Inescapably, names matter when we look at art. We know the names of those which make it into the history books. Those whose paintings are damned to the storerooms of great galleries remain nameless. A known name is an indication of appeal, of quality.

There are two carefully selected and presented exhibitions this week that deal in names.

Few are in a position to buy the works since the names mean they are highly priced but for the ordinary gallery-goer they provide food for thought about the changing nature of art and its motivations.


At the Ferner Gallery in Parnell until October 4 is the exhibition Vuillard, Bonnard, Signac and their Contemporaries. These are not household names like Picasso or Matisse but they are names that find their respectable place in the history of early modern art.

This is not a show of major paintings such as a public gallery might mount but a selected variety of small things of varying quality, sketches, watercolours and paintings. Nonetheless, they are consistently charming and reflect the good life of the Belle Epoque.

There is nothing but enjoyment to be had from a spring landscape drawn in charcoal and watercolour by Johan-Barthold Jongkind, friend of Monet, or the delicate pastel of his wife done by the less well-known Charles Camoin.

Bigger names include Aristide Maillol whose sculptures of women populate the Tuilleries and are seen by every visitor to Paris. There is a typically solid female nude here. And there is Paul Signac, one of those French painters who did not let theorising overwhelm his deft, painterly touch and vivid sense of colour. His watercolour of the port of St Tropez is the liveliest thing in the show.

In all these works the subject is as important as the manner and skill of the artist. The intriguing drawing done for a magazine by Jacques Villon illustrates, among other things, the delightful difficulties of undressing a woman wearing a corset of the time.

The only work where abstraction plays its part is the studio experiment by Andre Derain where the origin in still-life remains clear and in the academic modernist work by Andre Lhote whose stylisations taught in his Paris school influenced some New Zealand artists, notably Louise Henderson.

Nowadays, New Zealand artists do not have to go to Paris to try to take a place in contemporary art. The Exhibition Farben at the Jensen Gallery is a curated show that concentrates on artists for whom colour is important. Farben is the German for "colours". All of the work is abstract, reflecting one of the principal pre-occupations of artists in the second half of the 20th century and continuing into the present.

There are prominent New Zealand artists, Stephen Bambury and Jim Speers alongside Imi Knoebel and Helmut Federle, whose names may not have found their way in the art books yet but who have work in every gallery of contemporary art from Madrid to Vienna.

Both Federle and Knoebel are abstract artists - Federle's For Birds D is made by stamping black on to a gold ground and allowing accidents to play their part but his Corner Field Painting LIII is a simple geometric arrangement where purple intrudes into black.

Knoebel paints fortissimo. He uses acrylic on aluminium and makes the sharp edge of the aluminium sheet define the colour field he plants at the centre bottom of a larger field. There are two colours only in each painting and the subject is colour alone - yellow in white, pink in black. The result is at once bright, sharp and monumental.

Taste is the ally of Minimalism. And everything in this show is in excellent taste and would fit appropriately against the white walls of modern architecture. The only slight transgressions against poised and utterly tasteful work is perhaps the painting by John Armleder from Switzerland whose Pour paintings gush down the canvas in a harmonious deluge but are sexed up by the glitter of glitter.

Another painting with movement is the wonderful and intricate zigzag of Bernard Frize whose multicoloured line darts about the canvas but still makes a tight composition.

This is an artistically puritanical show. All these paintings exist austerely as objects in their own right, not as pictures of something. They deal with purely visual, non-literary subject matter about the absence and presence of colour. In one case they take the logic of abstraction to the point where the painting is just the frame and the wall behind is the picture. That this is, to many, acceptable as art is a measure of the distance between last century and this.