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Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

Gretchen Albrecht in her Auckland studio. Photo/Simon Young/Listener

A substantial new book charting the 50-year career of leading abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht reveals her constant push for new directions. Her paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

You were just 16 when you started studying at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts in 1960, straight from the sixth form at Mt Roskill Grammar School. What sort of work were you making at that stage?

As with all new entrants, I was coming with sixth-form art, which was still life, and plunged into a very academic course. It was still life, painting and landscape, all taught with a very 19th-century academic Slade School [of University College London] bent. I enjoyed it.

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Doing an abstract painting never occurred to us. When [painting teacher] Louise Henderson came in in our third year, I remember this little Frenchwoman waving her arms around and telling us to be more abstract and use more colour and more shape. We were all thinking, “Well, how do you do abstract painting?” It was so not in our sights.

After graduating with honours in 1964, you started to open yourself up to abstraction. What was the attraction?

Its potential is infinite. It allows me to move in any direction I want. When I left Elam, I was feeling my way. There are paintings I did from photographs, such as my father on his motorbike. I was trying to move towards something that was to do with shape and colour based on early figurative work. But I left oil paints behind and moved into acrylic, and then it loosened up. The first of what I would call paintings moving towards abstraction were the Tablecloth paintings, from 1970.

Black Rose, by Gretchen Albrecht. Photo/Supplied

Your personal circumstances had changed, too, with the birth of your son, Andrew, in 1961, a short marriage and a subsequent separation [she married artist Jamie Ross in 1970]. In a practical sense, how did you manage to work during this post-graduate period?

Dad built a house for me and Andrew in Godley Rd, Titirangi. There was no studio, but the living room was big enough for me to put home-made stretchers [the wooden frames for stretching the canvas taut] on the floor.

I remember Colin McCahon saying [of his work], “You can tell where I am at any given time by looking at the paintings”, and it’s true. I was in the house for five years and I established a garden. It was all grist to the mill of providing me with the immediate subject matter. It still is.

With son Andrew in 1961. Photo/Supplied

Then, because it was close to the west coast, we started to do trips at the end of the day, because I had started teaching [establishing a new art department at Kelston Girls’ High School in 1967]. I was looking at the sky, the sea. This is still my subject matter – not always the sky and the sea, but it’s very much a real experience percolating through the work to this day.

In 1981, you were awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago. This was where you first started work on the hemispheres, beginning with the purple-blue and scarlet Cardinal.

Cardinal was the first hemisphere I ever did, with the colours of priestly vestments. Cardinal also means first, and that is a major part of the title. It has two parts joined into one by the seam, which is bolted together. Also, there is a bird called a cardinal, which we mostly associate with being scarlet, but there are rarer blue cardinals, too. There is also an association with a Piero della Francesca painting of Christ tied to a post being flagellated, with Pilate sitting in judgment wearing blue and red. You don’t need to know that to look at the work, but it’s helpful.

Photo/Simon Young/Listener

As the hemispheres got larger – your Aotearoa – Cloud (2002) commissioned for your 20-year survey Illuminations at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is 250cm x 500cm – how did you reach the centre as you worked?

I scuttle around. I manage with a bit of a Heath Robinson arrangement of a plank and a few bricks. If they are very big, as with Aotearoa – Cloud, I couldn’t get into the centre unless I put a plank up and knelt and moved into the middle. Painting is very physical – well, it is for me.

I know from a book I’ve got on Jackson Pollock that he did work all the way around, even stepping into the painting. That’s how I feel when I am making my paintings, that I am in it. It is very much part of the process; it pulls out the potential of the unseen, and then it’s visible.

Do you do a lot of research and experimentation?

I do no research, nor do I experiment. What I do is intuitive and it either works or it doesn’t. Each work pushes me to the next, so there is change involved. Sometimes I can work for a while on something that isn’t where I want to go in the end, but it’s not like it’s wasted time. It’s been fruitful, but it’s not the next step.

Photo/Simon Young/Listener

What comes first, the painting or the title?

It varies. A word may enter my head, such as “harvest”, let’s say. I do love words. I’ve got a lot of dictionaries and I like onomatopoeic sounds and words that evoke something. “Harvest” lets me immediately see fields of gold, stalks. That might not produce a painting, but it might suggest moving towards golds, ochres, reds or browns.

Or a work may not have a title, so it sits on the wall for a while until it tells me its title. I’ll write it on a piece of paper and pin it on the wall and see if it fits. I have never numbered my paintings. A painting given a number says this is an object. The title is one portal to enter the work. It’s not the only portal, but it gives a clue to how my thinking and feeling were at the time I was doing it.

In the late 1980s, you expanded your shapes to include ovals, but rejected the idea of the circle. Why?

A circle is too target-like and although a circle is continuous, an oval felt right for me. The circle I dismissed immediately – it felt masculine, it felt hard, I associated it with bullets. You see people in cop movies shooting at targets. I hated all that association.

Whereas when I did an oval, it flows. A hemisphere relates to the ground, relates to the person standing in front of it, standing on terra firma. An oval floats in space and it grabs the wall around it. It suggested I could move my thinking out there up in space, out into the cosmos.

Albrecht’s parents, Joyce and Reuben, in 1937. Photo/Supplied

Your father, Reuben, was still making your stretchers until 1990, but you had to retire him. What happened?

He made my stretchers from the time I went to Elam right up until the first ovals. But he got very shaky with the skill saw and I could see it wasn’t perfect, and it has to be perfect. My younger brother, Michael, had taken up cabinetry, so I asked him if he could do it, and he’s been making them ever since.

How did your father take the news?

It was terrible to break the news to Dad, but he was very ill. He had to go into hospital in Whitianga, which is where he and Mum had retired. His lungs were clogged up. I told him and he nodded.

Reuben died in 1995. After a period of profound grief, you created a very moving series, Meditation on the Life of My Father, which you showed at the Sue Crockford Gallery in 1996. One of them, Meditation (Lung), represented his illness.

Dad had emphysema, his lungs were completely shot – he was a smoker all his life. This Lung painting had a slightly poisonous colour – I don’t want to put people off. Who owns that? Oh, I do, ha ha – of phlegm. The combination of purple, red and green can be beautiful, but I wanted to talk about the fact that he was ill.

When we scattered his ashes, we threw them off the cliff down into Lonely Bay, where Dad used to take his boat. It was good fishing, he said, the closest thing to paradise you could ever find.

Photo/Simon Young/Listener

So, we all lined up and hurled the ashes off, then something amazing happened. Jamie had my camera recording this event. I had a good handful of the most incredible crystalline white ashes, probably crushed bone, and I went “whoosh”. Jamie took a photo and it was the most perfect oval shape in the air. So, that was Dad’s spirit and it gave me the white and grey oval that I called Meditation for Reuben Albrecht (Spirit).

Years later, when Mum died [in 2004], we did the same with her ashes to join Dad’s at Lonely Bay. It was very windy, so we decided to move downwind, but my younger brother and sister said it had to be in the same spot. The first handful went all over us. Then we moved downwind. Oh, God.

Let’s talk about your Roses in the Snow show at Sue Crockford in 2010, in which ovals are also shaded by a family tragedy.

My daughter-in-law, Chris Taylor, a New Zealander, and my son, Andrew, were living in the US. [Andrew is a statistician at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where he is an associate professor.] They would come here for Christmas breaks, and they were with us for Christmas in 2009. They were both very fit, physical people. We went for lots of walks on the west coast beaches, then they went home in January. I got an email from Andrew saying, “Hi Mum, got home, thanks for a fantastic holiday.”

Five days later, the phone rang and I hear this squeaky little voice. It’s Andrew, sounding like a seven-year-old. He said, “Mum.” I sat down and said, “What is it, darling?” He said, “Chris is dead.” Oh, my God.

She’d caught a cold, I think on the plane, and it started to sit on her chest. She decided after the third day she’d have a day’s rest in bed. She sent Andrew off to the supermarket and when he came home, she was dead. She’d died of pulmonary obstruction. The autopsy found the arteries leading to and from her heart were full of plaque and one of them had congested. She was 46.

When Andrew got home, he called out to her that he was making soup and he carried it up. When I got there, I found the soup bowl and spoon still under the bed. My son walked towards me and he looked like a ghost, completely white. It was a nightmare.

Before that, I had started doing what I called my “radiant” paintings, putting my garden roses in an ovoid form within a rectangle. I had done one and when I looked at it when I got back home – I was with Andrew for three months – it just looked too cheerful, so I blacked it out and it became Black Rose. After that, I thought, “Now, I’m going to do paintings to commemorate the life of Chris.”

I called the show Roses in the Snow. For her funeral, I asked the florist to place 46 long-stemmed crimson roses on her casket, then we took them back to Andrew’s house. When they died, I started to take them out to the rubbish, but the deck was covered in snow, so I grabbed the rail to stop slipping and they fell into the snow. I took a photo and used that for my [exhibition] invitation. That’s how my paintings come about – triggered by real experience. It may not be quite as tragic, hopefully not too often, but that’s how it transmutes into my work.

Gretchen Albrecht: Between Gesture and Geometry, by Luke Smythe (Massey University Press, $80)

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.