She's one of our most-lauded abstract artists but Gretchen Albrecht has largely shunned the limelight. Dionne Christian talks to the queen of colour.
Gretchen Albrecht was just 12 years old when one of the most important meetings of her life took place.
Albrecht, now 75, remembers it well. It was a serious affair for the well-behaved young girl to have to visit the headmaster's office, accompanied by her mother Joyce, father Reuben and art teacher Colin de Luca. Especially when she'd been at Mt Roskill Grammar only for a few weeks and the school itself, built in what was a rapidly urbanising but still semi-rural and conservative area, was only 2 years old and finding its own feet.
In her first weeks at school, Albrecht walked into the art room and felt as if she'd found the starting point for the rest of her life.
"I went home and I said to Mum, 'I want to be an artist – that's what I really want to be.' I already loved art but something changed inside me in that room, I stepped into something."
To follow that passion, while remaining in an academic stream, Albrecht wanted to drop French and take more art classes and, for that, she needed headmaster Vic Butler's permission. She wore her summer uniform – Joyce, who sewed all the family clothes, had made it – and recalls the meeting felt formal and somewhat daunting. Still, she never imagined for one moment Butler would say no.
And he didn't.
Her parents had already given their permission for the change; de Luca told them all he felt it would be a good thing if Albrecht could do more art. She recalls Butler as a slightly Dickensian figure but he seemed to want to be as helpful as he could to his pupils.
"Do I think I would have still been an artist had he said no?" she pauses and considers the question, like she does with many of the others asked during a nearly two-hour interview and subsequent telephone conversation. "I'd like to say yes but honestly, I don't know. I do regret dropping French but, in those days, you couldn't do both ..."
So she made her choice – one she has pursued ever since. Now her story is told in a new book by art historian and writer Dr Luke Smythe. Gretchen Albrecht – between gesture and geometry follows her life and career from her early years in Hillsborough and Mt Roskill to 2018 when Albrecht – who is still making new work – exhibited at two New Zealand galleries and travelled to the United Kingdom, Italy and France.
It's a comprehensive and thoughtful survey of a brilliant career: numerous exhibitions both at home and aboard, making art that has brought joy to Albrecht and lovers of her often vividly coloured, shaped canvases along with travel, prizes and awards including, in 2000, being appointed a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to painting.
Despite all of this, Albrecht remains something of a quiet achiever. There's a solid body of art-world writing about her work but, by her own admission, few lengthy or recent profile pieces. It means her name, at least among the general public, may not trigger the same recognition as Colin McCahon or Gordon Walters – whom she knew and befriended – or Toss Woollaston.
Ask Mary Kisler, senior curator at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, why and Kisler asks a question of her own.
"And what do those painters have in common?"
"Exactly - but I think that's only one reason," says Kisler, who describes her friend as one of the country's most important abstract artists. "Gretchen has come a long way to get where she is. I think art lovers know her well and have collected her work but she hasn't been in the public eye because when you're a working artist – and she still is – you don't always have the time to be in the public eye."
Art patron Erika Congreve, a long-time and close friend of Albrecht's, says the secret to her success – "and it's hardly a secret" – is her dedication, the long hours spent in the studio, coupled with her interest and great love of family and friends.
"She is in the world with a hunger and curiosity for its marvels and she persistently takes that back into her work and keeps right on doing her marvellous 'thing' … she's a wonderful artist who continues to make great art.
"The woman and the work are inseparable. What is in Gretchen is in the paintings: truth, beauty, vibrancy, joy, lyricism, intelligence, boldness. I gave a speech at one of Gretchen's openings and said, 'When Gretchen walks into a room, she warms, brightens and stimulates it. Her paintings do the same, although we have to do the walking. The same words describe both Gretchen and her work: dramatic, sensual, generous and beautiful.'"
But Albrecht's is a career that could have stalled before it got going had she been less determined, less committed or less brave. Even if she didn't always feel as if she was any of those things.
Just five years after the meeting in the school principal's office, at 17, she was in her first year at Elam School of Fine Arts and in a youthful relationship with someone she prefers not to discuss, when she discovered she was pregnant.
Nearly 60 years on, it's still not something she is comfortable talking about. Back then, to use her words, nearly all pregnancies that weren't "sanctioned by marriage" tended to see the girl sent away and the baby adopted.
"My parents were incredibly supportive and when I broke the news of my pregnancy to Mum, she said, 'Oh, my darling, we will support you! This will be our grandchild." They insisted we got married – it kind of legitimised the pregnancy and gave legitimacy to Andrew and that was seen to be important in the 1960s."
Did she want to get married?
"I did what my parents felt was the right thing to do," she says simply.
Parental support allowed Albrecht to continue her studies; her situation, as she calls it, influenced much of the work she made during the next three years at Elam and upon graduating. In 1964, the year she received her Diploma in Fine Arts (with Honours in Painting), she was making her weekly bus trip into the city, with son Andrew in his pushchair, when, at Auckland Art Gallery, she bumped into arts curator and writer Hamish Keith, whom she knew from exhibition openings.
Keith asked what Albrecht was up to and she explained she was drawing rather than painting – easier to do with a lively toddler around. The next week, at his invitation and with Colin McCahon at Keith's side, Albrecht took a roll of drawings to show him. They were so impressed that soon after she got her first solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Lorne St, Gretchen Albrecht: 50 Drawings (pencil on paper works).
As she turns the pages in the early chapters of between gesture and geometry, Albrecht says the art speaks for itself: "Being spied on, being courted, a stranger greeting the mother and the child with an olive branch and these drawings – the 50 drawings of me - mother and child, sort of sheltering the child, they're self-explanatory. You know women triumphing over beasts by riding them in a victorious way or sometimes feeling cowed by it. I had a way of dealing with my situation through my paintings…
"An early coming-of-age allowed me to have a very rich early experience, which fed my work and gave it what I would say was significance to me – it gave it meaning – but it was not something I was doing as an exercise. From the very beginning, the content was important."
Son Andrew, now an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Montclair State University in New Jersey, describes his mother as "my inspiration". He remembers art was all around their various homes and visitors – artists, friends, patrons – were always made welcome.
"It continues to be a vibrant social environment," he says. "Perhaps the most pertinent childhood memory I have is that when I went to my friends' houses, the only 'art' in their homes were those 'sailing ships' posters and prints. We had Tony Fomison, Colin McCahon … I learned quickly to accept that my art-rich environment was a blessing but not the norm of most families."
Andrew decided art was not his forte and he preferred solving calculus problems but, he adds, those discussions about art and current issues of the day fed into his education.
"Art and history were intrinsic to my upbringing. It made me believe that I could do
whatever I wanted to do with the caveat that you need to make the effort hence my PhD
in statistics and career in academia – but art and maths are the language of beauty, expressed in different forms."
Albrecht says she considered it "a gift" that her lecturers, notably Kurt Von Meier and Arthur Lawrence, allowed her to use art to express thoughts and feelings in metaphorical terms as well as providing continued encouragement to keep studying.
Given such an early introduction into how quickly a life could change, it's not surprising she has said, "I paint to still the anguish in my heart, to order the chaos I sense is just outside the magic circle I draw around me with my painting…"
Is art therapy for her, then?
"I would say that there's always an aspect of something that you get enormous pleasure out of doing where you might use the word 'therapy' or 'therapeutic' but that is not why I'm doing it, nor is it driving me in the making of the art necessarily. It's using it as my voice and I do think that art has an enormous role to play – especially in today's crazy world – in offering a creative alternative."
In the early 1980s, Albrecht was rebuked by some in the art world for not creating what they saw as statement-making art with distinctly feminine or "feminist" subjects – whatever these might be. In the book, Smythe writes, "While responses to these questions varied widely, there was consensus among leading feminists that women should focus solely on those subjects that bore expressly on their identities and empowerment. Those with other interests were deemed to lack commitment to the cause."
While she spoke about the issue in a talk at Auckland Art Gallery in 1980, Albrecht never directly responded to her critics. Reflecting on this, and broader questions about being a "female artist", Albrecht says she might not have been out flag-waving but the life she has led has been singular in its intention.
"I don't expect to lead some sort of reform but I do expect somebody, a younger woman, who might be bearing children at this moment, to look at the life and find both similarities and differences in her own and feel heartened and strengthened. I would say that my book is my testament in that it does show a life that's pioneered in its own way. Sometimes, getting on with it can be what's required.
"Did it annoy me? Well, I never spoke out about that at the time and I would have said exactly what I've just said to you. There's also so much stuff that people could have looked at, at that point in time, to see exactly what I was doing in paintings, as a woman and my own experience in putting them out into the world.
"I've always employed women in the studio as assistants; I've taught women privately, I have involved myself – and it's in the book – with posters marking occasions … In a quiet sort of way, I pursued a path of as a painter that is as universal as I can make it but comes from my experiences which, of course, are female."
McCahon opened Albrecht's 1964 exhibition with a talk about the emergence of women out of art school linked to New Zealand art traditions and history. Albrecht recalls he spoke about women who became painters, mostly traveling overseas, including Frances Hodgkins.
It was important to Albrecht because, in her final year at Elam, Von Meier had taken her to Auckland Art Gallery and stood her in front of Hodgkins' Self Portrait: Still Life. He urged Albrecht to learn from the way Hodgkins used metaphor to talk about herself as a woman.
"She was dead, of course, then but it was a fantastic thing, a gift to give me to stand in front of a Hodgkins' painting. I really became engaged with her work and she became a mentor for me."
It was also a formative experience when fellow Elam lecturer Arthur Lawrence, a Renaissance/and Baroque expert, pressed into Albrecht's hand a list of places she must see when she went to France and Italy.
She took the list but, by then a single mother after the break-up of her marriage, wondered when he thought she would ever make it to Europe. As she watched several fellow students head overseas to do post-graduate studies, Albrecht instead consumed imported art magazines, visited as many touring exhibitions as she could and kept making art.
In 1966, needing a steady income to support herself and Andrew, she went to Auckland Teachers' Training College to become a secondary school art teacher. Just a year later, Albrecht was establishing a new art department at Kelston Girls' High and in a relationship with fellow artist James Ross, whom she married in 1970.
Her work then became more abstract, certainly more colourful. Changing your practice, says Albrecht, is a natural progression which reflects new experiences but it can be tricky if you've built up a base of collectors and critics who admire what you're already doing and might not want that to alter.
"You just hope that they come round! Your work does need to change and it does need to move at its own pace because you yourself are growing and changing … I am not the person and my desires are different to what I was and they were as a 30-year-old."
The greatest change came in November, 1978 when Albrecht, Ross and Andrew set off for three months' travel, visiting the United States. In the first exhibition she saw, at the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles, Albrecht realised a Paul Clay work she'd seen projected on to a wall in the library at Elam was not huge at all but rather no bigger than the back of an envelope.
"Travel was putting myself in front of the real thing and getting a measure of the thinking of that artist …"
While Andrew returned home to finish Green Bay High School, Albrecht and Ross carried on to Europe. That meant consulting the "Lawrence list" she'd kept safely tucked away for 14 years.
"I unfolded it and my husband and I went to everything on that list – every Romanesque church, chapel, basilica - you name it, we went."
Seeing art in situ, created specifically for a space whether it was a mosaic in Ravenna or a Baroque painting or a tableau ceiling, helped Albrecht realise art wasn't just there to tell a story but was part of the very fabric of a building.
She'd been interested in architecture and building since she was a child. Back in the day, her father, Reuben, would take Albrecht and her three brothers and sisters to the building sites where he was working. She recalls seeing string pulled taut around what would become different rooms in a house, the foundations being dug and poured and the house growing.
"I used to love going into his study and rolling out the blueprint because somehow or another, the plans – the prints for the plans – were always done with white lines with blue paper … I was attracted to the colours but also this idea of the something in plan that could become three-dimensional and exist in space."
Albrecht says her fascination with the colour began around the same time, when she used to go through the bag of fabric off-cuts her mother kept. She recalls the delight at shopping trips to Smith & Caughey's and being allowed to choose fabric for dresses and coats, poring over pattern books and button books, staring into glass-fronted cabinets at thread radiantly lined up in shades of reds, yellows, oranges and greens.
"That was just our lives and they were full of these experiences that were certainly domestic based … I think it's like the embryo before it becomes a baby: the bolts of cloth are full of potential, aren't they? All these things, of course, become part of who you are and help form you and while they're not necessarily taken beyond a certain point, they're rich experiences."
In 1981, Albrecht took up the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago in Dunedin. It couldn't have come at a better time, she says, because, after such extensive travels, she once again felt changed and different and wanted to make work reflective of that.
"When I got the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship," she laughs, "the Romanesque and my appreciation for Frances Hodgkins, it came together. I mean the two men who were so important to me as lecturers all those years before kind of joined together and here was this hemisphere shape that I started to use within that year."
Albrecht was well on her way to becoming one of our most influential painters, a fact further confirmed in 1986, when the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui opened her first major retrospective, AFTERnature: Gretchen Albrecht, A Survey – 23 years.
Albrecht and Ross, now married for 49 years, have continued to travel and to make art, which has evolved as their lives and circumstances have altered. They talk to each other about their work, share ideas, plan where they'll travel to next and what they want to see.
She has no plans to stop any time soon, despite a serious accident at their London studio in 2016 where she broke the top of her left shin bone, close to the kneecap, while trying to clean some ceiling lights.
It might have slowed Albrecht down, but she still daily climbs the steep stairs to her Auckland studio – it occupies the entire second floor of the Grey Lynn home she's shared with Ross since 1982 – and gets joy out of making art.
"To be in the studio is not necessarily being practical in applying paint; it's just being there and looking at what has happened or been done or, some days, I will read or listen to a CD or, you know, be busy and then away I go. But it is an essential in my life."
"I think that every painting I do is linked to my experience so I'm close to landscape, I'm close to sea, I have a family that I love and I have all the experiences that I have, which are human experiences and if I can make art out of all of that and it is recognised by a viewer as speaking to them somehow and they can relate to it, that's good."
"Good paintings are just as hard to make as they always were and you're always working toward the next work. I certainly wouldn't want to climb my studio stairs and feel obliged to work but it remains a joy to make them, it is my life."
Gretchen Albrecht – between gesture and geometry by Luke Smythe (Massey University Press, $80) is released on Thursday, April 11. Gretchen Albrecht appears at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday, May 19 from 10am-11am in the Kere Room at the Aotea Centre where, in Shaping Colour: Gretchen Albrecht, she'll talk with curator Julia Waite.