Multiplying the angles

by Jill Trevelyan / 22 January, 2015
Jill Trevelyan examines a collection of art critic Wystan Curnow’s best work.
Billy Apple, Wystan Curnow
Billy Apple, left, and Wystan Curnow outside the Auckland Art Gallery in 1982. Photo/Chacha

Wystan Curnow has written about New Zealand art for more than 40 years, and is arguably our most important critic: insightful, formidably well-informed and lacking nothing in nerve. He is also a lucid and engaging writer. The Critic’s Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013 is an elegant, timely publication, bringing together a generous survey of his work.

Curnow was shaped by seven years in the United States in the 1960s, a time of social, political and artistic ferment that spawned a flurry of new art movements. Returning to Auckland in 1970, he brought an appetite for the new and the experimental, and a mission to raise the bar for serious criticism in New Zealand.

The text that announced his agenda was “High culture in a small province”, an incisive critique of the local art scene. Unapologetically elitist, he attacked New Zealand’s inward-looking nationalism and complacency, arguing for a greater degree of specialisation and high-level support for the arts. Only then, he predicted, would artists have the “psychic insulation” required to do their most ambitious and experimental work. This idea – borrowed from American sociologist Morse Peckham – underpins Curnow’s work, recurring in the most recent essay in this book, a critical reflection on the management theory that drives our universities.

Because he has never been a critic-for-hire, Curnow has retained the ability to focus on what most interested him. He has written about relatively few artists but considered them repeatedly and in depth, and his work on Colin McCahon, Billy Apple and Len Lye forms the heart of this book. Also of special interest is his work on the “post-object” art scene that emerged in Jim Allen’s sculpture department at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1970s. Writing about performance and installation, Curnow took on a special role. “It is left to the critic alone,” he wrote, “to preserve that experience, to resist the ephemerality of the works … Whatever was good about them must be singled out by circling them in memory, multiplying the angles, opening them up to consciousness so that they may be reclaimed for consciousness.”

Curnow has never shied away from admitting New Zealand art’s marginality on the world scene. “Be honest, have you ever heard of New Zealand art?” he asked his readers in Studio International in 1984. As a critic he consistently attempted to place local artists in a wider context; as a curator he developed a network of international collaborators in a push to get New Zealand art seen overseas. He gravitated to artists with an internationalist outlook, such as Apple, Lye and Max Gimblett, and helped to establish a wider context for McCahon, asserting his relevance to 20th century modernism. At the same time, he brought a critical antipodean approach to the view from the “centre”, challenging the assumptions that fuel the global art world.

The Critic's Part, Wyston CurnowAbly edited by Christina Barton and Robert Leonard, A Critic’s Part is more than a collection of essays: it serves as an insight into the development of New Zealand art, illuminating a period of rapid change through the eyes of one of our liveliest and most astute commentators.

THE CRITIC’S PART: WYSTAN CURNOW ART WRITINGS 1971-2013, edited by Christina Barton and Robert Leonard (VUP, $80).


Writer and curator Jill Trevelyan is author of the award-winning Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer.


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