Arts Te Papa is changing…

We’re building a spectacular new art gallery and making changes online.

The Arts Te Papa website will be shutting down soon, but head to Collections Online to find your favourite works from New Zealand’s national art collection.

Find out more about the new art space

Keep up to date with news from Te Papa

Other Te Papa Sites

Colour and voice

Artist Gretchen Albrecht interviewed by curator Mary Kisler


<P data-associrn="1473683"></P> <P>Gretchen Albrecht is one of New Zealand’s great colourists, whose works I have long been drawn to, not least because so many of them reflect in subtle ways my own interest in the meanings to be found in Renaissance art. She lives in a converted barn in Grey Lynn, Auckland, with her artist husband, James Ross. Her studio is on the first floor, up a steep set of steps lined with photographs and favourite objects. When you enter her studio, you are first confronted by a chest laden with papers and painterly detritus. The space behind it is where the actual painting takes place. When Gretchen and I sit down for our interview, my eye is immediately drawn to the floor, which is liberally splattered with paint. One or two canvases lean against the wall, including a tall, narrow strip painted a soft blue, like looking through a window at a cloud-speckled sky. Postcards are tucked into bookshelves or lean against one of the windows above a smaller table where Gretchen can write or think about her work. </P> <P data-associrn="1483097"></P> <P data-associrn="1483098"></P> <P>The forms of medieval and European Renaissance architecture &#8211; the lunette and the oval &#8211; often determine the shape of her canvases, while the gestural swoop and swirls of paint across their surfaces add depth and movement. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘universal man’, whose outstretched arms stand for the reach of human capability, seems pertinent when considering Gretchen’s paintings. Her abstractions reflect her observations of nature, the worlds of poetry, literature and art history, and the gains and losses of human emotion.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: At the age of 12 I went into the art room in my first couple of weeks at Mt Roskill Grammar School. The room was full of art: paintings, clay models, wire sculptures, a pottery room. I knew I had to take art. </P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Was there anyone special who influenced you?</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: The art teacher Colin De Luca was visionary, inspiring. Above our own work were reproductions of great paintings: A Matisse, a still life with oysters, a Cézanne, a Mont Sainte-Victoire landscape, Soutine, Braque, and Picasso. All the early moderns were reproduced there. We had to write short essays on each of the paintings, which meant researching the painter’s life and the history of that painting. It grounded us in art history as opposed to constantly thinking of art as a practical subject. </P> <P>Mr De Luca also hired documentary films. We saw Matisse painting <EM>Le grand nu (The great nude)</EM>, this big pink form on a checked cloth; him drawing it out, scraping the paint off, rubbing it out, redrawing it. I can see it in my mind’s eye as I talk to you. Most of the films were in black and white, but I recall the Matisse in colour. It taught me how hard it was to make a painting that was satisfying for the artist. With Matisse, it’s becoming more and more abstracted from the figure or the model in front of him. So he’s like a proto-contemporary for me, his bravery stepping into this totally extraordinary, last, lyrical manifestation of his art with the late cut-outs. </P> <P>Another film was of Picasso constructing a sculpture of a goat. He used a battered old wicker basket for the belly of the goat and handlebars of a bicycle for horns, creating this animal which must have then been cast in bronze at a certain point. Wonderful, how to make a sculpture out of flotsam and jetsam! There was also a Braque painting a stylish, flattened-out bird, quite different from Matisse or Picasso’s approach, and also Jackson Pollock painting on glass, painting outdoors. He’d pour enamel then throw stuff on it, including a bottle top. A cameraman also filmed the accretions of this rhythmic painting from underneath the glass slab. </P> <P>My other favourite subject at school was English. Mrs Field in my fifth form year sitting on the edge of the desk getting us to act out a scene from Shakespeare, reading to us from Palgrave’s <EM>Golden Treasury of Verse</EM>, creating in our minds this fertile literary body of work. Words and image fused at that point. </P> <P>At art school we had two American art history lecturers, Arthur Lawrence and Kurt von Meier, who came in as a blast of amazing energy. Arthur Lawrence was a scholar in Gothic and Romanesque, introducing me to architecture and art in the Gothic and Romanesque period. Kurt von Meier was a much more modern man, a dynamic, vibrant person, interested in the music and current literature of California. In my final year, he was watching me painting in oil paint, disguising myself in a narrative, and he took me to the Auckland Art Gallery and stood me in front of Frances Hodgkins’ <EM>Self-portrait: still life</EM>. He said, ‘You learn from this. You are trying to do what this woman did, using personal effects to talk about herself, or to stand in for herself.’ I had this revelation that this is how you could talk in painting about important things using metaphor, carrying that message through visually. </P> <P>One year I had to repeat, which I did under Jim Allen, who’d come in to teach sculpture. He cut enormous lengths of brown butcher’s paper, wrapping paper, and gave us pots of black paint and brushes and said, ‘You’re going to be drawing with this paint on this paper.’ And it absolutely freed me. Big linear drawings, taking sections of the figure, a knee, the curve of an arm, a breast, a hip. And that added into the mix.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: So scale gets added in as well as freedom… </P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: Scale, and a <EM>release</EM> of drawing. </P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Was there a particular moment when you decided that you would move into abstraction?</P> <P data-associrn="44716"></P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: I was working with the figure, but getting more vestigial in the work, with more areas of colour coming in. I had an exhibition of 50 linear drawings in 1964, line drawings of fantastic beasts and women. Gradually areas of colour were taking over. And then in 1970 there was a turning point. I laid my stretchers on the floor and did what I call my much larger tablecloth paintings. I put a white tablecloth onto the floor and threw foliage from the garden onto it &#8211; taro leaves, bamboo … That’s when I broke through into the garden paintings of 1971. </P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: What motivated you then to change, to start looking at different things? </P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: I was developing an interest in geographic location. I was living in Titirangi, just outside Green Bay. I’d met Jamie, and we would drive off at the end of a day to the West Coast beaches. So landscape or seascape became more important, entering the subject matter and pushing the figure out. Then we moved to Mt Eden for two years while my father built us a house right in the depth of the bush of Titirangi. Out the back window of this Mt Eden flat, beyond the tangled weedy garden, I could see a distant view of the Waitakere hills and the setting sun in the evening, when I came home from teaching at Elam art school. That became my subject matter for the gardens. So motivation is perhaps where you’re at in your life and what you see with your eyes and where you might be leading to. Which of course you don’t really know until you get there. But I think these dislocations of place were pushing me towards landscape. </P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Titles have always been very important in your works. Do you ever have a title in mind when you begin a painting?</P> <P data-associrn="1483100"></P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: No, I don’t. I have an area of interest I’m exploring and a painting is emerging at a point - a title might come to me somehow. It might be something I’m reading, or I’m looking in the thesaurus for a word that might be to do with a movement or running or floating, and it might jump out. It might be a poem. I have a lot of things that are sent to me from various friends &#8211; pieces of writing, for example. And if it comes and it feels right, I’ll put it on a piece of paper and pin it up on the wall where I’m working. Sometimes it stays there or sometimes it doesn’t feel right. This painting that we were looking at this morning of the blue and the pink, Colm Tóibín had a phrase in his latest book <EM>Nora Webster</EM>, ‘swimming into silence’. I wrote it out and pinned it up beside that painting and lived with it for a week but it didn’t really fit. And then I looked at the painting and I thought, no, I’m swimming into darkness here. So that’s the title of that painting. It’s not silence, it’s actually going into the depth of the deep blue. And the darkness becomes a metaphor for swimming into &#8211; we don’t know.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: The void.</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: Yes. We don’t know where we’re being taken. It’s unknown at that point. And I thought, that’s marvellous, it’s more open-ended.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: How do you start to paint? You’ve got your idea, but what kind of process takes place then? </P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: You are always working from the last painting or paintings into the new work. I like to have a whole lot of things happening in the studio. Sometimes, the ball will land and it’ll be fine, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yet I’ve found if I’ve taken a painting off the stretcher and rolled it up and labelled it failure, perhaps when I’ve unrolled it 5 or 10 years later, I’ve caught up with it. That’s an interesting thing: that sometimes your ideas are galloping ahead of your ability to see where you’re going.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: And also you see new possibilities and you can build and add and adapt to what you’ve done already.</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: Yes. It’s not linear. It’s stilted and stumbled and then you might get a good run at it and then you’ll get all sort of tripped up again. But I do think a painting will tell you things and you just need to be open to it. I think that the process of getting ready to paint is very important for me. Stretchers are ordered from my brother, (before that my father made them) often in a number of different computations of scale and size. They arrive, and when they’re stretched up some will feel right for the idea and others won’t. Then they’re stretched twice and washed in between to get the starch out or the flax residue &#8211; when first washed, Belgian linen is full of a browny, flaxy, Belgian linen-y liquid. That needs about three washes outside to get it clean before it’s re-stretched. These days my assistant does some of the really hard physical work, but I’m very much a part of each of those processes and I’m entering the work, metaphorically, all the time.</P> <P>By the time I’m ready to paint &#8211; when it feels right &#8211; I’ll start a painting or two, or three. There’s always a point where you need to draw back and just let the painting speak for itself. My habit of interfering can be disastrous &#8211; I can push a painting beyond its freshness. I’ve learnt now to stop before I get to that point, and let it just sit. </P> <P>The painting has its own life that you’ve initiated, but it’s telling you things at each point. Let’s say for instance, it’s saying it needs to be darker or it needs to be lighter &#8211; it’s a real problem if it says that, because you obviously can’t take away, you can add. And it’s got to come from a meaningful base. If you haven’t got anything to say, the painting’s not going to say it for you. Your experience and the area you’re mining for more imagery has to be deep enough for you to keep going. The moment you feel you’re standing still and not adding, you need to move on. The painting’s telling you … that I’ve got to increase my scale, I’ve got to change, my voice has got to have another colour in it. The things that I’ve been looking at may come to pass. I had a year of struggle after I came back from my trip in 1979. We were in Europe and England for 13 months. Then at the end of 1980 I went down to be the Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin and these semi-circular hemispheres emerged.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: What have you learnt about colour that could be good advice for students?</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: Each painter is developing their own voice and using colour in a specific way to talk to their audience. There is no formula. A student or an art student will find their voice through the colours they tend to use again and again. My advice to a student is, if they’re drawn to use orange and yellow and red, then keep on using them and see what they can say with that. Somebody else may tend to use a lot of black. Look at McCahon. He seemed to require black and white and words to make his paintings. He left behind bright colours. The Kaipara works, in which he used watercolour or gouache or maybe thinned acrylic, are very rainbow-like on paper, but you don’t see that appearing in the paintings after a certain point in time. So he obviously needed, to say what he wanted to say, to restrict his palette right down. I think this is the key. My advice to a painter is, find out what’s important to you, what you want as the content of your work, and the colour will come to it.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: What have been your biggest challenges to face as an artist?</P> <P data-associrn="1483096"></P> <P data-associrn="1483099"></P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: Keeping on going as a solitary painter in a studio, when you don’t really know what it is you want the painting to do. Pushing forward is always difficult and painful. It’s easier to remain where you are, because it’s always a risk you’re taking with each push you make in the work. I paint for myself first, and then they go out and hopefully affect others. So it’s got to happen in the studio and I cannot keep repeating. It has to move forward. Whether the work is going well or not well, you’re dragging the past with you into the future. </P> <P>The other challenge is being a woman - a woman painter - in a male world. People don’t describe male painters as male painters, but very often you read ‘best woman painter’ or ‘something’ woman painter. I’m lucky that I emerged out of art school at a time when the contemporary art world was shaping itself and dealer galleries were starting up. Everyone was looking at young, contemporary, New Zealand art and exhibitions were being put on. Possibly [Eric] Westbrook started them, certainly [Peter] Tomory<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> was hugely important &#8211; these were contemporary New Zealand painting surveys ranging from older statesmen painters like Woollaston, McCahon, Mrkusich, down to people like myself who were one or two years out of art school. I was very lucky that I was caught up in that beginning point.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Which artists would you say have inspired you or influenced your work at different times?</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: If I had to pick two favourites, it would be Piero della Francesca and Matisse, who are obviously hundreds of years apart. From Giotto onwards, Renaissance art is filled with emotion. When you think of Giotto’s people lamenting, you see the beginnings of form and three dimensional movement, still quite flat, but <EM>filled</EM> with emotion. Piero has this extraordinary ability to be almost abstract at the same time as pointing all the way to the High Renaissance. And he puts women in prominent positions, the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. His paintings are abstract, colour, statuesque, powerful images that spoke to me incredibly. And I’ve always loved Matisse. I see him as a proto-abstract artist, but his use of the figure is monumental too.</P> <P>In contemporary art, the work of Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Christian Boltanski, Richard Serra, and Donald Judd have all been very important at certain times in my painting life. Louise Bourgeois was obviously a highly eccentric and very difficult woman, but she made images out of her own life, strange and powerful paintings drawings and prints. Then her sculptures later in life, the great spiders, the mother spiders with their big, almost Picasso-like wire baskets holding rolled up balls of plastic for the spider’s eggs. The ones she did that stood in the Tate Modern were amazing. </P> <P>And my family has been an important area of subject matter for me over the years. My father’s death, for example, produced a whole heap of paintings that sprang out of my connection to him.</P> <P data-associrn="100434"></P> <P data-associrn="1391287"></P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Let’s talk about literature, and in particular about a work that’s just come into Te Papa’s collection, <EM>In a shower of gold</EM>, but also Leda, because mythology often weaves its way through your paintings as well.</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: It’s a rich area to mine for me, especially when there’s a woman involved. And the Leda and the swan story, where this woman is enfolded within the male swan’s arms and impregnated, immediately creates, in my mind, an incredible visual image. It seemed that the Romanesque arched form of the hemisphere I used was like wings enfolding within the semi-form. It allowed me to make a metaphor out of that Greek mythological story with the union between Leda and the swan, I could talk about the join of the hemisphere as their joining together, which is that act of impregnation. It’s the same with <EM>In a shower of gold</EM>. Zeus appears to Danae as a shower of gold, and I immediately thought of semen. I’ve always interpreted that myth as Zeus coming as a shower of gold: not gold coins, but fine golden dust that can penetrate anything, including her. And it struck me as a metaphor for bodily fluid, and I loved it.</P> <P>I also saw that these two women had their own part to play. They were not victims, they were participants in the story and I like that. A myth is such a wonderful disguise &#8211; quite close to metaphor &#8211; that I like to think I’m using in a painterly way. And also I could see a kind of <EM>visual</EM> thing about it. In fact when you untangle it, <EM>In a shower of gold</EM> is very straightforward. The lower right represents the steps to the bronze tower that the father imprisoned his daughter in because he’d been told by the gods that his grandson was going to be the instrument of his murder. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to her to produce a grandson. Of course that’s why Zeus came. And the father did get killed by Perseus in the end.</P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: There’s also a combination of the senses that’s taking place within a lot of your works.</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>. And there’s this fusion of architecture, art history, literature that somehow adds up to something visual that the painting springs out of. And without those three things, I can’t make the painting. Or the painting doesn’t seem to have a reason for existing. </P> <P><STRONG>Mary</STRONG>: Finally, if you were starting your career now, is there anything you think you’d do differently? Do you have any advice for young people wanting a career as an artist?</P> <P><STRONG>Gretchen</STRONG>: I don’t think I’d do anything differently, because I know that when you’re young and at art school, you’re only at the very beginning. You have to find the path to walk on, which is quite narrow at that stage, because you haven’t really experienced life. So you’re relying on quite a lot of things like technique. I always say, ‘Draw on your own subject matter. Go back to the things that are important to you. Go back to your own history and start building on that.’ When I was teaching at art school, we’d do simple things like still life, go out into the landscape, go to the seaside, the shore, and then dig back into memories of childhood and somehow try and make paintings out of very straightforward things. And eventually your work will get deeper and stronger. </P> <P>A lot of students come out of art school very talented, but this has to be coupled with a certain ambition, not trying to be a star, but an ambition for the work. The work has to move from amateur to professional, but you have to have perseverance and ambition for that work to grow. I think art’s a vocation, not a career, and there aren’t steps to take to move up the ladder. So if after 10 years of struggle you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter what talent you might have, or technique. But if you do feel that your layers and accretions &#8211; the baggage you’re carrying through life that you’re painting &#8211; interest you enough visually, then it will continue to grow. Because your life is conditioned by your experience, isn’t it?</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnote</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>First and second professional directors of Auckland Art Gallery.</LI></FONT></OL><P>&nbsp;</P>
Gretchen Albrecht with her painting; In a shower of gold, 2011.

Gretchen Albrecht with her painting; In a shower of gold, 2011.

Gretchen Albrecht&#39;s Auckland home studio. Photograph courtesy Gretchen Albrecht

Gretchen Albrecht's Auckland home studio. Photograph courtesy Gretchen Albrecht

Gretchen Albrecht&#39;s Auckland home studio. Photograph courtesy Gretchen Albrecht

Gretchen Albrecht's Auckland home studio. Photograph courtesy Gretchen Albrecht

Gretchen Albrecht in her Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

Gretchen Albrecht in her Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

Gretchen Albrecht in her Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

Gretchen Albrecht in her Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

Gretchen Albrecht&#39;s Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

Gretchen Albrecht's Auckland home studio. Photograph by Mary Kisler

image

Gretchen Albrecht, Blue/yellow: Leda, 1982, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 1983 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Gretchen Albrecht, Crimson bands, 1974, watercolour,
Purchased 1981.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Gretchen Albrecht, In a shower of gold, 2011, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz