Senior Māori sculptor Matt Pine (Te Āti Awa, Te Āti Hau Nui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) lived in London in the 1960s, where he studied at Hornsey College of Art. While abroad, he was influenced by British constructivism and American minimalist sculpture. After his return to New Zealand in 1974, Pine developed works in the international minimalist style. These responded to place, and increasingly referenced Māori and Pacific architecture, design, and values.
This year, Te Papa invited Pine to revisit his 1970s works and make new site-specific interventions for the exhibition Māori minimalism and international influence. For this exhibition, Pine has installed four works that sit in conversation with paintings and screenprints by pioneering Māori artist Ralph Hotere and American painter Ad Reinhardt. Artist–curator Taarati Taiaroa, caught up with Pine as he was making the finishing touches.
Taarati Taiaroa: You had an artist project called Placement Projects at Auckland Art Gallery in 1978. It consisted of a series of works that responded to both the internal gallery space and an external site in Albert Park. I can see the four works you have made for this present exhibition are working in a similar way. They have an internal logic that is in conversation with the architecture of the gallery space and the works of Ralph Hotere and Ad Reinhardt.
Matt Pine: Placement Projects was specifically done for Auckland Art Gallery in ’78. A lot of them were line works, placed in a certain configuration. Well, of course you had those tiles, and a lot of [those line drawings] had to do with the size of the tiles. In this [present exhibition] I’m using an element of the space in some way. In here I’ve utilised the doorway [Line, 2016]. When this work was done originally, in Waikato Art Museum, this was just on the wall, and there wasn’t a door. You could see the space of the door, but there was no door there. It was just a wall. Exactly the same form, but just on a wall. And I think, in a way, this works much better. This is a kind of a development of that idea.
Taarati: Yeah, what I like about these works is their subtlety and simplicity. They need time. They are composed of simple structures that shift and emerge as you move around them.
Matt: Yeah, you can see the reflection in the floor, you can see the door. That’s interesting. And then you can see the other line going down, and the vertical line, and you’ve got Ralph’s [Black painting XV (1970) and Black painting XIII (1970)] shadows, so that’s another kind of aspect, isn't it? When you’re back here, you can follow the line through onto the floor. It’s sort of perfect for this particular corner space. That door height is probably just the height of his painting, isn't it?
Taarati: Many of your works are site specific, works that relate to a context or are precisely placed in relationship to their surroundings. What do you like about working in this way, in relationship to site?
Matt: I’ve done a lot of site-specific works, you know, like this [Centre line, 2016], which divides the space up, finding the centre of the space with the plumb bob.
I don’t know if you know about the Hansells sculpture projects? Hansells, a baking goods company from Masterton, ran sculpture projects for a few years. Hansells would invite artists to do sculpture in the gallery space and outside – I think that was in the 80s. When we were having the Hansells sculpture, the artists would arrive at a certain time on a certain day, and they’d open up, and you’d rush in there and try to find a space – it was a mad rush for spaces. You had to use the space. I just found that whole exercise very good. I think it was a quite interesting mental exercise. You had to get your head around the space, and then decide what you’re going to do with it. A bit like I did here.
Taarati: In the 1970s were you aware of Hotere and Reinhardt?
Matt: Well, I’ve known Ralph’s work for years. Ad Reinhardt, well, I knew his work. I find his work quite interesting, but I’ve always been into the hard-edge kind of work, and more into sculptors. I like the delineation of line, shape, and form, rather than being indistinct.
Taarati: Did you and Ralph Hotere ever have conversations around working?
Matt: Only when I had the Hodgkins Fellowship. I went out to see him, because I had never met him before. And I just went out and said hello, and we had a bit of a chat. But I mean, Ralph was never a social animal. He always kept to himself – very private.
Taarati: You had the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1979, in Dunedin, the year after you completed the Placement Projects exhibition.
Matt: That’s probably what got me into the fellowship, because I’d done a huge amount of work those previous two years. It was the perfect time to get it, because it gave me a year, a whole year, to work on all this new work.
When I was down there, I did about eight quite large works based on pā fortifications. I did a lot of research, researching different pā fortification sites, and then I started working on ideas for particular sites that I thought had potential. When I finished a work, I’d have an opening in the studio, get a few wines, and invite people in. I remember when Hone Tuwhare came in one time for an opening, when it was the one made with PVC pipes, and he just about tripped over. He said, ‘Who’s left this lying here?’ And I said, ‘Hey, watch that! That’s an art work, mate.’ (laughs)
After I completed a work, I’d take it all apart. The materials are reusable. So I’d just pack it all up and stack it somewhere down the end of the studio, and then I’d work on the next one. And then when that was finished, we’d have another opening. (laughs) So I think I did eight works, so I had eight openings.
Taarati: The 1979 ‘Fortification’ series, also known as ‘F’ series, references historical sites from the New Zealand Wars such as Gate Pā, Te Pōrere, and Rangiriri. What was your interest in the pā sites?
Matt: The main thing was the plan – the layout is what fascinated me. The fortification series was primarily about the way they planned the site, because they were very precise. They were quite complex systems. I was interested in the type of site it was, the way the space was utilised. And then I used the site for a basis to plan the work I’d do, and then I’d think about the material. Each work was like a plan view of a pā site. The main focus of each one was the entrance, because that was always fortified, and there was quite often an escape route out the back.
Taarati: The materials that you were using are building supplies that you can buy from a hardware shop.
Matt: Well, that’s right. I’ve used corrugated iron and rough-sawn pine. I’ve used everyday building materials quite a lot, and still do. The plumb bob is just your average plumb bob from the hardware shop, and of course the tape and string are all very basic materials.
Taarati: A lot of your site-specific works are conscious of internal architecture, reference specific places outside the gallery space, or are made in the landscape. Many of these works have been temporary – they are up for a short time, and then dismantled.
Matt: I used to borrow materials. Like when I used concrete blocks, I’d just borrow them from Firth for about a month, and then I’d just pay for any that were broken. So at the end of the month, I’d just take them back.
When I started using that material [rough-sawn pine] it was when I was teaching up at Tokoroa. I was at the high school, and I was able to get it from the mill, the big mill in Tokoroa there. I got as much four-by-two, rough-sawn timber as I liked. All I’d have to do is ring up and give them the sizes, and they’d ring me back and say the timber’s all done. The structure of a lot of the sculpture was very simple – almost like kitset building. Fixed together with pegs – I never used nails or screws. So it was either interlocking joints, or pegs. That’s how they fitted together, which means they could be taken apart easily.
The kitset is perfect for if you had a work in one space, and you wanted to move it somewhere else. You just took it apart, stack them, put them into a trailer, and move it to another site. So it was practical.
Taarati: What was your attraction to working with these types of materials and simple structures?
Matt: Well, I think probably the attraction of the artists and the types of work they were doing. One of the biggest impacts on me was seeing an exhibition of minimalism in London in the mid-60s at the Tate. It had Donald Judd and Robert Smithson and a lot of those artists from that period, American sculptors. I think that had the biggest effect on me, seeing that show. And at the same time, that sort of got me interested in researching other artists of that time.
Taarati: What in particular was striking about that show?
Matt: Well, I think it was the simple structures that they used. Sol LeWitt, his grid system. There was Dan Flavin, using fluorescent tube. And Robert Morris, he was another one who did some interesting work. And of course Robert Rauschenberg. Carl Andre, another minimalist, you know you couldn’t get more minimal than that! (Matt is pointing to an image of Carl Andre’s, Equivalent VIII (1966), which consists of 120 double-layered bricks in a rectangular configuration.)
Taarati: And I think I read that you helped install that show? So were you working at the Tate?
Matt: I did. Well, just for that show, and I suppose that was another reason why I was so influenced by it. The hands-on experience of it had quite a great effect on me. I got into that way of thinking. Well, I had a tendency of going in that direction anyway. That was probably one of the biggest influences on my work. It clicked in my mind and focused me on that kind of work – minimal.
Taarati: You are a prolific drawer, and your notebooks document many of the initial plans for your works. I found something in your old notebook from 1977 to 1978. At the back, there are some notes that are interesting to think about when viewing these new, revisited works:
Line can be thought of as a chain of points joined together.
- Kinds: straight, curvy, wavy, jagged, broad, fine
- Direction: horizontal, vertical, diagonal
- Qualities: bold, delicate, rigid, flexible, organic, inert
- Movements: slow, fast, quiet, active, tense, static, relaxed, rhythmic
- to interpret quality
- to delineate
- to devise
- to show direction
- Emotional effects of line: repose, dignity, dynamism, vitality, disintegration, sensitivity
Matt: Yeah, it gives you plenty to think about. And if you look, if you read that and think about it, it opens your minds up to lots of different possibilities. I give people something to think about visually that gives them something to think about conceptually. With words, you know. Drawing something from that.
Taarati: Yes, when I read these notes of yours, it seemed like a great artist’s statement – a means for the viewer to think their way into your work.
Matt: I’m never going to give things to people on a plate. I spend a lot of time on the work, and I’m not going to just give it to them. My work has never been like that. You’ve got to slow down, look at it, go away, and come back. If you want to take it in, you’re not going to get it in instant. You’ve got to work at it.
Taarati Taiaroa (Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Apa) is an Auckland based artist, writer and curator. Her research-based practice uses archives to investigate small narratives, site, print and environmental histories. Taiaroa is a participant in the 2016 Emerging Curators Programme, a professional development initiative for emerging curators facilitated by The Physics Room and Blue Oyster Art Project Space with the support of the Creative New Zealand.