In the centenary year of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon's birth, he remains at the forefront of NZ painting. Ginny Fisher spoke to four leading artists about their experiences with - and the influence of - McCahon.
"Black. I think of black," says painter and print-maker Dame Robin White, who was taught by Colin McCahon at Elam in the 1960s. "Black is a beautiful colour. As New Zealanders, we understand it. For McCahon it was all about contrast. He was a master of light and dark. I've always responded to his colours. They represent our reality. They are rich, subdued and earthy."
White was just out of high school when she first met McCahon.
"It was 'Mr McCahon' in those days. He was certainly a teacher of rank and I was very respectful to him. We weren't chums, like some of the boys. I didn't go drinking with him at the public bar and I didn't ever visit him at home," she recalls. "He taught in an unorthodox way, he didn't tell us what to do, he invited us to consider what we had done. We were learning from doing."
White remembers McCahon being very clear about his painting principles. One must have integrity and truthfulness. All art is abstract. And whatever way you painted, it must hold together through composition.
"He was what I would call a minimal teacher. He was profound and to-the-point. I don't think his style worked for everyone but it did for me. I think one of the greatest lessons he gave me was, 'Art is not something you do, it's who you are.' There's no other option but to make art and it's a lifelong commitment. As students leaving art school, we expected to struggle; we didn't think we were entitled to anything. We had to do other things to pay the rent."
Just like McCahon did to support his wife and family of four children. In the early days in the South Island, he worked on fruit orchards and later, after moving north at the Auckland Art Gallery, as keeper and deputy director, then as a painting lecturer at Elam in the late 60s before leaving the school to paint full-time in the early 70s.
"I think his legacy will unfold as time goes by. People don't find his work easy to relate to in secular society. The religious aspects probe into areas of the human spirit. This is disturbing for some. It's not easy territory but I think these works are the most compelling because of the questions they ask."
Two paintings stick in White's mind: Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha 1969-70 and I considered all the acts of oppression, 1981.
"They are both dark works but they point to the heart of the matter. That is, being human in a material world."
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When asked if McCahon's work became darker and more sombre as he aged, White says, matter of factly, "I'd be inclined to say that's pretty normal. Mortality does have an effect on what you chose to focus on."
While some observers have said McCahon lost his faith at the end of his career, she disagrees. "I think to put it in context, his loss of faith was only in the material world."
On a more personal note, not many can say they have slept beside a McCahon. White did, twice; firstly in Dunedin with The Blessed Virgin compared to a jug of pure water and the infant Jesus to a lamp, 1948. Then there was the night she slept on a camp stretcher on the floor of his Muriwai studio, entombed by the hanging, incomplete canvases of Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1969-70.
She'd visited the house with Claudia Pond Eyley - a close friend of McCahon's daughter. "The next morning I swept the floor of his cottage, it was covered in sand, I thought it would be nice for his bare feet to feel a clean floor."
John Reynolds' thought train moves at breakneck speed. At the mention of McCahon's handle, he takes it up a few notches. What pops into his mind when he thinks of McCahon?
"Baleful, austere and with such a rich legacy. You could say I was a fanboy. He remains a huge figure in my practice and we're still negotiating his legacy."
After a quick draw of breath, he continues "There was such great joy in his work, it was robustly felt and it provided him with an emotional vent. He just had this intense desire to communicate. Very few painters have produced anything like it."
Reynolds is talking about the "wild beauty" McCahon depicted in his raw New Zealand landscapes and the brave, monochromatic and modernist works that often included text, symbols and numbers.
This resulted in what Reynolds describes as an "immense rupture" and led to two outcomes; while McCahon rearranged the alphabet in painting, he also created an intense opposition to his work, which led to vilification and abuse.
"Some artists in my generation can't bear his work; the contemporary art field is now so broad with all the digital platforms, some might regard McCahon as a dinosaur. You often hear painting has been declared dead."
Not so for Reynolds who, like McCahon, has a knack for playing with words and numbers and symbols to striking effect in his own work. Reynolds took McCahon's influence one step further by developing his own series dedicated to one of the more mysterious aspects of McCahon's story - his 24-hour disappearance in Sydney before the opening of his show at the 1984 Sydney Biennale.
"I got the idea after reading the book, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which speculates on the journey McCahon might have taken when he went missing. I just had this epiphany; I knew this was going to be my next big project."
His series of works, titled Centennial Park (where McCahon was eventually found), contemplate the end of something, a subject Reynolds remains interested in. "He never painted again after his disappearance and he died two years after this. Most artists die still making work."
This could have been because McCahon was becoming ill in the early 1980s after a stroke and developing Korsakoff's psychosis, the result of years of heavy drinking. By the time he visited Sydney, he was reportedly suffering from acute short-term memory loss.
But back to the beginning of McCahon's story. For Reynolds, he managed to shape a sense of what New Zealand was and infused that in his paintings for the world to see. "It was new, it was raw; it was influenced by Māoritanga."
Of all the works in the Auckland Art Gallery show, Reynolds is most drawn to the word and number ones and, unsurprisingly, he also likes to use these elements in his own work. "Words have such devastating power. The word works are really like a giant billboard."
And Reynolds favourite McCahon painting? "I AM - Victory Over Death 2" - a work over 2m in height and 5m wide held by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. "It may be a biblical verse but really it's more a philosophical text - it was Muldoon's sneering gift to Australia."
"I was thinking of Anne at home and what she would have gone through. It must have been incredibly isolating. I was making works for Anne," says Emma Fitts on a Skype call from a hill in San Francisco and referring to McCahon's wife of 45 years.
Fitts, a painter and fibre artist from Christchurch is on a residency at the San Francisco Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, but was also a McCahon House resident at his Titirangi home last year.
"I got so much more from the residency than I imagined. After two weeks I was flooded with his work, even though I'd purposely avoided his art in the past because it was so drummed into us at high school," she says.
Of the residency setting in Titirangi, "It's an unusual set-up. There's the house museum - they give you the keys, so you can go there in the middle of the night if you like, so it doesn't really feel like a museum. Then there is the studio, which is like a tree house. One wall is just glass and when you're working there, you're infused with the bush.
"When I was there it was winter and the rain was persistent, the Titirangi bush was very foreign to me - those tall kauri trees, you can't escape the environment. I was interested in how Colin made his work and his family life, I wanted to understand his obsession with painting. He was massively prolific. He'd paint on the deck, in his living room, in his garage.
"For a family of six, this was a very small place and it would have been very hard for the others. He was everywhere, working. I imagine his children would have spent a lot of time outside."
Then there were the winters, the rain and the isolation. No one drove, so they had to catch the bus, says Fitts. Their house, apart from being small, was very open plan.
"It was quite modern in that sense but lacked privacy. There was only one spot you could be alone, it was in a small corner of Anne and Colin's bedroom."
Ingeniously this led Fitts to respond with a series of banner works constructed from fibre and fabric, made to hang from the ceiling and divide the interior of the home. Her palette ended up mimicking the colours of the trees.
"I was trying to bring the outside inside experience."
Since the residency, she has felt much more of an influence from McCahon. "He was amazingly courageous with his text works and very experimental with scale."
She is drawn to Painting 1958, saying the influence of Mondrian can be seen in the composition. So naturally she's also a fan of Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961.
But her pick is definitely the 13 glass panels extracted from the Convent Chapel of the
Sisters of our Lady of the Missions in Remuera. "I'm interested in the idea that [they have] been extracted from the original site and [they are] a bit brighter and lighter with those blues and greens — made to respond to light."
You might not see painter and recipient of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Nigel Brown at the new McCahon exhibition. "I don't really go to McCahon shows anymore. It can be a bit frustrating for me, because I was his pupil. I think people want to see you break away."
Brown adds that there is plenty to enthuse about McCahon as an artist but for him, it's important to find his own path. McCahon was Brown's tutor in the late 1960s and you can see the influences - particularly in the use of text, which Brown clarifies is purely his own, unlike McCahon who used other writers' poetry or biblical text.
In the late 1990s, Brown began his own I Am series, which started in Muriwai, where McCahon had a studio, and ended at Cosy Nook in Southland where Brown is now based. Like McCahon, Brown has worked on church commissions but he says his direction, use of his own words, pictorialism and historical references set him apart.
"I am also, overall, more political at times." He often asks himself, 'What can I do in this area that's not McCahon?'
Brown remembers McCahon as an encouraging teacher who would ignore the parts of a painting that failed and focus on the aspects that succeeded. However, he didn't appreciate students going off on wild tangents, which is what Brown says he did now and then.
"As a teacher, he emphasised strength and contrast and encouraged weight in works which is something I still strive for."
On a personal level, Brown recalls McCahon as an egalitarian but not a superior person. "Many students went to him for counselling. He wasn't your ordinary Kiwi bloke … He was more mysterious."
That intensity is another quality Brown remembers. "He had conviction, seriousness and personality. He never made out it was an easy path, he said, 'It gets harder as you get on. The more you paint, the more problems you face.' He tended to downplay inspiration and playfulness, yet he was rigorous with composition. He believed you either had the gift or you didn't."
Brown says McCahon represented the modernist thrust, was against "chocolate box conservatism" and brought New Zealand painting into the 20th century. Although Brown admits abstraction is not his thing, he still "senses the power" of McCahon's work.
Brown isn't so drawn to the religious paintings, saying as students, the biblical stuff left them cold but acknowledges the force of the work was interesting.
"I have some discomfort in the concept that light is connected to Christianity - that there is light over darkness - I think McCahon had more of a natural religion. And the numeral works don't interest me so much. Some like him for his restraint, but I still think there was a lurking expressionist in there somewhere, but he would rather retreat into structure, perhaps he was looking for stability of faith."
One of his last encounters with McCahon was at his home in Grey Lynn.
"It was a sombre affair. He said to me: 'Less painting. More thinking.'
"Then Anne said, 'Colin, you don't really mean that.'"
A Place to Paint: Colin McCahon in Auckland is at Auckland Art Gallery until Monday, January 27, 2020 and considers McCahon's long-time relationship with Auckland and the significance of the physical, spiritual and cultural landscape on his painting. It runs alongside From the Archive: Colin McCahon in Auckland.