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.


Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.


Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitious failure
98994 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Movies

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitiou…

by James Robins

Released in 1977, Dario Argento’s campy Suspiria was a landmark in cult horror. Now, director Luca Guadagnino has remade it in a new style.

Read more
Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on his 'cultural schizophrenia'
98517 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Books

Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on hi…

by Craig Sisterson

Abir Mukherjee uses India’s painful struggle for independence as the backdrop for his Sam Wyndham detective stories.

Read more
Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's restaurant evolution
93848 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's…

by Alice Neville

Restaurant veterans Chris Rupe, Krishna Botica, Tony Adcock, Geeling Ching and Judith Tabron reflect on the Auckland dining scene.

Read more
Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is good too
97751 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is go…

by Metro

Head to one of these Metro Top 50 Cheap Eats and 50 under $50 restaurants for BYO dining that won't break the bank.

Read more
Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La Fuente
99033 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La …

by Jean Teng

Mezcal was once regarded as a tipple for the lower-class – now it's the hero at new bar La Fuente.

Read more
Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair
98673 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Forget the love trysts, our relationship with Chin…

by Bevan Rapson

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in NZ.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man walking
98830 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man …

by Bill Ralston

The National Party’s ongoing ructions suggest a long spell in the wilderness lies ahead.

Read more
The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation
98735 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z History

The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Faceb…

by Karl du Fresne

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

Read more