Monday 28 November 2011

Art on the walls, art in the walls

I recently wrote about a 1979 work by Billy Apple titled Revealed/Concealed. This was one of several artworks made by Apple at Auckland Art Gallery in the 1970s when he toured New Zealand’s art galleries, making site-specific works that turned a critical eye on the gallery spaces themselves.
Not long after he made Revealed/Concealed, Apple had the opportunity to effect a more lasting change in the fabric of the Gallery’s building.

In 1975, he had made an untitled piece which drew attention to a strange discrepancy in the sizes of what were then Auckland Art Gallery’s two main exhibition spaces on level 1. The Centre and West Galleries were almost identical, except that the West Gallery, for unknown reasons, was slightly longer. This offended Apple’s sense of spatial order and balance. He censured the extra area of floor by painting it the same white as the walls, visually ‘subtracting’ it so that when viewed from a distance it seemed to disappear – in Apple’s words – ‘so there’s no distraction.’

In 1982 this temporary re-proportioning of the West Gallery was made permanent. I recently talked to Richard Harris, who is now Principal architect at Jasmax, about how he helped Apple to realise Addendum to ‘Subtraction’.

Billy Apple, Addendum to 'Subtraction': The Given as an Art-Political Statement 1998

AP: Addendum to 'Subtraction' followed an earlier 1975 piece, where a section of the Gallery's floor was painted white. How did it come about that this work was revisited in 1982, and what was your involvement?

RH: The original Art Gallery was actually both the City Art Gallery and the City Library. In the early 1970s the Edmiston Wing was added to the Art Gallery end of the building and this addition/renovation included the Centre Gallery and the West Gallery. In the seventies the Auckland City Council opened a new City Library in Lorne St and this enabled the Art Gallery to annex the newly vacated library space.
At that time I was working for the Architectural Division of Auckland City Council and was appointed as the project architect for the City Art Gallery refurbishment and reconstruction which included a number of separate but related building projects occurring concurrently between 1979 and 1984.

Richard Harris, Sketch plan, Auckland Art Gallery first floor, 1981
[West Gallery new wall and stair shown in red]

One of these projects involved connecting the West Gallery into the old library and a small element of this was the need for a short stair to accommodate the height difference between the new and the old. To integrate the stair into the design, I chose to shorten the existing West Gallery and it was at this conceptual planning stage that I met Billy and he acquainted me with his Addendum to ‘Subtraction’ work. I needed little encouragement to position the new wall exactly where he had painted the floor to create an apparent wall seven years earlier.

AP: Billy tells me that you were very particular about the new wall being 'right', to the extent that the bricklayer had to lay the wall three times over. Why was it so important to get it exact?

RH: The existing gallery walls were bagged brick with the individual bricks ‘kicked’ slightly and randomly to give a textured finish to the wall. The consistent texture over the whole wall was achieved through a degree of uniformity to this randomness. It was really important to us that the new wall exactly matched the texture of the existing ones so that they created a coherent space.

The problem for us was that West Gallery continued to show exhibitions during construction and the new wall was being constructed behind a screen which prevented the bricklayer being able to see the finish that he was charged with replicating. To get a good view of the existing wall, he had to leave the construction site at the corner of Wellesley St, walk up Kitchener St and walk back in through the main entry of the gallery. The other issue was that he was a very good bricklayer and ‘kicking’ bricks went against all his instincts. So it took three goes but the final effort was a great match.

AP: The space that became the Centre Gallery was originally built as an extension to the Art Gallery in 1893, and for some reason was made slightly smaller than the existing (West) Gallery. It was the first in a series of patchwork additions and renovations over the years which caused some odd angles and discrepancies in the building. Billy's project was an attempt to 'correct' at least one of these. Do you feel that architecture should display its history, discrepancies and all?

RH: Self imposed constraints of maximising gallery space while working within the existing walls of the building were probably what drove the different length galleries in the first place.  Billy’s work allows us to look at space through clearer eyes provoking questions such as what were the intentions, why was it resolved that way and could it have been done differently. That a conceptual artwork was later able to be permanently realised added a richness to the project.
I do believe that architecture which displays its history allows for a deeper understanding of our built environment.

Gretchen Albrecht, Illuminations installation, Centre Gallery showing view into West Gallery, 2002

The Centre and West Galleries were changed again as part of the recent development project. Apple’s wall was moved slightly to make way for a new stairwell and the two spaces – now perfectly aligned – have been combined to form one large sequence of rooms on level 1.
Farmer Galleries [formerly Centre and West Galleries] 2011

Francis Bacon and David Sylvester

One of the best art books of the 1970s was Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester published by Thames and Hudson. After the initial publication in 1975, Sylvester expanded it further in 1980 and 1987.

If you have not read this remarkable book yet, please seek it out. Bacon is a ruthless speaker about himself, self-mythologizing and searingly honest at the same time. Sylvester was one of the finest British curators and art writers to emerge after World War II. He was the first critic to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (1993).

Bacon and Sylvester talked for decades beginning in 1963, and continuing in 1966 and 1979. During 1967, the Marlborough Gallery showed some of Bacon’s recent paintings. Here is a quote from the conversation published in the accompanying catalogue:

David Sylvester: When somebody you’ve already painted many times from memory does actually sit for you, what happens?
Francis Bacon: They inhibit me. They inhibit me because if I like them, I don’t want to practice the injury that I do to them in my work before them. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the facts of them more clearly.
DS: In what sense do you conceive of it as an injury?
FB: Because people believe – simple people at least – that the distortions of them are an injury to them no matter how much they feel for or like you.

I have been lucky to see a number of Francis Bacon shows including a large survey. I was stunned to see that he paints women so much more sympathetically than he does men.

Bacon said during his conversations with Sylvester, “I hate my face. I only made self-portraits because I had no one else to paint.”

For an amazing verbal sparring between these two men see

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Revealed, concealed

New Gallery [now Mackelvie Gallery], c1916

One of the highlights of the developed Gallery building is the Mackelvie Gallery, which has been painstakingly returned to its former glory as a Victorian neo-classical picture gallery. The interior of this 1916 room was removed in successive renovations in the 1950s and the 1980s. The last time its decorative columns saw the light of day was in 1979 when Billy Apple temporarily exposed them as part of an artwork titled Revealed/Concealed.

Apple is best known for his self-branding, for his witty and conceptual Pop works and for his sly investigations into the workings of the art market. In 1975, and again in 1979 he turned a critical eye on New Zealand’s art galleries, touring around the country creating works which explored the ideology and politics of art exhibition spaces – the behind-the-scenes mechanics of an art gallery. (See Wystan Curnow's account of this tour from page 10 of the Gallery Quarterly here).

Mezzanine Gallery [now Mackelvie Gallery] 1956

At Auckland Art Gallery in 1979, Revealed/Concealed literally exposed the architectural history of the gallery, as Apple cut away the walls of the room to show the 1916 columns which were hidden inside. During the ‘modernisation’ of the Mackelvie Gallery under director Eric Westbrook in 1952, the columns had been walled over to create a sleeker, cleaner and more modern look. By 1979, no-one remembered what they looked like – as Wystan Curnow has recorded, when Apple’s project was being discussed, wild speculation about beautiful orange marble columns began to circulate around the Gallery. When the walls were cut away and the columns were finally revealed, they turned out to be rather less spectacular concrete.

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

Revealed/Concealed was a two-part work: Apple counterbalanced the revelation of the historic columns by concealing a strange wall niche. This shallow alcove had been built into the wall above the Mackelvie Gallery’s famous curved staircase during the 1952 renovations – for what purpose was unclear exactly, but it spent more time covered by a wall hanging than performing any useful function for the display of art. Apple filled it in, erasing this odd eccentricity from the otherwise undisturbed smoothness of the gallery wall.

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

As Wystan Curnow wrote in a 1980 article on the project, “For the artist the art gallery space is a given. For any artist. The gallery wants to give the artist a show, he wants to make something of it. What space does it give him, this show? Which space is it, exactly? What is it? I mean, what does it amount to? These are questions REVEALED-CONCEALED brings to mind. Because it makes changes to and shows changes in the gallery space, the work brings particularly to mind the instability of that given over time. History as a given, then. The record of change; itself subject constantly to revelations and concealments.”

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

By displaying the spaces that were themselves designed for the display of art, what Apple ultimately revealed was how these containers for art are flexible and unstable – they are subject to change both physically and ideologically.

Mackelvie Gallery 2011

The recent reinstatement of the Mackelvie Gallery’s 1916 design was a triumph of heritage restoration. The interior of the room was almost entirely stripped out in the 1980s, and the original intricate plasterwork has been carefully rebuilt using only two surviving historic photographs. Revived again 95 years after it was first opened, the current (and original) design of the Mackelvie Gallery forms an appropriate period context for the Gallery’s Victorian painting collection. The resurrection of the Mackelvie Gallery acknowledges an important period in our building’s history, and also shows how in art galleries, as in art, history can be accommodated, referenced, revealed and concealed.

Clement Greenberg

A few days ago an artist told me how he admired Clement Greenberg’s writings. I was not able to respond sufficiently as it is some years since I read Greenberg’s essays. Also, he has a reputation of being a formalist that despised the social and cultural significance of visual art. A sort of proto post-modernist without the European theoretical underpinnings.

Today, Greenberg is considered a fusty and opinionated critic. Upon re-reading a few volumes I find that he is more impressive a writer than I recalled. His humour is delicious and is totally yiddish in its genesis.

Greenberg’s important essay on art criticism was published posthumously in Partisan Review 1981 Volume XLVII Number 1, the issue dedicated to The State of Criticism. It is also published in Clement Greenberg - the Collected Essays and Criticism, volume 4, edited by John O'Brian. You can access this fantastic essay here.

Here is a selection of Clement Greenberg’s statements:
All profoundly original work looks ugly at first.

The making of superior art is arduous, usually. But under Modernism the appreciation, even more than the making, of it has become more taxing, the satisfaction and exhilaration to be gotten from the best new art more hard-won.

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.

You do most of your talking about the works and try to say why you think every artist is a law to himself. There's no method.

The trouble with Michelangelo's sculpture is that it's too slick. He was damned good, but he was too arty.

You like it, that's all, whether it's a landscape or abstract. You like it. It hits you. You don't have to read it. The work of art-sculpture or painting-forces your eye.

When you're young and you maybe can't see art, you're interested in the story.

We have differences but we're not made different. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong.

If you want to change your art, change your habits.

When photography's good, let me put it that way, it's as good as painting.
If you really want to get a taste of how incisive Clement Greenberg was about art, watch him speaking about Marcel Duchamp:

Russell Bingham conducted a fascinating interview with Clement Greenberg, which is published in the Edmonton Contemporary Artists’ society newsletter volume 3, issue 2 and volume 4 issue 1:

Russell Bingham: Do you think photography is art.

Clement Greenberg: Of course it is. You're making me rehearse things I've already written. Anything can be experienced aesthetically and the line between art and non-art is so indefinite

RB: Major art, would you say? Have you seen any photography that is major art?

CG: I've never been asked that question before. I don't know. The photographer I admired most in my own time was Walker Evans because in a manner of speaking he told a story. The other was Atget, in the early part of this century, who everybody admires, and they're right to. His pictures don't exactly tell a story, but what I've noticed about good photography is that a good photograph always has some evidence of humanity in it. So you can get a good photograph of a road because humans have built the road. And here's where the subject matter determines everything and not formal qualities.

You will be interested to know that Clement Greenberg visited New Zealand in July 1968. He is recorded as being impressed with the art of Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. More about this visit later!

Monday 21 November 2011

Rita and Douglas

Yesterday at the Gallery, Jennifer Ward-Lealand presented a preview of her brilliant performance piece - Rita and Douglas. Created by Dave Armstrong from the letters of Rita Angus and delivered with Michael Houston at piano, this theatrical portrait of the relationship between Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn has already gained plaudits throughout New Zealand for its insightful characterisation of these renowned artists.

Based on Rita’s feisty letters to Douglas, the production affirms the intense friendship between two of New Zealand’s key artists. It reveals the creative intensity shared between two people of entirely different nature. Lovers for a very short time, but friends for a lifetime.

The brilliance of Rita and Douglas can be experienced at the Auckland Town Hall concert chamber from 22-26 November; Tuesday-Thursday 7pm, Friday-Saturday 8pm. There is a matinee performance at 2pm on the 26th. This is a must-see event. Jennifer even moves like Rita Angus, her astonishing portrayal  is uncanny and powerful for its truthful presence.

Details of this event are available at THE EDGE.

James Wenley’s Auckland Theatre blog presents a fascinating interview with Jennifer:

Image: Chris Corson-Scott

Jennifer Ward-Lealand 2011
colour photograph
courtesy of the artist

Thursday 17 November 2011

Marina Abramović – The Artist is Present

The performance artist Marina Abramović is following on from her MoMA retrospective in New York with another iteration at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, it is on view until 8 December and features approximately 50 works that overview more than forty years of her work including sound works, video, installations, photographs, solo and collaborative performance.

Klaus has posted a video introduction to the project which can be viewed here.

Here is the English version of the Garage’s introduction to Marina’s exhibition.

I met Marina when she visited Christchurch in 1981. I photographed their Witnessing performance that she presented in collaboration with Ulay held in the Great Hall at the Arts Centre as part of ANZART. It was astonishing and traced their relationship as a couple – she stood, he was on the floor - and lit by the shifting light within the space over the period of an afternoon to a moment of darkness.

A fascinating account of their visit to Christchurch has recently been blogged by Ornery World.

Since it is three decades since Marina Abramović visited New Zealand I wondered will we ever see her here again? She is one of the world’s most enduring performance artists. All of her work is about what it means to be human.

Thursday 3 November 2011

21st century – Art in the First Decade

A friend asked me to recommend to them a good book on contemporary art. There has not been a book solely about contemporary art produced in New Zealand in the last year or so. In Australia, a good one was published by Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art during 2010.

21st century – Art in the First Decade is an up to the minute book and the art in it feels contemporary. By that, I don't mean art made since 1950 but art coming from the present generation. That is 15 years, according to statisticians.

I recommend 21st century – Art in the First Decade. Miranda Wallace edits it with assurance and the essays are free of rhetoric and cant. [ISBN 9781921503177].

This book was the catalogue to a temporary exhibition held in Brisbane from December 2010 to April 2011 that consisted of 216 items held in the GoMA collection. It is a fresh take on contemporary art. The sort of art show that is brilliant to experience. Makes one realise that Queensland is collecting contemporary international art in a major way.

New Zealand artists like Campbell Patterson, John Pule and Fiona Pardington are included. Ask your local library to obtain a copy for you to read.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Hamish Keith

Hamish Keith visited the Gallery today and spoke eloquently about Colin McCahon's 1952 painting On Building Bridges. As well as discussing the importance of the very first work by the artist to enter a public collection, Hamish noted how important this painting has always been to him.

I told Hamish that I was thrilled to be able to show this work from a 30 metre sight-line within our collection exhibition Toi Aotearoa. Sarah Hillary, principal conservator has cleaned the painting and it looks stunning.

I saw the photographer Chris Corson-Scott was present and I asked if he would mind making a portrait of Hamish together with this remarkable painting by Colin McCahon.

Chris Corson-Scott
Hamish Keith 2011
colour photograph