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.


Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more
Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the end of her classic debut
104490 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Books

Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the e…

by Sally Blundell

The two different endings of the beloved A Lion in the Meadow still provoke debate. So which is better, the 1969 original or the later, kinder one?

Read more
Mapping the second brain: The latest science on the effect of your gut bacteria
104884 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on th…

by Donna Chisholm

Most of us have heard the five-plus-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. But new research into gut health suggests that advice may need tweaking.

Read more