His son, Lewis M' />

With more than 70 solo shows behind him and a new exhibition at Sue Crockford Gallery, Milan Mrkusich's legacy continues to grow.

His son, Lewis Mrkusich, 49, has spent the past five years working fulltime with his father, taking the reins at the business end of his practice.

"He was getting older," says Lewis. "He found it hard to handle all aspects of it. I've got a sales and business background so I have been able to bring that to it. I try to be a sales manager and a trainer, as far as I can, and that's proving not to be very easy.

"It is a complicated business being an artist because you have a lot of different things to attend to. I was able to remove most of it for him so he could concentrate on doing the work and I think it has had a very beneficial effect."

Born in Dargaville in 1925, Mrkusich is one of New Zealand's oldest living artists and, alongside Don Peebles, Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, pioneered abstract painting in this country.

Like a sculptor exploring a block of marble, Mrkusich subscribes to the school of abstraction that prefers to make paintings about painting, focusing on colour, shape, light and texture rather than illusionistic representations of the outside world.

A private man, he has always been reluctant to discuss his work - why say with words what can be better said with a paintbrush?

"I think he does feel that and he always has. He's been showing every year and this has been a characteristic of his career," says Lewis, who is his father's spokesperson and notes that an artist of this stature is hardly in need of publicity.

Gallery owner Sue Crockford, who has been Mrkusich's Auckland dealer since 1990, recalls first encountering his work in the 70s: "It was the first time I had seen large colour field painting in the flesh and it was a stunning experience," she says.

"I thought Auckland was very sophisticated to be showing such contemporary work. As time went on I realised that abstraction was at the centre of the nationalism versus internationalism debate, which was so virulent at the time, and that Milan was a pioneer in that regard.

"Milan was the first artist to make an abstract painting in New Zealand and he has never wavered from that course. It is because of artists like Mrkusich, Walters, McCahon and Hotere that young artists can consider being artists as a profession."

Gretchen Albrecht, another painter represented by Crockford, agrees: "Any young artist emerging from art school and beginning to exhibit in the early 60s was extremely lucky to have the painting examples of McCahon, Walters and Mrkusich in front of us."

The strict formal approach of Mrkusich and his peers did not interest Albrecht, who prefers a more gestural style that speaks of its inspiration in nature, but there is a strong resemblance in her recent work, which contrasts geometric shapes against expressive fields of colour.

"Latterly, however, I think you can see a shared interest that I have with Milan in the use of geometry as a way of amplifying the content of the painting," she says.

"He continues to surprise me as a painter with his strong, vibrant paintings. He also shares my belief in the efficacy of abstraction as a way of representing and interpreting our world."

Julian Dashper, who has exhibitions in both New York and California, has also found Mrkusich inspiring.

"Milan's life and work as an artist has directly allowed the sort of practice and international career I have achieved from a base in New Zealand," he says.

"Milan is an artist who has always been a constant source of influence, excitement and inspiration for me. Right from my early beginnings as a young student of art in the late 1970s through to today where I can walk into an exhibition of his latest work and see an 80-year-old artist fully engaged in his own practice."

Crockford is similarly enthusiastic about Mrkusich's continuing career, which has adopted a distinctly energetic palette in recent years: "Milan's latest paintings have the feeling of youth and vitality. The colours are vibrant and fresh. There is no such thing as old age paintings for Milan."

According to Lewis, Mrkusich has no intention of resolving and concluding his life's work, which continues to find new directions. "There will be new work but we won't be mentioning anything about what it is," he says with a chuckle.

Although Mrkusich has had the lonely task of bringing abstraction to New Zealand, his dedication to the cause was formally acknowledged when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997.

Two years ago he was included in an inaugural list of 10 Living Icon artists, awarded by the Arts Foundation, an honour Lewis says his father was particularly proud of because it came from his peers.

"The fact that such a vision could be maintained under such adversity for so long makes me think of him as not only a true pioneer but also as a national hero and cultural icon," says Dashper.

"Milan's work is part of the bedrock when it comes to any discussion of a New Zealand canon. Milan Mrkusich is a living legend. That should be enough."

* Paintings 2003-2004 by Milan Mrkusich at the Sue Crockford Gallery, 2 Queen St, to Jul 16