Gretchen Albrecht The Old Age of Modernism
In the middle 'sixties, generally in the United States and particularly in New York, the burning question for painters was how to assert a painting as a distinct and self-sufficient thing. It was not to be a painting as a picture of something else; not a painting as an arena for the display of self (as it had been for Pollock): but a painting simply as the bearer of painted marks.

The style - the style of painters such as Stella, Kelly and Noland - was unforgiving. There seemed little enough to look at in the work, or rather look beyond to. And that of course was the point. As Stella claimed, denying that there was anything there besides the paint on the canvas, 'My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object'.

acrylic on canvas

But the style was, at the same time, refreshing: cool, collected, clinical: and above all a powerful antidote to Romantic and Expressionist rage. It was what Modernism was about.

For Gretchen Albrecht, that style, that period and New York is still what (her) painting is about And that conviction is a risk in two ways. First, it places the artist in the truculent position of appearing not to care that painting shifted into a post-modernist gear some years ago - a fact which Stella himself had registered as early as 1975 with his baroque and fanciful aluminium reliefs. And, second, it tends to put the artist in thrall to an impersonal machinery of established style.

Albrecht's three concurrent Dunedin exhibitions during November (a selection of pre-1981 paintings at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery; recent paintings on paper at the Hocken Gallery; and recent large canvases at the Bosshard Galleries) leave the impression of a guided tour of a short, if significant, passage in the history of painting. It is an accurate, well informed tour: but the guide is faceless.

Virtually all the period devices appear at one point or another over the three exhibitions. The shaped canvases at the Bosshard Galleries work - as they did for Stella - to contain the life of painted colour and shape within strict physical presence. There is an attachment in the works at the Bosshard and at the Hocken to those simple, artificial shapes which obsessed Stella, Noland and Kelly. (For Albrecht it is not stripes, chevrons, targets or shields, but quadrants.) And in a similar period sense, the feature of the earlier paintings at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery which is signalled to the spectator is the habit that Morris Louis had of getting paint into, rather than on to, the canvas.

Of course what these devices are for in the work of the post-painterly abstractionists was simple enough: they were ways of schematically setting colour together. But such schema become public property too quickly. In fact the only works which seem to have a distinctive Albrechtian stamp are the early paintings, where the translucent wisps and smoulders of colour are an advancement within the style.

In the recent work that kind of chromatic vitality has gone. Albrecht's colours are no longer translucent, but made denser and dirtier by an increasingly heavy application. Gone too is the spectral richness of hue favoured by post-painterly abstractionists: Albrecht's hues are now generally pastel-shrill.

Where, then, is Gretchen Albrecht going? It is difficult to find a pattern over the three exhibitions except to say that she seems to have been crowded by external influences, shuffling this way and that without clear destination. Perhaps that is a condition induced in the established painter by the too-comfortable tenure of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, awarded to Albrecht for 1981. The Fellowship may be, in those circumstances, too much like a leisurely sabbatical leave.

GRETCHEN ALBRECHT White in the Diamond 1981

However if, in viewing the artist's concurrent exhibitions, one feels some regret at the loss of earlier artistic clarity, there are two works (both in the Bosshard exhibition) which may restore some faith: Reveal and Cardinal. The paintings are undated in the exhibition list, but they feel the most recent. (And how interesting it is to note in the flourish of those two titles the contrast with a solemn trio from the same exhibition: Voice, Virtue and, again, Voice.)

Both Reveal and Cardinal have the same form: two coloured quadrants of canvas butted together on the perpendicular: Reveal in maroon and yellow, Cardinal in purple and orange.

The arc which each painting describes is not, however, merely a matter of the shape of the abutted canvases. For the way in which the paint is applied across the arc (as if by a roller or sponge) indicates that it is the movement across the arc which is the focal point - a binding, in each case, of two colours and separate shapes which threaten to fall apart down the centre.

In respect of this visible movement, the thought is that with these two works Albrecht may have come to see what her modernist mentors saw: namely, that to try to assert a painting as an object is in the end, and must always be, to give it an active corporeal presence which is essentially sculptural. In turning from his flat symmetrical stripes to the aluminium reliefs, Frank Stella, one supposes, saw that. Perhaps, too, in seeming to see that with Reveal and Cardinal, Gretchen Albrecht has laid her ghost of the old age of modernism.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 22 Summer 1981-2