Don Driver
On the Margins


Over the last fifteen years Don Driver has emerged as one of the leading and most adept exponents of 'modernism' in the New Zealand art world. His minimal and abstract paintings and sculptures, his collages and assemblages (often with an absurdist or funky edge), his use of and experimentation with diverse and unconventional materials and objects would not have been out of place, or out of date, in such international centres as New York, London or Paris. Yet it has all been done far away in 'the provinces' - in New Plymouth where Driver has lived and worked since 1944 (he was born in 1930).

Assemblage, 1415 x 1106 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

New Plymouth is hardly renowned for the cosmopolitanism and internationalism usually considered necessary ingredients to sustain Driver's sort of work. In New Zealand, like-minded artists have tended to gravitate towards the big cities in search of a suitable, an adequate, support structure. Putting together such large pieces as Pink and Red Relief 1974, - seven horizontal panels, six aluminium, one canvas, of blues, maroons, pinks and greys - or Soft Hanging 1 1978 - a collage wall-hanging on a galvanised iron pipe with a yellow cotton blanket that has pink and purple nylon-fur mats attached - without a glimpse of Mount Egmont or the local flora and fauna, could be a lonely, misunderstood, even unknown business.

It may be that the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, an adventurous place, has provided sufficient support. Nevertheless, the image remains of Don Driver working away in a remote corner of the modern art world, against the odds (though that could be a stimulus) turning out art objects of a consistently high quality - and effectively upsetting the prevailing stereotypes about relationships between 'centres' and 'provinces'.

DON DRIVER Yellow Tentacle Pram 1980
Assemblage, 1700 x 1400 x 1740 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

Driver has never been tied to any one school. He can not be labelled simply as Pop or Minimalist or Post-Formalist or Neo-Duchampian, for instance - even though individual works might fit those classifications. He has always made use of a variety of approaches to image and object making. Shifts from one manner to another have often seemed sudden, even bewildering, to viewers in New Zealand, who expect aesthetic consistency from artists.

Driver's sources of inspiration have been many and varied. There have been, for example, African and Asian art; the work of contemporary Americans like Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland. Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly; and in recent years, I suspect, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras. Eva Hesse. The American connection has undoubtedly been of fundamental importance from the time of his 1965 trip there. Indeed, some of those in need of unmistakeable and 'pure' artistic identities have seen Driver's work as pseudo-internationalist, disembodied, without roots here: as not a home-grown product.

DON DRIVER Vertical Relief 1974
acrylic on canvases, 1887 x 2350 mm.
(Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth)

That is a short-sighted and xenophobic view. Driver's art comes out of his own experience, his own perceptions, no matter what part things American have played in the formulation of a piece or the direction his work took. To take, for example, what he has to say about Zag (a wall-relief, 1965): 'A purely abstract piece. I moved into bright colour field works after my return from North America(1); or Midwest (a wall-relief, 1965, mainly of timber, dressed and undressed, with some sheet-iron, an iron stencil and a dog's skull): ' . . a feeling I had of the MidWest ... involving rustic barns, doors, shutters and bright colours.'(2); these comments by Driver seem to embody explanations that are almost too simple.

Certainly, in contrast, Driver's later collages and assemblages tend to be more open-ended, to evoke diverse associations without allowing simply explicable interpretations. For instance, what does one make of P.S. Handle with Care 1968? This is another wall relief, with painted corrugated cardboard, rumpled and partially burned polythene, wooden letters, a label with the words in red ink, various ovals and rectangles of wood, and a rusty metal disk plus a crank handle - battered and discarded industrial and commercial materials and products, the cross shape, the suggestion of the clue of the title, 'postscript'. Is it a quite random and spontaneous construction: or a carefully calculated visual metaphor for a distinctively. modern and urban mind-state?

DON DRIVER Dressed Bird 1980
Assemblage, 1700 x 1400.x 1740 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

'Everything that the city threw away everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects... He sorts things out and makes a wise choice ... the refuse that will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects.'

This is the mid-nineteenth century Parisian poet, art critic and pioneer modernist Baudelaire revealing the 'art' of the rag-picker, and, by implication, that of the poets and painters of modern urban life. It could apply as much to Driver as to earlier artists such as the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters and Rauschenberg, who also transformed unlikely materials - the debris, the bric-a-brac of industrial civilisation - into 'poetic', aesthetically pleasing objects.

DON DRIVER P S Handle with Care 1968
Assemblage, 1246 x 919 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

In the 'sixties, Driver's use of waste and reject materials did not necessarily imply a negative criticism of European society, technology, and industry. In the same period he produced some elegant sculptural pieces that if anything could be viewed as celebrations of modern industrial technology. For example, Flyaway 1968, made from aluminium and stainless steel machine parts, painted in bright yellow car lacquer, in shape propellor-like, inevitably evokes associations of aeroplanes, taking off, the sun. Flyaway recalls the aeronautical transcendentalism and the 'flights'of the imagination in the use of new materials that were characteristic of Russian modernist artists like Tatlin and Malevich in the early 1920s.

DON DRIVER Flyaway 1968
Aluminium and stainless steel, 728 x 1314 x 548 mm. (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth)

Driver's concern with the energies of colours, textures, shapes and their interrelationships relates collages and assemblages such as P.S. Handle With Care to the otherwise very different work which dominated his output from c 1970-74 -relief paintings comprised of panels, each a single colour on canvas or aluminium, either horizontal or vertical, abutted side by side, sometimes at varying levels, within a frame. For instance, Vertical Relief 1974 comprises seven panels of dark green, light green, scarlet, brown, yellow, crimson, and blue on canvas. It is an acutely seen, immaculately rendered, carefully laid-out minimal piece. Its success depends on the presence, the animation of 'the thing itself', alone. The interactions of colour and shape (projecting, receding, expanding, squeezing), and the tensions generated are what this and similar pieces are all about. Social, emotional, and psychological associations were not intended, would be extraneous here: 'What you see is what you see' (Frank Stella, American minimalist of the 'sixties and early 'seventies).

DON DRIVER Battery Case Sculpture 3 1966
Assemblage, 960 x 750 x 350 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

Driver was quite clear about how this work should be viewed: 'I don't like my paintings to be evocative, but to be something to be looked at for itself.(3) Ideological or philosophical 'justifications' have been proffered for so-called minimal art. For example, according to AlIen Leepa, an American art critic and academic, it constitutes ' . . . an effort to deal as directly as possible with the nature of experience and its perception through visual reactions'. In respect of his minimal work Driver put it this way: 'The separate bands of colour are pushed backwards and forward in actual space, sometimes to make a shadow to accent a colour; other times I will bring a band of colour out in actual space, when it would more happily sit in a recessive spot. Then I try to wedge it into place with another band of colour. I have felt very happy about the wedges of shiny colour amongst the flat canvas surfaces, the dark ones being possibly the best - giving a glimpse through, which also repels because of its oiliness. The ones with the thin band of shine also give me the feeling that all the tension is held round that area, like a guillotine'.(4)

DON DRIVER Tundra 1965
Vinyl, rusted steeol and wood, 1505 x 975 mm. (Collection of Terry Boon)

Driver could do these precise, controlled, vertical or horizontal panel reliefs very well. One aluminium panel piece, Painted Relief No. II, won the Benson and Hedges Art Award in 1972. The judge, Elwyn Lyn, from the Power Institute, University of Sydney, which specialises in the study and collection of modern European and American art, said of it: 'It is a really fine example of geometrical art, that refines the notion of matte seductive surfaces that float away, that stay glowingly rigid, or are upright. Added is a dark blue strip that rejects one's approach and is the opposite of seductive. The nuances between these are subtle and exciting'.(5)

These panel reliefs still look good: but it is difficult to make this sort of thing year after year without being cornered into repetition and possibly sterile obsession. Driver has avoided this. His work over the last five years has swung away from formalist, self referential art into different territory -though his concern and feeling for material, textures and vibrant colours has remained constant. Collages, assemblages and constructions of 'found objects' have dominated his output. Dolls, toys, prams, ladders, milk crates, stuffed birds have featured in bizarre and informal combinations - sometimes playful and witty, sometimes anxious and dissonant, always lively. For instance, a pram blossoming a profusion of vivid yellow plastic tentacles is irreverent and memorable.

DON DRIVER With Spirit 1978
Assemblage, 2540 x 1600 x 800 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

It has been suggested that recent works such as Barton's Garnet 1978, a collage of 'readymade' components (jute sacks and door mats) amounts to a form of social satire. . . 'The sack and the labels speak of a farming community, of short cuts to productivity and a reckless live-now-pay-later mentality'(6); and reference has been made to 'Witty thrusts at our throw away society ... the typical signs and symbols of New Zealand's life style today'.(7)

If this sort of response is evoked by the work who is to deny it? But I suggest that Don Driver's recent collages and assemblages operate in more ambiguous and absurdist ways that elude such interpretations. Do they need to be explained in that manner? They can exist in their own right, as materialisations of one man's encounters with the spaces and places he inhabits, making his marks. Of the wall relief, Up the Ladder 1978, Driver said: 'Ladders? Well they suggest they get you up, but they don't necessarily get you anywhere'.(8)

DON DRIVER La Guardia 2 1966
Assemblage, 1226 x 923 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

1. Don Driver Exhibition Catalogue, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, p.15.
2. ibid.
3. ibid, p. 30
4. Quoted in: J. Alien and W. Curnow (ed), New Art: Some Recent New Zealand Sculpture and Post-Object Art, 1976.
5. Driver Exhibition Catalogue, p. 30
6. M. Dunn The New Zealand Listener, 2 September 1978.
7. M. Dunn, 'Don Driver: Recent Sculpture', Art New Zealand, Winter, 1978, p.18.
8. Don Driver Exhibition Catalogue, p. 52

DON DRIVER Barton's Garnet 1978
Assemblage, 2150 x 1870 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

Originally published in Art New Zealand 18 Summer 1981