Barry Lett, one of the pioneers of Auckland's art gallery scene, died this week, aged 77. Herald art writer T.J. McNamara reflects on his life and times.
The death of Barry Lett, artist and extraordinary gallery director, is the passing of a pioneering era in the growth, achievement and recognition of contemporary art in Auckland and New Zealand.
Lett's interest in art was evident in his teens when he attended classes taught by prominent Wellington artist Paul Olds. Lett came to Auckland and attended Elam School of Fine Arts. Soon after graduating, he joined several others to start the Uptown Gallery in Queen St.
This soon morphed into The Barry Lett Gallery in Victoria St, which he founded in 1965 in partnership with Rodney Kirk Smith. On the day of the opening they were still sawing timber for the handrail of stairs that led from the street to the space of the gallery but this down-to-earth practicality was part of the ethos of the time and their attitude towards art.
They formed a remarkable pair: Lett quick, witty and lively; Smith tall, bearded and just a little pompous. They showed artists who formed the wave of exciting contemporary art; names that are now a roll-call of honour: McCahon, Hotere, Hanly, Albrecht, Mrkusich, Smither and Billy Apple among others.
The fortnightly openings of new shows became legend: collectors, writers, artists businessmen and academics all came as well as the people there just for wine and talk.
Yet Lett retained the soul of an artist. In 1974 he abruptly bought out of the partnership and returned to his own art, though the gallery, for a while, retained his name. He went to Sydney and Wellington but afterwards settled into a studio in Mt Eden.
He insisted that the gallery that still bore his name be changed. When Smith objected, Lett took a hammer to the sign outside the door.
A monumental sculpture series of dogs made of concrete and stone pebbles, with the lively quality of guardians as well as sculptural weight, brought him to prominence. Attending a retrospective exhibition of his work at Auckland's Pah Homestead this year, visitors were greeted by a huge but slender dog made of steel rod and scoria.
In the later part of his life, he took himself off to the reclusive area of Tawharanui, north of Auckland with his partner, Ree Anderson, and their two children. Lett became a founding member of the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society Inc and worked on a number of conservation projects. These included fundraising for a predator-proof fence and planting native flora to encourage native birds.
He worked a good deal with sawn wood. This gave his work an unusual surface and the combination of surface, broad witty shapes and the weight given by wood made his work unique.
Lett worked consistently though he seldom exhibited. The Pah Homestead show covered the work during the last 40 years of his life and was a fine tribute to an unassuming but unique artist who deserved to be better known.
Barry Lett is survived by his wife, Ree, and children Bella and Lucian.