou in 1959. 7 As with the Wellington City Gallery’s
exhibition Hotere: Out the Black
Window: Ralph Hotere’s work with New Zealand poets, which toured New
Zealand in 1997-8, Ralph Hotere.
Black Light does not include examples of his early figurative work.
(The seven severely abstract Black
Paintings of 1968 are the earliest pieces in the exhibition.) Much of the selection however, revisits early preoccupations and
memories and journeys to France, Italy and Spain. From London, in 1962, he
went on to study on a Karolyi
International Fellowship at Vence in the South of France. There Hotere
marvelled at Henri Matisse’s iconographic and decorative scheme in the
Dominican Chapel of the Rosary.
Hotere’s first exhibition in Europe was held at the Galérie
Chandor, Tourette-sur-Loup, near Vence, in 1962. Back in England, his solo
exhibition at the Middlesborough Municipal Art Gallery in Yorkshire in
March 1964 was well reviewed in London’s Guardian
newspaper. The ‘Frenchness’ of three of his four series of paintings
was noted in the ‘ten-strong tachiste “white writing” Polaris
series’ (Hotere’s response to the current Cuban missile crisis), the ‘five blood-red
bullet-shattered works . . . in an Algeria series painted in Vence, the
home of both the colonial [Algerian] opposition and Matisse’s famous
Chapel,’ and the Woman series
which included ‘a handful of square, chunky, art brut figures
reminiscent of Dubuffet and one or two linear nudes that would
not have shamed Picasso’.8 (Many years later
Selwyn Muru was to acknowledge the shaping influence of ‘our old koroua,
Picasso’ on contemporary Maori art.) Art Brut, a movement associated
with Jean Dubuffet, Tachisme, an aggressively physical method of painting,9
and Nouveau Réalisme, a loose association of artists (including
Arman, Jean Tinguely, César, Christo
and Yves Klein) who assembled objets
trouvés (discards) are all aspects of contemporary French art with
which Hotere can be linked during this formative period of his career.
The fourth series of paintings exhibited at Middlesborough—meditations
on the Sangro River War Cemetery on Italy’s Adriatic Coast where
Hotere’s brother, Jack, lies buried10—owes
more, perhaps, to Pop Art in the Jasper Johns-like stencilled numerals
recording the ages of the young New Zealanders killed in action during the
Second World War. The political nature of much of his art, his
preoccupation with the human condition, evident in the ‘Sangro’ and
‘Human Rights’ series of paintings exhibited
at Auckland’s Barry Lett Gallery on his return to New Zealand in 1965,
was expressed, paradoxically, in the most reductive language of late modernism.
In 1978 Hotere returned to France in the company of Cilla McQueen
(the poet and scholar in French literature whom he had married in 1973).
Basing themselves at Avignon, a town dominated by the papal residence of
the fourteenth-century Popes in exile, they struck out for Italy and
Spain. McQueen recalls that ‘Pope Paul IV dies while we are in Avignon.
The newspaper headlines blaze: ‘Le Pape Est Mort’, ‘E Morto Il
Papa’. Later in the year
when we were staying in Menorca his successor John Paul I also dies. Now
the headlines are in Spanish: ‘El Papa Ha Muerto’.11
RALPH HOTERE Black Painting 1968
on hardboard, 1230 x 623 mm.
of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth)
to Sangro (where he had hung over his brother’s gravestone a rosary
provided by his aunt), The Pope is Dead, and the Window
in Spain series, and the Avignon
watercolours, were the fruits of this
sojourn. Ten years later Hotere was back in Barcelona, the home of
the great Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies. The series Lo Negro Sobre Lo Oro (the
black over the gold) series begun in 1991 seems redolent of the continuing emotional and aesthetic appeal on
Hotere of Spain and its great tradition of Catholic art. Much of the art
in Black Light recalls the sumptuous austerity of Zurburan, the courtly
elegance of Velazquez, the
velvety blackness of the Spanish tenebrists, and the gilded altars of Spain’s cathedrals. O’Brien’s invocations of the
sixteenth century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross in his theological
reflections on Hotere’s art are entirely apposite.
‘Everything he touches turns to black,’
David Eggleton wittily observes
of the artist.12
Although Hotere can be a superb colourist, Black
Light ‘is structured around two predominant concepts.’13 One
is the persistence of black
in his work; the other is the importance in his practice ‘of the
repetition of major serials, and of singular,
large-scale installations’.14 Of
the paintings, the series Black
Paintings has been
likened in its extreme reductivism to the Black
Paintings of Ad Reinhardt
(from whose 1964 lecture given at the Institute of Contemporary Art in
London, which Hotere missed, he quotes in the catalogue of his ‘Zero’
paintings show at the Barry Lett Gallery in 1967); at the same time
Hotere’s shiny black, reflective lacquered surfaces, each featuring a
perfectly centred, full-length, sharp, slit-like cross painted in one
of the seven colours of the solar spectrum, are the very antithesis
of the American painter’s self-effacing images.
Black Painting (1970)
presents a contrast of matt acrylic paint on
canvas with shiny, thin concentric circles, while Rosemary, portentously dated 1984,
also acrylic on canvas, is a more gestural painting. Three works from
the series Black Window (1981, 1982) are acrylic on hardboard, each set in
a recycled wooden window frame. An even less yielding surface of
glass also set within a
window frame produces the mirror-like effect of Lo
Negro Sobre Lo Oro (1992), Night
Window, Carey’s Bay (1995) and 4
+ 4 (1996), in which
patches of gold leaf and gold dust provide a rich contrast with the
black ground. In Aramoana
(1982) ten lacquered sheets of corrugated iron,
and Round Midnight and Black Cerulean (both 1999), lacquered corrugated aluminium and
leadhead nails, complete the
selection of wall pieces.
The most impressive works in Black
Light are undoubtedly the installations: the Black
Phoenix (1984-88) and those he created in collaboration with Bill
a high fence of black-lacquered sheets of corrugated iron and
opaque white fluorescent tubes leaning against the gallery wall,
to the Sea—Aramoana, a long, continuous line of fluorescent tubes
with a parallel band cut and
polished across upended paua shells, both from 1991,
and Blackwater (1999).
In the exhibition’s Dunedin Public Art Gallery showing, Black
Phoenix, with its charred timbers refashioned from the burnt hulk of the Poitrel placed at the far end of an otherwise large
empty gallery, and dramatically lit, was heart-stopping. The whakatauki
Hotere inscribed on some of The Pope
is Dead works (although slightly differently
worded), ‘Ka hinga atu he tetekura, ara mai he tetekura’—when
one chief falls another rises to take his place—is lettered on the
timbers in the foreground of Black
Phoenix, thus alluding to
the revivification and transformation of materials which is the alchemy of
the climax of the exhibition, might be thought to have its origins in
Minimalism except that Dan Favin’s fluorescent tubes, have been
drunkenly angled by Culbert as mooring posts, reflected in Hotere’s
‘estuary’ of corrugated iron sheets,
a platform more elegant by far than Carl Andre’s plinth of readymade
firebricks in Equivalent VIII
(1996) at London’s Tate Modern. The corrugated iron sheets were
spray-lacquered in situ in Kassel by the Mercedes Benz company. John
Reynolds was astonished: ‘Ralph, all the way from Dunedin, with a
lifetime of preoccupation with black, travels right across the world to
one of the old European crucibles of culture and makes a request like
RALPH HOTERE Black Painting 1970
on canvas, 1830 x 1400 mm.
(Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)
Wedde, Reynolds and O’Brien along with Francis Pound, Cilla
McQueen and David Eggleton provide illuminating insider knowledge in
elegantly written essays on Hotere in the beautifully produced, lavishly
illustrated publication, the taonga pukapuka which accompanies the
exhibition. A superb chronology,16
compiled by Elizabeth Kerr and Mary Trewby,
completes the book. Reynolds—the one committed painter amongst
the writers—Pound is an academic art historian, while the others are all
primarily writers and anthologised poets—tells of his experience of
collaborating with Hotere. In
‘Tiger Country: Hotere, Reinhardt and the US
Masters’, Pound cleverly
draws together, within the context of the 1997 US Masters Tournament dominated by the
brilliant American golfer Tiger Woods, Hotere’s passion for golf with
his ‘longstanding . . . painterly
relation’ to Ad Reinhardt’.
All of the writers reflect with insight on the paradoxes that lie
at the heart of Hotere’s
art, none more so than Wedde. Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is the
relative sparseness of critically reflective
writing on the artist. As Wedde puts it,
‘Given the scope and consistency of Hotere’s work, there are
few catalogues, and none of substance . . . it’s
as though he presents the profession of art history, or even of a
wider, generalist cultural history, with some particular difficulties.’17
Some particular difficulties for the art historian are the sheer
volume, variety and
contextual complexity of Hotere’s art in his restlessly, endlessly
On the one hand his origins in a small Maori Catholic community
have continued to warm the emotional and spiritual heart of his art. He
is, after all, a Maori artist of great originality and ingenuity. With his
hard-case do-it-yourself practicality—his cheerful (ab)use of power
tools and industrial materials, especially those of the Kiwi vernacular
such as corrugated iron, leadheaded nails, fence posts and recycled
timbers, and even number
eight wire—Hotere also belongs at the forefront of mainstream New
Zealand art history. But in a sense he also stands outside it, both as a
Maori and as one of the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated, international
artists New Zealand has yet produced.
Ralph Hotere in front of studio in old Bank of New Zealand building, Port
Chalmers 1991 (Photograph: Otago Daily Times)
Hotere’s inclusion amongst the five hundred artists represented
by full-page colour plates in The
20th-Century Art Book, published in 1996 by Phaidon Press may point to
a different reading of his
achievements. The book encompasses ‘celebrated works’ by ‘old
favourites such as Monet, Picasso, Dali and Hockney’ along with
examples of ‘future
classics’ by some of ‘the most innovative contemporary artists’.18 Colin
McCahon and Ralph Hotere (but not Len Lye) are represented amongst the
latter—McCahon by Are there not
twelve hours of daylight (1970) and Hotere by Aramoana nineteen-eighty-four (1984), both paintings from the
Chartwell Collection then held in the Waikato Museum of Art and
History.19 Hotere sits much more
comfortably with this illustrious group than
McCahon, who in this company looks decidedly odd. Affinities with
Carl Andre, Alberto Burri (and Arte Povera, generally), Jim Dine, Jean
Dubuffet, Jasper Johns (though Hotere’s Black Union Jack works of 1981
seem like a mordant reversal of Johns’ ‘Stars and Stripes’ paintings
of 1954-55) and Donald Judd’s metal boxes and shelves, Malevich, Robert
Mangold, Matisse, Reinhardt, the suave viscosity of Pierre Soulages, and the
‘white writing’ of Tobey may be discerned in Hotere’s art.
But there are two artists with whom Hotere might, with profit, be closely compared: the French Nouveau Realiste, Yves Klein and
the Barcelona-born painter,
Antoni Tàpies. Tàpies (b. 1923) is the inheritor of the rich culture of
Catholic Spain with which Hotere has demonstrated a particular empathy.
Noted for his use of ordinary materials, Tàpies’ signature motif is
the crux decussata (the X-shaped cross) which, as O’Brien notes,
recurs in Hotere’s art (along with the crucifix and the eucharistic
emblems). Klein was amongst
the earliest modernists to paint monochromes in brilliant ultramarine (in
contrast to Hotere’s black). Klein’s
Cosmogenies (1960) were produced by means of natural weathering by
exposure to air and water, as were Hotere’s Song
Cycle banners in 1976.
Klein’s Fire-Paintings reveal the destructive effects of a blowtorch, a
device that Hotere was later
to apply to stainless steel. Klein’s emptying out of
the Galérie Iris Clert in Paris in 1958 foreshadows by twenty-one
years Billy Apple’s
performance work The Given as an
Art-Political Statement (Censure),
in which Hotere participated at the Bosshard Galleries in Dunedin.
Hotere’s art has always seemed
to resonate with something like a French sensibility, that links it
with the belle matière
tradition of modern French painting, and the reaction against it, as it
was carried forward by the cosmopolitan artists of the New School of Paris
in the ’50s and ‘60s. If Hotere is to find his niche in the
international art world, as seems highly likely, it will be the
European civility, sensitivity, elegance and sheer gorgeousness of his art
that will earn him his place there.
Mark Young, New Zealand Art:
Painting 1950-1967, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1968.
Although New Zealanders remained British subjects until Britain
entered the European Economic Community in 1975.
With which New Brighton-born New Zealander Rex Nan Kivell had been
associated since 1925. From 1931 until his death in 1977, Nan Kivell was
the Managing Director.
Ralph Hotere: Black Light. Major
Works Including Collaborations with Bill Culbert, Te Papa
Press/Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Wellington & Dunedin 200o, p. vi.
Black Light, p. 27.
Black Light, p. 33.
Te Ao Hou, December 1959, p. 39.
Black Light, p. 112.
Hotere would have seen the exhibition British
Abstract Painting which toured New Zealand in 1958. This was based on
the exhibition Metavisual, Tachiste,
Abstract Painting in Britain Today, shown at the Redfern Gallery in
1957. Through Countess Katherine Karolyi, Hotere met Roland Penrose who
organised Hotere’s first London shows at the Redfern Gallery in 1963 and
Private J. Hotere was killed in action on 21 December 1943.
Black Light, p. 45.
Black Light, p. 52.
Black Light, p. viii.
Black Light, p. viii.
Black Light, p. 8.
Although precise dates of some exhibitions are missing.
Black Light, p. 51.
The 20th-Century Art Book,
Phaidon, London 1996.
I am grateful to Andrea Dornauf, Registrar, Chartwell Collection, and Lara
Strongman, formerly Curator of Fine Arts at the Waikato Museum of Art and
History, now at the City Gallery, Wellington, for clarifying these matters
Black Light, p. 33.
Hotere: Black Light. Major Works Including Collaborations with Bill
an exhibition curated by Gwynneth Porter, John Walsh and Ian Wedde for the
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the Dunedin Public Art
Gallery. Dunedin Public Art Gallery, March-May 2000; Auckland Art Gallery
Toi o Tamaki, June-August 2000; The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa
Tongarewa, October 2000-February 2001