Robyn Maree Pickens
Gretchen Albrecht: Between gesture and geometry by Luke Smythe (Massey University Press, 2019), 303pp., $80
Gretchen Albrecht: Between gesture and geometry has the heft and appearance of a monograph accompanying a major retrospective exhibition by an important senior artist. If such a retrospective at one of the country’s major public galleries is not in the planning stages, then this publication surely serves as a timely reminder of Albrecht’s significance as a New Zealand artist.
Albrecht pioneered impure abstraction: abstract painting that flourishes in the tension ‘between gesture and geometry’, as the book’s subtitle demarcates. Art historian Luke Smythe details in chronological order the conceptual and formal developments in Albrecht’s oeuvre from figuration to abstraction, an arc that takes in her stained canvases; her most well-known series, the hemispheres; and onwards to the oval paintings; before concluding with her ongoing exploration and experimentation with the language she has developed over her fifty-five-year career.
Smythe strikes an admirable balance between in-depth description of individual artworks and art historical analysis that contextualises Albrecht’s practice in both local and international art movements. As such the monograph would appeal to both art historical specialists and enquiring readers alike. Well-placed reproductions of artworks referenced in the text are placed in close proximity to assist and augment the reader’s experience of the book. In addition to these smaller reproductions, there are large full-page photographs of Albrecht’s work and a sequence of plates at the end of each chapter, some with foldout pages. The monograph opens with a warm introduction by Mary Kisler, senior curator at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and closes with a chronology and acknowledgements by artist and author. Gretchen Albrecht: Between gesture and geometry is a substantial and beautiful publication that Massey University Press can rightfully be proud of.
Smythe is to be commended for focusing on the art and working life of Albrecht, which may seem like an unnecessary observation, but all too often writing on women artists has foregrounded biography over creative output. Smythe concentrates fully on Albrecht’s artistic life, only drawing on biography and art history when they are relevant to his discussion of her work. His focus is evident from the opening lines of his introduction, which begins with a well-known quote by another dedicated abstract painter, Agnes Martin: ‘I paint with my back to the world.’ By beginning with Martin’s quote Smythe sets up a foundational relationship between the two artists that signals Albrecht’s seriousness about her own practice. A few sentences later he cites a studio note by Albrecht from 1983 that structures his own understanding and analysis of Albrecht’s work: ‘I think I paint to still the anguish I feel in my heart … To order the chaos I sense is just outside the magic circle I draw around me with my painting.’ As a structuring device or thematic, Smythe’s deployment of Albrecht’s studio note is sufficiently capacious to embrace the artist’s existential and conceptual engagements with life, birth, death and the rest of the natural world around us, and formally, with particular regard to the shaped canvases that characterise Albrecht’s practice.
In his introduction Smythe also makes his central claim for the importance of Albrecht in New Zealand art history. He writes, ‘by the mid-1980s an impure approach to abstraction had become the norm. Albrecht’s status as a pioneer in this regard needs to be acknowledged, something that has yet to occur.’ Albrecht, although recognised as an important New Zealand artist, has perhaps not been accorded the full recognition the author believes is owing to her. Smythe’s monograph can and should be read (in both senses of the word) as an attempt to flesh out Albrecht’s contribution to New Zealand art history, particularly to the trajectory of abstraction in this country. According to Smythe (and indeed it does appear to be the case), Albrecht was working in a mode of impure abstraction – the fertile commingling of gesture and geometry – in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when other celebrated New Zealand abstract artists such as Gordon Walters were working in a pure, or hard-edge geometric abstraction. Smythe’s point is that Albrecht’s strain of impure abstraction later ‘became the norm’. In other words, Albrecht was doing it first.
The book’s second chapter describes Albrecht’s artistic development towards what became known as the stained canvases. These acrylic works on vertical-oriented canvases and slender scroll-like supports are some of her most joyful works. The relationships she activates between colour, form and composition are some of her freshest, if not finest works. They demonstrate, perhaps more than any other series, Albrecht the supreme colourist, and are deceptively simply on first appearance. Comprising vertically stacked bands of colour, the bands variously stretch, hulk, bend, waver and wane across the short width of the canvas. In Early Morning Rising from 1973, to take one example, a slender peel of lime green hovers over a watery apricot stain in the centre of the canvas above a dark green band suggestive of hills at dawn, and beneath a dark purple, navy sky. Washes of lemon bounce between the central elements causing the eye to repeatedly sink in and be driven back out. In these stained canvases, the vertically stacked bands of colour suggest landscape forms, an association that is made emphatic by titles such as Early Morning Rising. Smythe makes an accurate comparison between these works and the stained canvases of US artist Helen Frankenthaler, who developed the technique, but of whom Albrecht was unaware at the time.
If chapter two and Albrecht’s work at this time can be characterised as gestural, the geometry – both in Albrecht’s painting and the book’s subtitle – appears in chapter three, which corresponds to the early 1980s and includes Albrecht’s development of the shaped canvas for which she is best known. Her earliest shaped canvas became known as the hemispheres, or split semicircles, that are rounded at the top and horizontally aligned with the ground below at the bottom. Smythe describes the hemispheres as ‘a vital dyad instead of a mere pairing of coloured shapes’. The distinction is important both conceptually and formally. In conceptual terms, the dyad invokes one of Albrecht’s most important themes: the annunciation. This dyadic relationship between messenger and recipient is expressed in formal terms by the abutment of one quadrant with the other. Smythe defines this type of abstraction as ‘connotative’. The hemispheres, that is, are less denotative than the earlier stained canvases with their stronger associations with the tangible, physical world.
Although Albrecht would return again and again to the hemisphere shape in subsequent decades, her attention shifted to a new shaped canvas she developed in 1989: the oval. In the development from hemisphere to oval, Albrecht left the grounded horizontal line of the hemisphere for a horizontally oriented oval that, by contrast, floats on the wall. In his discussion of Albrecht’s oval series Smythe emphasises the cosmic associations of the oval, including a small photographic reproduction of the Andromeda Galaxy and a Planck image of the Milky Way – both of which are horizontally ovoid. Without the anchoring foundation of the hemisphere’s horizontal line, Albrecht introduces between one and three crisply delineated rectangles and/or slender lines (both either horizontal or vertical). The oval series typically comprise a sequence of the geometric elements in dynamic play with gestural paintwork in the background. This series of work, perhaps more than others, validates Smythe’s emphasis on the tension between order and chaos in Albrecht’s studio note from 1983. In the oval series, not only is the ‘chaos’ of the gestural brushwork contained within a harmonious oval shape, but also the geometric elements, although spare, seem to offer the potential for order and restraint. As Smythe summarises towards the end of the book, ‘what matters most for Albrecht is to foster an experience of equilibrium by counterposing geometric stricture to the disorder of her gestural paintwork’.
In addition to reasserting the importance of Albrecht as a pioneer of impure abstraction in New Zealand art history, Smythe also endeavours to address the criticism of feminists towards Albrecht in the 1970s and 1980s – such as Cheryll Sotheran and Juliet Batten, who claimed her work was not feminist. It is an interesting and welcome moment when an art historian is fighting to have the female subject of his book included in the feminist movement. While it is fair to say that Albrecht did not make explicitly feminist activist work, it is also true that there are many ways of expressing a female experience of inhabiting the world. Although the debate is too expansive to go into detail about here, it was interesting to note that most of the texts Albrecht engaged with and alluded to in the titles of her paintings were by male poets and writers, such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. And try as I might, I find it difficult to extract a feminist take on patriarchal religious narratives important to Albrecht such as the annunciation. Perhaps these queries might be taken up in a near-future retrospective of Albrecht’s work, which this book rightly signals is overdue.
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is a writer, art critic, curator and PhD candidate in ecological aesthetics at Otago. Her art writing has appeared in Art New Zealand, Art+Australia Online, Art Asia Pacific online and ANZJA, and she is a regular contributor to Art News and the Otago Daily Times.