The critic's role in the art scene explored

The Critic's Part Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971 – 2013
Edited by Christina Barton, Robert Leonard with Thomas Sleigh
Victoria University Press RRP $80

It says much about the changes in the New Zealand art scene that back in the mid-1970s there were only four dealer galleries in Auckland. Things have changed dramatically, with the city now boasting more than 10 times that many. This is one of the many pieces of information to be gleaned from a new book about the changing landscape of New Zealand art.

Not only has the art market developed and the number of artists increased, there has also been a major shift in the amount and quality of art writing. The Critic's Part is a collection of writings by Wystan Curnow Art covering the period 1971 – 2013 and, in 40 articles ranging across introductions, reviews and commentaries, Curnow provides an incisive look at aspect of the visual arts.

There are few arts writers and critics who have charted the development of the visual arts culture as keenly as Curnow, a former lecturer in English at the University of Auckland.

As well as being an academic, he has been involved in many arts initiatives and projects throughout New Zealand. He is a trustee of the Len Lye Foundation and was instrumental in establishing Artspace, the independent contemporary art gallery in Auckland.

He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005.

While he written about the development of the New Zealand visual arts culture since the 1970s, many of his writings have had limited exposure as they are in catalogues, journals and periodical with limited print runs.

This volume brings many of the writings together to present a comprehensive overview. One of the first essays in the collection is his introduction for the seminal book “Essays on New Zealand Literature’ published in 1973.

In his essay Culture in a Small Province he gives a short history of art in New Zealand over the previous 40 years and the struggle for high art in its battles with amateurism. It provides a starting point for much of his later writing as well as starting point for observing the changes of the last four or five decades.

Bringing these writings together not only provides an oversight of writing about art but also the way in which Curnow himself has developed an approach to talking about the visual arts.

Robert Leonard notes in his introduction to the book that Curnow always had an agenda.

He wanted to change things, to give New Zealand art a wider context and to up-skill the culture so that it could better engage and support what advanced artists were doing. "He also had an approach; he experimented with writing styles, seeking to develop new style of art writing to meet the ambitions of new forms of art.”

Curnow devoted much of his writing to new contemporary, abstract and conceptual art writing on a few artists in depth – Billy Apple, Colin McCahon, Max Gimblett, Gordon Walters and Stephen Bambury.

He also devotes space to some major international artists including a review of the big Morris Louis exhibition in Auckland in the1970s, probably one of the most significant contemporary art shows to have come to New Zealand at that time and he writes about Immants Tillers, the Australian artist much influenced by Colin McCahon as well as Robert Smithson.

Curnow has always attempted to transfer or translate the artist’s ideas and concerns and he tries to find the right language, images and ideas to allow his audience to both see a way of comprehending the artist's work as well as letting the audience see how he uses language to show how he grapples with the task.

His writing style often reflected the Tom Wolfe style of New Journalism, combining the quotidian with the academic. Christina Barton refers to one of Curnow’s pieces in which he prefaces a discussion of the artist's work by talking about the fact that the gallery had been closed when he arrived so had coffee next door.

She notes “Curnow allows the mundane to filter in unadulterated.

He mixes art, life, setting and truns the abstract, universal time of the art he describes into something real and durational.”

He writes on several occasions about the equinox performances in the Mt Eden crater by Solar Plexus, Bruce Barber and Phil Dadson with one of the pieces “Bruce Barber; Mt Eden Crater Performance” of 1973 being an almost poetic account composed of brief snippets of observations, commentary, descriptions and personal encounters as he morphs between being observer and participant.

This book is essential reading anyone interested in the development of New Zealand visual arts over the past 50 years.