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NZ Modernists and their Followers -2013

Specialty themed exhibitions have remained a feature of the Warwick Henderson Gallery since opening in Parnell in 1987.  Highlighting various and important aspects ...

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Specialty themed exhibitions have remained a feature of the Warwick Henderson Gallery since opening in Parnell in 1987.  Highlighting various and important aspects of New Zealand Art History had been an area rarely or not previously addressed by the dealer galleries in New Zealand.

Contextualizing New Zealand artists and their art in relation to local, regional or overseas artistic developments is traditionally the responsibility of public galleries.  While public galleries enjoy comparatively unlimited resources, Dealer Galleries must sell artwork in order to survive. Subsequently the paintings in this exhibition are limited to those available in the market place today, however an interesting array of art from the 1950’s to the current day has been presented.

The content of this particular exhibition focuses largely on abstract, minimalist, colourfield and geometric painting produced in New Zealand from the 1950’s.  Abstract expressionism was also a style of contemporary art which developed rapidly in New Zealand during this time and works representative of this genre by Dame Louise Henderson (Winter 1976) and Philippa Blair (Balancing Act 2012)are also  included in this exhibition.  While artist’s such as Colin McCahon, Kase Jackson, Louise Henderson, Gordon Walters, Freda Simmonds and others had experimented with ideas from international precursors (e.g. Frank Stella, Mondrian, Klee, Braque, Rothko, Newman, Pollock, Sol De Wit, and the like) by the 1960’s and 1970’s younger New Zealand artists (e.g. Ian Scott, Richard Killeen, John Hurrell, Roy Good, Mervyn Williams, Geoff Thornley and Ralph Hotere) had responded here in an individual and meaningful way.  Many of these artists have now established long and successful careers carving out key positions in the annuls of New Zealand art history

This show not only includes a fine array of these renowned or iconic New Zealand artists but it also highlights and recalls artists from this ground breaking era who, for whatever reason did not continue their artistic careers, diversified, blossomed or revisited their careers decades later.  Several  very scarce early New Zealand  modernist paintings have been uncovered for this exhibition including the Dame Louise Henderson “Untitled” (Building) 1952, Don McAra’s “Untitled” abstract 1965, Freda Simmonds “Red Cliffs” 1966, AM Stevens “Abstract” 1973 and the McCahon influenced 1960’s artist Mary Whiteside’s   paintings “Microcosm III” 1969 and “Abstract” 1967.  All these works which were included in exhibitions as far back as the 1950’s have not only survived but endured.  While this “Modern Abstract” art was largely scorned at the time, there is no doubt the paintings have not only stood the test of time but the paintings remain  a testament to the quality and depth of New Zealand contemporary art during a two decade “cultural and social revolution”  which  followed  World War II.   While at this point we were unable to source an artwork by McCahon, Gordon Walters or Milan Mrkusich, the range and diversity of work for sale in this exhibition is compelling.

Several Arts writers and critics have identified the “ grid” as a common denominator intrinsic to the New Zealand modern art movement. This originated here from building blocks established by artists such as Milan Mrkusich, Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and Louise Henderson in the 1950s. A relationship to architectural and graphic design to which these artists held some connection is also as relevant as it is evident.   The Dame Louise Henderson “Untitled” 1952 is arguably one of the earliest examples of a fully resolved New Zealand geometric abstract artwork by a major New Zealand artist, despite the obvious reference to cubist influences.  The early abstracts by Don McAra, AM Stevens and  Freda Simmonds are to a large extent experimental but they remain more than successful paintings nevertheless and milestones marking this New Zealand Modern Art Movement.  Fine examples of artists practising during this time who continued with their careers despite evitable up and downs include Roy Good with his works “Gem” 1972, and “Architectonic III”  1974, John Hurrell’s “Bars in Two Directions” 1979 (Exhibited ACAG “The Grid” 1983), Geoff Thornley’s “Untitled” 1972 and Philippa Blair’s “Flip Flap” 1993.

Other major New Zealand abstract artists have work included in this exhibition including Ralph Hotere “Picnic at Woodhaugh” 1999, Richard Killeen “Tropical Pattern”  1978, Mervyn Williams “Edict” 2003 and “Syncro” 2010, Alan Maddox “Bysshe’s Eagle (ochre & Turquoise) 1995, and Max Gimblett with “Happy Joyous and Free”  2010.

Two of New Zealand’s most respected young contemporary artists Nick Wall and Alexander Bartleet have fine works recently completed entered in this exhibition as well as new paintings by Philippa Blair and Max Gimblett (Max Gimblett appears courtesy of Gow Langsford Gallery).

Many of the artists and their contemporaries mentioned here laid the foundations stones for much of the modern and abstract New Zealand art we see in our Galleries today.  While these artists were influenced by and large by international art giants mentioned earlier,  the seachange these New Zealand artists created here is undeniable.

The 1970’s and early 80’s was an exciting time to collect New Zealand art, when a myriad of styles and genres became apparent in the market place.  A more international and less regional approach – this employment of grids, geometric patterns and repetitive shapes established a new paradigm for many NZ artists and their followers. New Image, Pop and Figurative artists gained footholds (e.g. Hanley, Killeen, Smither, Frizzell, Moffitt etc.) and could not be uprooted –despite negative reactions and often critical abuse. While genuine buyers and collectors were more the exception than the rule a very real market rapidly developed.  The style of art represented in this exhibition was nevertheless, to a large extent unappreciated by many early collectors with more conservative tastes. Sales at the primary market level (Dealer Galleries) were limited. I attended two auctions in the 1980’s in Wellington and Napier where the appearance of abstract artworks caused a ripple of laughter through the rooms.  As one dealer so aptly exclaimed after the hammer fell at a level of several thousand dollars; “they are not laughing now!” While many of the leading New Zealand artists from this era are now priced beyond the reach of the average pocket there remains an enviable selection of quality contemporary art available in a very affordable price bracket. With the plethora of art work now on the market some 40 to 50 years later, it is again an exciting time to collect art.

We trust you will enjoy this exhibition of artworks some of which originate from a ground-breaking era of New Zealand art.

All Artworks are available for sale.

Text c Warwick Henderson July 2013.

Further reading see “Behind the Canvas, An Insider’s Guide to the NZ Art” Market, Pub New Holland 2012

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