Formal Abstraction in Post-War New Zealand Painting

RODNEY WILSON

Traditionally, abstract painting is said to have originated with re-eminence, to see abstraction occuring simply as a result of his 'discovery' is to grossly over-simplify the situation. 

Already in 1843 J,M. W, Turner had painted a swirling vortex of colour, Light and Colour - The morning after the deluge - Moses writes the book of Genesis, almost entirely abstract in its visionary treatment. The later nineteenth century sowed the seeds of abstraction in fertile ground (one thinks of Gustave Moreau and Claude Monet) with the result that germination was imminent by the end of the first decade of our century.

As Kandinsky took his decisive and conscious step towards the liberation of painting from illusionism, towards a pure painting, in Munich in 1910, so in other centres in Europe other artists were independently reaching towards the same goal. In Paris the Orphists Delaunay and Kupka reached abstractionism in 1912; in London the Vorticists purged their painting of the 'naturalism' of Futurism in 1914 at the same time as Mondrian took leave of the natural world at Leiden, The following year, Malevich exhibited his first Suprematist works, including the now famous Black Square in Moscow. 

MILAN MRKUSICH Meta Grey Light (Green and Blue) 1974
mixed media on canvas, 173 x 173 cm (Peter McLeavey Gallery)

All over Europe, from Moscow to London, Leiden, Paris and Munich, the germinating seeds sown in the previous century were sprouting forth and growing into mature new painterly conventions. That is not to say that some seeds had not sprouted before 1910. They had: but it was only after 1910 that abstractionism, an art devoid of all figurative imagery, was consistently and in full consciousness of its implications applied.

Although no doubt occasional probings towards abstraction had occured in New Zealand before 1946, the year when Milan Mrkusich took leave of the figurative image, it was only then, three and a half decades after: Europe, that abstraction as an intention entered New Zealand painting. Not that Mrkusich was to be overwhelmed with support and following: it was another fifteen years before a kindred spirit, Don Peebles, who had been moving steadily in that direction since 1954, was to take the plunge and discard the world of appearances. 

Installation showing Don Peebles' Painting Number 9, 1969
(Retrospective exhibition at the Dowse Gallery)

Mrkusich, like Peebles a few years later, was to follow historical precedent by turning to the discipline of geometry, finding there a substitute order for that of the figurative image. Initially reminiscent of the Russian brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, Mrkusich's work moved progressively from a curvilinear, fluid, organic conception towards a more rigid composition in which the active mobile elements were connected the one to the other by a network of lines knitting a complex pattern of relationships. 

By the mid 'fifties the essential ingredients of the mature Mrkusich style can be detected. A grid of horizontal and vertical directions determine the essential structure. Curved forms can be accommodated upon the grid, but always the grid determines their admissibility, their form and their place. Glimmerings of sources appear here and there - certainly Mondrian's Boogie Woogie paintings of the New York period: but we feel also the suggestion of Nicholas de Staël, and of course some works are close to the Portuguese painter Vieira da Silva. By the time that the Wellingtonian Don Peebles reached his own style of formal abstraction in London in 1961, Mrkusich had absorbed a free dancing calligraphic brushwork and then brought it into the service of his rational precise manner. 

In 1962 this simmering, vibrating, freely-brushed colour is overlaid by a system of geometric forms - circles, rectangles, squares and lines, reminiscent of the 'cool', ordered, austere, Cubist-originated abstraction of the Englishman Ben Nicholson. By this time the Mrkusich search had ended. For the artist what now lay ahead was consolidation, exploration and expansion, taking what had become an intensely personal vocabulary and turning it to the service of his own creative sensibility. If the decade and a half from 1946 to 1962 may be considered years of search and formation, the following decade and a half, the one at the end of which we now sit, is known to us all as years of refinement and productivity. 

MILAN MRKUSICH  Emblem IV 1963 (dividing the waters), 1963
oil on canvas, 122 x 88 inches (private collection, Auckland)

Essentially Mrkusich's forms are static - the circle a never ending line in a state of perpetual motion but at the same time perfect poise, the square a self-contained unit comprised of forces and oppositions in a state of relaxed equilibrium. It is the contemplation of these qualities, and especially of the relationships between elements which attracts: but Mrkusich is more than merely a perceptive mathematician. These quiet harmonies of form and energy are vitalized by a brush which, with its sensuous understatement and the colour sense with which it is inextricably connected, recalls Josef Albers. Indeed the closeness of Albers' chromatic experiments, and his exploration of a simple geometric concentric compositional arrangement, to Mrkusich's works executed during the same early 1960s is quite extraordinary. 

The mature Mrkusich owed a good deal to the British painter Ben Nicholson. Peebles too approaches Nicholson: but more than Nicholson it was his compatriot Victor Pasmore who opened up a new formal language for the New Zealander then resident in London. With his neo-de Stijl paintings and constructions he was to serve as a model for Peebles in search of an abstraction of a similar austere rigorous beauty. 

In 1961, that same year as Peebles achieved his personal form of abstraction, Colin McCahon 'gave thanks' to Mondrian. It was neither McCahon's first 'abstract' painting nor his last but McCahon has never taken leave of the image, or its substitute the symbol, for any prolonged period, and cannot be considered by any stretch of the imagination a 'formal abstractionist'. Nevertheless what is significant about that painting from 1961 is the early, and, for New Zealand painting, unusual acknowledgement of the master of Neo-plasticism, Piet Mondrian. Peebles is one of the few here who, like McCahon, have openly expressed an admiration and debt to this painter; for Peebles it has been a two-fold debt - directly from Mondrian, and indirectly via Pasmore. 

When Peebles adopted the Constructivist tradition, assembling drawn and painted wood and collage reliefs under the influence, guidance and friendship of Victor Pasmore, he turned his back upon painterly surfaces and animated brushwork. His pre-1961 Wellington Series, a cycle of landscape-evolving abstract and near abstract paintings containing broadly-handled sweeping paint masses in a glowing subdued colouration, had made metaphorical reference to the land and harbour forms of Wellington through the suggestive and sensuous use of paint. 

GORDON WALTERS Genealogy, 1972
ink on paper, 59.6 x 45.7 cm (collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

By turning to the Constructivist tradition Peebles set aside such painterly ambiguity, favouring only the clear, concise and considered. He turned his back on references to the natural world surrounding painter and viewer, choosing to draw only upon the painter's pure aesthetic sense and the viewer's ability to command an aesthetic response. These works make no reference to the outside world, unless one chooses to find in them an admiration for the mark of man, for the perfectibility of mechanics and man's engineering skills. Peebles has created a spartan formal vocabulary derived directly from the Stijl artists but ultimately from Seurat (Bridge at Courbevoie, La Grande Jatte), Cezanne and far beyond. Until recently, when loosely-treated charcoal and coarsely-brushed paint upon paper or unstretched canvas have reintroduced something of the pre-1961 sensual surfaces, Peebles' work has been characterized both by a precision of composition, drawing and construction, and a smooth taut paint surface.

The three-dimensional works - the reliefs constructed from painted and unpainted wood and at times collage elements - works which have been described rather poetically as 'like some mysterious mathematical or navigational instrument', are all worked within the four chief directions, horizontal, vertical, diagonal and in relief as the elements project from and parallel to the surface. These pieces are like the purest, cleanest visual minuets. The vertical and horizontal directions determine the static grid which underlies all Peebles' compositional decisions. Meeting at a right-angle these forces counter each other in perfect equilibrium. Into this grid the artist discreetly introduces the diagonal (occasionally a curved form of near-diagonal impetus), a force disciplined rather than countered by the grid and one which introduces the sense of movement, the dynamic.

RAY THORBURN Modular 2, Series 2, 1970
enamel on board, four panels each 137.2 x 137.2 cm (collection of the The Auckland City Art Gallery)

Peebles' compositions are not measured or calculated according to some quasi-scientific theory or measure, but are empirical solutions, the result of long and deliberate consideration as the elements are moved about the plane ground before decisions are reached. The deliberations result in a careful weighing and plotting of each element against the other as each new decision or suggested addition or deletion is observed with regard to its total effect. Tentative lines connect force points and other short lines of varying weight provide moments of rest and regeneration as the eye moves around the composition roving over surfaces at varying heights, pausing, resting and moving on as the simple but complex assembled force elements suggest, and according to a total rhythmic scheme.

Peebles, a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, grounds his students well in colour theory. There they learn to know, recognize, feel and play their chromatic scales as a necessary prelude to any serious painterly endeavour. Peebles' two-dimensional works, his paintings, observe the joys of animated paint handling as little as do his reliefs. He rolls his colour out, as it were, in large expanses of plain, flat, sharply defined colour-fields purged of modulation or the mark of the brush. Also, like the reliefs, the means are minimal - a few simple elements arranged within a tripartite system of horizontal, vertical and diagonal. The elements are weighed the one against the other in a careful ploy of stress, weight and mass, but now with the active support of a few simple colours in carefully plotted chromatic relationships. like the elemental compositional oppositions of horizontal and vertical we find primary colour oppositions, and like the active diagonal we find secondary hues working as enrichening, animating forces.

GEOFF THORNLEY, Untitled No 4, 1973
mixed media on paper, 214 x 94 cm (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

The colour theory Peebles teaches is a personal one: but it is an amalgam of the many theories, such as that of Munsell, to which he has paid attention. Working from the twelve-part colour wheel his students are conducted through a series of exercises in colour mixing and seven identified forms of colour contrast. Whilst he has had a lasting interest in the psychological and emotive associations of colour, for his own purposes his interest is a physiological one, experimenting and observing the optical 'interaction' of colours one upon another.

He really acknowledges his interest in, and debt to the German/American painter Josef Albers. Albers' exploration of chromatic relationships and the physiological properties of colours and colour combinations underlie Peebles' painting. Through Albers too Peebles reaches back to the Bauhaus, and beyond it to that movement of seminal importance for this kind of formal abstraction, de Stijl. In spite of Peebles' obvious interest in the theory of colour, and his concern to make students aware of laws underlying colour phenomena, its use in his own work, like the composition of his reliefs and paintings, is organised on an empirical basis, the final solution representing the outcome of cumulative separate colour experiments rather than theory-based 'laws'.

Albers' awareness of colour movement - the receding and advancing properties of cool and warm colours and the expansion and contraction of colour planes - caused him to emerge as a precursor of Op Art. Op Art has found little following in New Zealand, where, when a severe hard-edged formalism has been adopted, it has tended to be sooner in pursuit of the sublime rather than in the revelation of human perceptional problems. Neither Peebles nor Mrkusich could be said to be in any sense Op artists. Somewhat closer, although by no means doctrinaire Op artists are Gordon Walters and Ray Thorburn.

IAN SCOTT Quiver, May 1974
pva on canvas, 218.5 x 114.3 cm (collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery)

Where Thorburn, like Mrkusich and Peebles, draws his imagery from the 'ferment' of the mind, Walters has taken, for much of his art, a natural motif twice removed, refined it and translated it into a formal emblem independent of its original natural origins. For him the koru, derived from Maori rafter patterns, the young uncurling fern bud symbolic of new life and regeneration, has been transformed into an independent formal element. As Peebles uses a system of light rhythmic visual and physical links between heavier stationary accents, providing a sequence of pause and movement for the eye, so too does Walters with his point and line reinterpretation of the koru motif. The eye reads the field as a sequence of alternating moments of rest and movement, halting at the point and travelling along the lines.

Not only has Walters adopted and adapted a Maori motif but, in sympathy with the Polynesian artisan's severely limited means of shade, highlight and a single mid-tone, he has therefore reduced his chromatic and tonal relationships to an even, strong, basic confrontation. Walters, who has described his work as 'an investigation of positive/negative relationships within a deliberately limited range of forms', has achieved a more satisfactory synthesis of the Maori and European traditions of New Zealand than anything prior to or following upon the emergence of the koru works in the early 'sixties.

Perhaps the key to this success is that whilst the works manifestly owe something to each tradition Walters has reinterpreted both, creating from them something which is unique, something which a European might only achieve as a result of the Polynesian craftsman's example; and something which the Polynesian could not attain without a knowledge of recent European and American art. Not only the motif, but the positive-negative design basis and bipartite and tripartite tonal schemes are linked to the formal vocabulary of Maori design and carving.

On the other hand, the language of the reinterpretation is European/American, and more particularly the ambiguity of figure and ground, the manner in which each is the inevitable and essential foil to the other, is consistent with Op Art. Walters has created from the predictable formula of the Maori koru patterns a richly diverse design in which the eye adjusts back and forth as it seeks to comprehend the relationship of the elements one to another. Koru the motif may well have been, but Walter's pursuit of a 'self contained significance' places his art firmly in the camp of the formal abstractionists for whom one of the criteria must be that their art is entirely independent of any need to make reference to experience beyond the perimeters of the work.

Ray Thorburn achieved for New Zealand and himself some regard at the 1971 Sao Paulo Biennale. His Modular series (commenced 1967 but chiefly 1970 & 1971), well received by the critics, are immaculate and sophisticated art objects. They make no reference outside themselves, for that is not their intention. They pose spatial and perceptual problems, and set out to offer a set of solutions to these as stripes of mechanical precision march across the panels, passing over and under each other. Thorburn's intentions locate his art firmly within the conventions of Op Art, his colours creating a milder optical aberration than the pulsation or surging movement of more extreme works.

RAY THORNBURN Edge Series:Surface with Spot 13
acrylic on board, 120 x 120 cm (Barry Lett Galleries)

Like the Frenchman Victor Vasarély, who served as something of a model for the New Zealander and is an artist whom he visited in 1971, his painting belongs to the continuing Constructivist tradition of European art, affirming its faith in the technology and institutions of modern life. The Op artists exploit fully new technical processes in the production of a depersonalized art, where the mark of the individual is purged from the work in favour of a mechanical style and smooth graphic surfaces. Thorburn is no exception, drawing as he did for those works upon cellulose automobile lacquers and the perfectible technique of masking tape and spray gun.

One of the tenets of the Neo-plasticist theory of Mondrian, Van Doesburg and Van der Leck was the depersonalization of the art object. This was to lead eventually, it was hoped, to the reinstatement of an art from which the cult of person and the stress upon individuality were removed. The Neo-plasticists believed too in the perfectibility of modern society, wishing to harness technological advances in the service of art. They believed that the artist's role ceased with the production of the 'blue-print', as it did for the architect, and that ideally the execution would be carried out by the specialised skills to be found in their new technological environment. Such was their published belief: but by and large realisation of this intention was to wait some several decades.

For Thorburn the belief in at least a partial depersonalization of the art-making process has manifested itself in three distinct ways. Firstly, consistent with other artists of similar stylistic persuasion, his surfaces and his forms nowhere betray the mark of the maker. Secondly, in the spirit of Neo-plasticism, he has prepared the scheme- the 'blue-print' if you like- passing the actual execution over to tradesmen painters who under his instruction and guidance turn their skills to the co-production of the art work. Finally the series title Modular is the key to the artist's intention - to his will to provide a work consisting of modular units the exact arrangement of which is determined by the viewer and can be rearranged as his temperament determines.

In these ways Thorburn has replaced the individual 'handwriting' of the single artist with that of a generic type. He has involved other persons in the making process - not as assistants directing their skills in the support of an individual style, but as co-producers whose own skills and limitations have formed part of the original conception. And he has increased the degree of participation normally alotted the viewer. 

CARL SYDOW Drawing 2: VII, 1974
letratone and ink on paper, 610 x 865 cm (Brooke/Gifford Gallery, Christchurch)

Nevertheless, such is only partial depersonalization since as long as the artist exhibits and distributes these works over his own name, and as long as we identify them as the product of an individual rather than a collective labour force, then we are still concerned with works as the unique products of a unique individual sensibility, a Renaissance heritage that remains a convention of art making, commerce and collecting today.

Mrkusich admits to a greater tolerance now than he had in the early 'sixties when he adopted his hard-headed independent stand against what he terms 'romantic freewheeling'. Nevertheless, like Mondrian several decades earlier, he has clear ideas on what is admissible in painting. Consistent with Mondrian's inability to accept the dynamic nature of Van Doesburg's Contra Compositions is Mrkusich's uneasiness about hybrid art-forms - when painting draws upon such disciplines as poetry and music as an integral part of its structure and imagery for example. 

Obviously then for all his admiration of Hotere's surfaces, forms and colour, Hotere's recent escalation of the McCahon-esque literary elements in his paintings (drawing upon Bill Manhire's poetry) would meet with a certain reserve from Mrkusich. No doubt Ralph Hotere is a major painter of great sensitivity: his shimmering, austere, black surfaces and precise bundles of glowing lines or his matt, mottled, stained canvas overlaid with a minimalist structure of lines and elegant improvisational fluid paint, draw quite clearly upon the formal language of the geometric abstractionist. But the steady progression towards a rigorous Constructivist idiom which has marked his work since he stepped out of the tachist painterly conventions of the Polaris and Algerian works up until the Sangro series of 1962 through to 1964 (painted in, and later as a result of a visit to Italy) has been softened, extended and rendered with a romantic ambiguity by the increasing predominance of the written statement. 

MILAN MRKUSICH Three Zones, 1975
acrylic on canvas, 120.6 x 181 cm (collection of the artist)

Whereas Mrkusich, Peebles, Walters and Thorburn all draw exclusively or nearly exclusively upon the formal language of painting itself, Hotere has always made reference to a world of experience and images existing outside the work. The latest works, as much as any, use the word or statement as an image-catalyst creating in the mind of the viewer supportive images relating directly to the experience of the painting. It is a substitute figurative imagery of a kind strongly at variance with purist Formalist ideology. Hotere is thus an interesting example of a painter who successfully has married the McCahon-school conventions of New Zealand regional painting with internationalist concerns, producing a unique hybrid that strides two different and sometimes diametrically-opposed ideologies. 

More recently a number of younger painters have turned to a formal abstract idiom. In Auckland the first to set aside his somewhat surrealist imagery (of the late 'sixties) in favour of a simple art of surface, line and balanced symmetry was Geoff Thornley. By the Albus series of 1974 his means were reduced to a near monochromatic minimalism. A grid of vertical and horizontal lines marching across a heavily-patinated white field impose an order and symmetry upon the rich, painterly chaos of the field. Although the results are very different one thinks back to the similar confrontation of order and painterly informality in the Mrkusich Emblems of 1963. 

This grid - bounded and articulated by a border of dark, stained canvas separating the paper on which the works are painted from the frame - is used, as we have already noted, as an almost invisible module upon which Mrkusich arranged his Elements, and is pronounced in Don Peebles' letter-rack and colourfield drawings and paintings. 

It also has appeared in Richard Killeen's late work of which his Benson and Hedges Award winner Frog Shooter (reproduced Art New Zealand, 1 ,page 24) and this issue's cover are examples. Killeen, like his friend Ian Scott, started out as a hard-edged realist. By 1968 we can detect in his realist works a simplification and slight modification which by the following year has become a quite new organisation, a closing in on his subject and a new sense of assembled, selected elements. The motif is squarely-placed, frontally or in profile, and the space flattened-out. By 1970 illusionist space has been eliminated although figurative objects remain. Now their function and their appearance is quite different from the preceding realist works as the images float backwards and forwards in and out of a cohesive Manessier-like abstractionism. 

Killeen moved through a period of near-abstraction from which arose works executed in thick paint containing certain figurative elements during 1972, but by late that year those works - an uneasy series of transitional pieces - had given way to a renewed simplification and reduction. The seeds of Killeen's mature recent works lie here. The ground became steadily paler and the fragments upon it - small and thinly painted - became more and more strongly organised. 

Small sections of combs appear in Killeen's work, becoming throughout 1973 larger and more dominant, varying in form and reminiscent of a palm, a filament, vertebrae. For Killeen the suggestion of natural origins underlying these forms is as acceptable as the assertion that they are independent of the natural world. To him it is not important where they come from: yet his tendency to locate these motifs off centre and to angulate them are evidence of certain naturalist inclinations. However, it was just these very 'naturalist' qualities with which Kenneth Noland was to find disfavour during his recent trip to New Zealand. To Killeen the dissatisfaction is of no consequence. He steadfastly refuses to allow his painting to be hedged-in by aesthetic dogma. 

The grid essential to Thornley's Albus works of 1974 arrives at that same time in Killeen's Constructivist grids. Horizontal bisects vertical, creating a field of small boxes. Into a few of these the artist introduces an evenly-applied area of paint through which diagonals appear setting up a dynamic energy force. As this scheme becomes more elaborate, more complex, the field achieves an over-all fragmentation. A series of large, loose-hanging circular works allowed him the opportunity to develop this organisation: but it was in two contemporaneous series from late 1975 that it was to achieve the balance and unity of fully mature works. One of these series, paintings in acrylic paint upon paper, developed the over-all fragmented pattern field but organised the diagonals into a lace-like sequence of bands throwing the emphasis upon the diagonal movement. If these superficially recall Celtic interlacing, the larger works of the same time - including both Frog Shooter and Three Patterns featured on the cover of this issue - bring to mind North American quilts. An equilibrium of dynamic diagonal forces and static horizontal and vertical grid, of near-primary and primary colours and tones has been achieved describing a surface of flickering, moving vitality. 

Ian Scott's development from a plastic bikini girl and suburban realist imagery of 1969 and 1971 to a new austere abstraction has closely paralleled that of his friend Richard Killeen. Both moved away from realism in 1972, and in so doing both passed through a series of thickly-painted abstract works. Quiver of 1973, with its soft-edged bands of bright colour against a white ground, retains, too, that determination to achieve the dynamic asymmetry of much of Killeen's work, rather than surrender to the quiet equilibrium of Thornley's Albus paintings. 

Killeen, Scott and Thornley are all Aucklanders: but elsewhere too a formal abstraction has found favour. Don Driver in New Plymouth and Michael Eaton in Christchurch are two painters of a quiet, dignified and craftsmanlike disposition. Gary Griffiths in Wellington is exploring chromatic relationships in a series of striped paintings, whilst the late Carl Sydow, for whom graphic art was as essential an aspect of his art as his sculpture, had been producing since 1972 until his tragic premature death last Christmas, kinetic drawings in letratone, letraline and lectracolour of a purity and delicacy quite unlike anything elsewhere. Exploring the phenomenon of moire patterns and colour interaction, these works achieved for him an exact equivalent expression in graphic terms to that sought in the three-dimensional form of his Constructivist sculpture. 

As a post-script, one cannot leave a discussion of formal abstraction, even a brief one such as this, without touching upon the dealing activities of P .L. Vuletic at the Petar James Gallery and Peter McLeavey at his gallery in Wellington. For the first time in the commerce of New Zealand art Vuletic developed a specialist dealing interest confining himself to abstraction. Although his policy was flexible enough to include both Gopas and Trusttum alongside a number of the painters discussed above, his apparent interest lay more specially in the direction of formal abstraction - an architectural rather than painterly statement. Like most of the artists he represented in the four years between the founding of the Petar James Gallery in 1972 until its winding-up in 1976 (Vuletic has represented Mrkusich, Walters, Killeen, Thornley, Scott and others of similar persuasion) he propounded a policy of promoting internationalism in New Zealand art rather than the regionalist concerns one has come to recognize as an especially significant aspect of New Zealand painting in the 'sixties. 

Some (a few of his artists amongst them) would claim that Vuletic's policy was too rigid, imposing unreasonable inhibitions upon the personal freedom of the artist. The fact remains, however, whatever the possible failings and problems of such a policy, that the Petar James Gallery offered valuable and successful promotion of an underdog current in New Zealand during those very four years when it was to experience a renewed vitality as a small group of Aucklanders chose to abandon the stylistic cul-de-sac of hard-edged realism for abstraction. 

The Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, run by a dealer of more catholic tastes than Vuletic, but a dealer who stood behind Sydow when his work was noteworthy for its lack of commercial success, seems to have inherited much of the Vuletic stable. Perhaps as a result the centre of emphasis for formal abstraction will now shift to the capital city.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 2 October/November 1976