PRINT September 2003


GLOBALIZATION, OUR MANTRA OF THE MOMENT, only carries so far where art is concerned. A case in point: A major contemporary of Rothko, Newman, Pollock, Twombly, and Johns—an artist fully at their level of achievement—is in the midst of his first major touring retrospective. Most of you reading this will be in no position to see it.

The artist is Colin McCahon, and, yes, he is that good. The exhibition, titled “A Question of Faith” and curated by Marja Bloem, originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a venue of no small historical prestige. Despite the best efforts of its organizers, however, no partners in Europe or North America could be secured, and so the show has traveled directly to a series of key sites in the Southern Hemisphere, where it still has one stop to go—the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, November 15–January 18, 2004—after its current outing at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

“A Question of Faith” assumes a place at the end of a series of retrospectives devoted to the above list of modernist grandees, one that began with the Museum of Modern Art’s Twombly show in 1994 and has rolled out in steady progression to conclude with the Newman exhibition that opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year. With the exception of McCahon’s, all of these exhibition projects were operating within a relatively narrow margin of possible discoveries and potentially fresh interpretations. Bloem, by contrast, had the equivalent of a new world to offer, and hers might well become the most lasting—if least heralded—of these curatorial interventions. But the museum-class guardians of order in the history of modern art have denied most audiences any chance to test that proposition for themselves, along with a precious opportunity to rethink the foreclosed possibility of high-modernist painting as narrative of place and state of mind.

That McCahon’s career has long eluded the regard of the international art world comes as no real surprise. Apart from a bare few months spent in trips to Australia and the United States, he lived out his entire life and career in New Zealand. Born in 1919, he both endured and exploited his country’s geographical isolation, which persisted over much of his life (he died in 1987). Not that McCahon did a great deal to aid his own cause—though one doubts that he would have recognized international self-promotion as a cause worthy of his commitment. When he traveled to the United States in 1958, an ideal moment to assess the great decade of New York School abstraction, he did so in his capacity as deputy director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, rarely revealing, in scores of visits to museums, galleries, and studios across the continent, that he was himself an artist. Indeed, despite a fierce sense of vocation and prodigious productivity as a painter, printmaker, and set designer, he had difficulty imagining his art as a professional proposition until late in his life. On resigning his last paid, full-time employment—at age fifty-one—in order to devote himself only to painting, he wrote, “I am only now, and slowly, becoming able to paint in the mornings. After a lifetime of working—farming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the Auckland City Art Gallery—I find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work-time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.”

The life story encapsulated in that remark sums up a saga of genuine hardship and punishing resistance to his ideas. It’s a time-honored avant-garde script, but McCahon lived it: When he painted Six days in Nelson and Canterbury, 1950, he had just journeyed several hundred miles on a bicycle looking for seasonal work in the fields; his first job at the Auckland City Art Gallery was as a janitor. The irony of his experience lay in his resolute pursuit of an unprivate painter’s idiom that could communicate in society as widely and immediately as possible. Any aesthetic nicety that stood in the way of this goal he sacrificed as an impediment and distraction. He cherished Cubism, Suprematism, and de Stijl, absorbed painstakingly from reproductions, then confirmed by the Gris and Mondrian shows he saw in America. But he wanted none of their private and esoteric character, regarding their vaunted difficulty as no more than an accidental effect. Looking at the historical record of modernist abstraction through McCahon’s eyes, one sees how narrowly it has been construed in terms of a spatial phenomenology. For him, no painter’s mark could be contained in any one register of experience; each reverberated unstoppably through the human storehouse of signs, devices, alphabets, and rhetorical figures. Where Rothko felt driven to “pulverize” all “finite associations” as the price of his abstraction, McCahon assumed that no association could possibly be finite. In their unbidden correspondences lay his “way through” the obdurate surface of the canvas to deeper and larger meanings that few abstract painters have been able to articulate with his precision.

As the scale of his work expanded to match his American contemporaries, he stuck with the symbols he knew, largely from the Bible and the codes of Christian belief, though he significantly extended his reach in the late 1960s to embrace Maori ritual and poetry. As New Zealand pursues its remarkable national effort to create an integrated country of two cultures, McCahon’s visualization of speech and thought in its two languages has made him its national artist—though not without argument—in a way that transcends the chauvinism and patriotic cant normally attached to such a role. It hardly needs saying that the significance of such an achievement in art today exceeds any limitation to one locality.

Marja Bloem’s exhibition aims to capture and convey the core of McCahon’s legacy by concentrating on faith and its necessary opposite, the key modernist theme of uncertainty. The show has entailed a single-minded commitment on her part, stretching over years, to make it a success. I spoke with her on a stopover in Los Angeles on her way from Amsterdam to move the show from Auckland to Melbourne. The following is a record of our conversation. Count it as a small effort to anticipate a different art-historical future. —TC

THOMAS CROW: There are strong themes of journey and passage throughout Colin McCahon’s work, and there had to be a considerable journey on your part even to get to the work, and to establish what it is that the people outside of New Zealand and Australia should know about him. It would be intriguing to hear about this passage of your own, because it was not straightforward or immediate, was it?

MARJA BLOEM: In the 1996 exhibition “Under Capricorn: The World Over,” which the Stedelijk organized with the City Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand, I saw one painting that I found unforgettable, and that was McCahon’s Walk. Beach Walk: Series C [1973]. That painting made an enormous impression on me because the Dutch have such a tradition in seascape painting, and this canvas has that same kind of light, the sense of the sea, the surf, the air. I didn’t realize then that he was representing Muriwai—a specific black-sand beach near Auckland where he had a studio—with its white foaming surf and misty sky. You see the different colors, but you catch an atmosphere that makes you aware of how beautiful this landscape is.

It turned out, of course, that his impulses were completely different than I had imagined. McCahon made long beach walks, but, depicted in such paintings as this work, they were not purely descriptive but instead a metaphor for life. It echoes that English tradition of taking long walks and using them as allegories—you might compare it to the work of Richard Long. McCahon is a modernist, but one on the periphery. His daily life triggered metaphorical thoughts, human doubt but also affirmation, in a language he had to invent himself, something totally different than anything I had come across before. I live in a very secular society and don’t have that close connection to the Bible: One can respond to medieval and Renaissance religious painting, but it’s history, and I was a little bit flabbergasted to come across somebody in the mid-twentieth century for whom religious painting is absolutely not history, but a reality. I’m not saying that McCahon was simply an undoubting believer or fixated on religion like a fundamentalist. That’s not at all the case. He just used the language of religion to express his own doubts and his own passage in time.

TC: So it’s a form of quotation, a tactic that’s familiar in later twentieth-century art—McCahon himself spoke of his “glad acceptance of Pop art”—but quotation or appropriation from the text of the Bible is not a familiar move. How is this device in McCahon’s hands like or unlike the kinds of quotations from secular sources that we’ve grown used to in Pop, assemblage, or appropriation?

MB: I have a problem with the word “quotation” to begin with, because for me it now carries the implication of an intellectual exercise—it’s too tied to outdated postmodernist thinking, and postmoderism is over. I don’t think that he uses quotation in that sense. It’s difficult to explain, but . . . it’s his real life. I mean, it’s as if you make a painting of a tree; you wouldn’t call the tree a “quotation.” The tree is there, and you see it all the time, and you live with it. For McCahon, both the tree and the painting are the reality, but it’s also a form of language that he hoped his public would understand. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise.

TC: You chose to call the exhibition “A Question of Faith.” Can you expand on that choice of words? Belief in the sense of dogma, you’re saying, is not central to McCahon’s project, but there is no ironization of belief either. So how does it fall between those two poles?

MB: “A Question of Faith”—I got the idea because he used the phrase in one of his paintings on the story of Lazarus, and it makes clear that McCahon is full of doubt and constantly questions any form of faith: He doubts his ability to be a painter, he doubts if he is able to make a connection with his public, he doubts if his message is really worthwhile for the rest of the world or if it’s only his own personal struggle. His whole life is about doubt and affirmation, and I could recognize that as something typical for the mid-twentieth century. I believe in his art, but his own faith in it ultimately failed, because he stopped painting at a certain point.

TC: And when was that?

MB: This was 1982. He died in 1987, so he didn’t paint during the last five years of his life. The story is that he used to go to his studio and sit around. You can follow his decline because he chose to write his doubts on the canvas, in a painterly way, using texts from Ecclesiastes. Yet you still see little fragments of landscape or light, so it is not just text. It becomes clear how he increasingly gives up hope. From the earliest paintings through the main body of his oeuvre, there is a constant acknowledgment of the possibilities of faith; but in the last paintings this evaporates, and in his very last painting he says it would be better never to have been born.

TC: For people looking to connect McCahon to art that they know, there might be two obvious poles. In Europe he would be readily tied to someone like Beuys, who also adopted a prophetic voice. An American audience would probably choose to see something of Newman, Rothko, or Still in these great expanses of pigment and stabbing gestures of white. Can you talk about the pitfalls of choosing either of these paths or, alternatively, where they might offer some genuine connection?

MB: You can make comparisons, but McCahon wasn’t really aware of these people. He lived in New Zealand, which was then quite isolated. Newman, of course, was concerned with belief and faith, but in a thoroughly different way. Although McCahon possibly saw paintings by Newman in the late 1950s on his one trip to America, he hardly ever spoke about them. I’ve never found a mention by him of Rothko, and when McCahon talks about people or painters he met and liked, they are mostly painters outside the established canon. One has to understand that in McCahon’s time, the arts in New Zealand were integrally involved in establishing a national identity. One couldn’t readily admit being influenced by contemporary artists from America or Europe. Coming from such an outsider culture, he thought completely differently. He knew everything by reading and seeing reproductions, and it was something totally different for him when he finally had the experience of seeing the real paintings. He also visited Allan Kaprow’s studio and saw a performance by him, which was enormously important for McCahon—equally as important as seeing Pollock and the work of Mexican muralists on that same trip to New York.

TC: Say a little more about that.

MB: In 1958, he went to Kaprow’s studio and saw one of those paintings done in the course of a Happening. McCahon said that it was the most beautiful and “contemporary” painting he’d ever seen. From then on, a major interest of his was to produce paintings that the viewer could walk past, so that one can express time in painting. In fact, he had been trying to do this early in his career. When you see the painting from 1950, Six days in Nelson and Canterbury, he is striving to create an image of the passage, the journey, but he doesn’t really yet know how to do it. The painting looks like a filmic sequence, but it’s definitely the biblical six days of creation, so in that image he already conflates the passage of time. Then suddenly, after he has seen that Kaprow—and Pollock and Diego Rivera—he understands that you can make work in a linear sequence, which you can hang around four walls or three walls; it doesn’t matter. That is when he starts making paintings that are up to sixteen meters long.

TC: He also begins to articulate them with abstract signs, numbers and more and more words.

MB: He first experiments with numbers as signs in the late 1950s, but they reach their full potential after 1966, when a convent in Auckland asked him to make a decoration for their clerestory windows, and a cycle of the stations of the cross for their chapel. He realized that the stations follow not only an anecdotal story but also the same idea of the sequence, of the passage of time, and that each station is just one moment for reflection. It’s not so important exactly what happens in the story; it’s more that you think about what’s happened in one life. In the first significant version after his completion of the commission, McCahon does not represent the anecdotal facts such as Christ being nailed to the cross. Instead, he paints an abstracted landscape with a waterfall—which inscribes a cross shape while also alluding to the tears of the weeping onlookers.

In the later versions, he just represents the stations by numbers or the Roman numerals I through XIV. In the early 1960s, McCahon had been taking lessons in Catholicism. Much of the Catholic teaching is based on numbers, even in the construction of churches. He combined his fascination with numerical ordering systems, signs and symbols, teaching techniques and spirituality, not by representing actual facts but by creating a mood. This is another respect in which he is different from Newman, because Newman’s Stations have no actual relation to what is being represented. The canvas is just a place to express “the human cry.”

TC: In these mnemonic exercises of Catholic catechism, one tries to remember the essential truths through their reduction to signs. In McCahon’s treatment of virtually everything—the life cycle, the features of the landscape, the experience of death as condensed and exemplified in the Crucifixion—he’s seeking a way to render all those different levels through a more and more stringent economy of means.

MB: The technique is so totally different, so experimental that you can’t really see it in reproduction. When he started painting in the 1940s, he looked at medieval art in particular because he perceived the same content there that he was thinking about. But then he left all those images further and further behind. He became less anecdotal, but not actually more abstract. Yet his audience—only New Zealanders—at that time had little interest in those images; they were far more concerned with representation of their own surroundings and landscape. And so he tried to give the landscape a new meaning, or a meaning that his audience could understand. But finally he just uses letters and numbers and doesn’t really paint representations of scenes or events.

TC: The stark, white-on-black technique using unstretched canvas, which he favors from about 1970 onward, seems always to imply a fundamental act of creation. You can see the white dividing and articulating what would otherwise be a void, and that act of creation, which can be traced back to the division of light from darkness in Genesis, seems to me to be the consistent drama of the work. Every painting in a way becomes the first painting and therefore has to go back to first things, in both technical and thematic terms.

MB: For McCahon, the white line is the line of creation. White is light, and it’s the light of life. He makes that very clear when he talks about his inspiration in religious references such as Moses striking water from the rock. In this respect he also mentions William Hodges, the official painter on Captain Cook’s second voyage, whose 1775 painting of a New Zealand waterfall inspired McCahon in 1964, when he came to the conclusion that his recent paintings were too intellectual and that he wasn’t reaching his public. But, in a certain way, what you point out is exactly what I tried to do with this exhibition, to show that aspect, because I think that’s the most important in McCahon. His way of painting and thinking is definitely a reduction, and every painting is like a first. He remained a colorist too, with black itself being as much a color for a painter as any hue.

TC: There are other colors, to be sure, most often variations on an intense ocher that evokes earth or sun, and that also harks back to the celestial gold leaf of late medieval painting. But his lettering—freehand block capitals set against cursive scrawls—still tends to dominate one’s attention. There’s a quotation of his from 1961, very well known in the McCahon literature but unknown to most of the people who will be reading this interview, in which he talks about his new work “needing no support and possibly having the impact of a hoarding [a billboard] rather than a large painting.” He adds, “I will need words.” In light of what you said earlier about his last paintings, might one see the attenuation of iconic allusion in his art—its limitation to the barest kind of sign system and the taking over of so much of the surface of his major canvases with writing—as a gradual giving up on painting itself, with language becoming its substitute in a sort of written-over version of Malevich’s Black Square?

MB: “I will need words.” Of course, it’s a fantastic quote, and it comes from a letter to John Caselberg, one of the poets he often worked with. It was an appeal by McCahon to Caselberg to provide him with texts for a major painting on the threat of nuclear warfare. It’s a typical twentieth-century thing that words and writing become much more part of painting. Beuys comes to mind; Kounellis does it too. You could think of many other examples, but one of McCahon’s utmost achievements is that he can transform writing into painting—and that this is about meaning. It’s not like those painters in the early twentieth century using letters and torn Metro tickets to enliven their surfaces. He uses the language of poets and prophets because he feels close to them. He also preferred to use another voice besides his own, although always to say what he wanted to say. He’s aware that that kind of language has a more direct connection with his public, especially the New Zealand poets involved in this search for national identity.

Still, I’ve always felt quite ambivalent about using that specific quote. It sounds too much like a painter crying out “I will need words” because he doesn’t have them. Yet in an autobiographical note in 1966, McCahon says that, even as a child, he knew he wanted to be a painter when he saw a sign writer paint letters on the glass of a tobacconists’ shopwindow. It’s so different, sign writing, but you can see that to him it’s also a matter of light and darkness.

TC: Both his knowingly naive lettering style and the way he treats the normal English cursive hand seem intentionally demotic. It’s the kind of thing you see in butchers’ and greengrocers’ signboards done in whitewash on a blackboard. It’s from the vernacular, but it provides him with a fluid and adaptable rhythm, a swelling and fading of the white pigment’s opacity, as if the voice itself is getting stronger or weaker. Shifts in letter size and extended lines of script give it something of the time and rhythm of speech, rather than just the effect of quoting a written text. The Bible is often experienced in sermons being read out with rhetorical force, and McCahon is continually drawn to prophetic voices, including Maori rebel prophets like Te Kooti, Rua Kenana, and Te Whiti. Did this new public scale raise his use of language to the plane of oratory or prophetic sermonizing?

MB: McCahon’s paintings all have a performative quality. It’s especially clear in Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha [1969–70], because in all the different letter styles you see McCahon enacting different voices. Again I recall how important the Kaprow performance was for him: He’s trying to impart performance to painting. He doesn’t need real actors because he can use the writing as an actor in an entirely visual way. Pollock comes to mind, in the sense of a holistic painting, covering the whole surface with a kind of web. McCahon’s writing does something similar, and his handwriting changed according to the paint he used, with the late works using easily flowing, fast-drying acrylics.

TC: A few years after he comes back from America, he completes a series of paintings he calls “Gates,” most of which use glossy, hardware-store enamels, such as he might have seen in Pollock’s work. But they don’t exhibit any obvious correspondence to advanced American painting.

MB: These works are much more complex than they seem at first view, being at once a metaphorical response to what McCahon perceived to be the enormous challenge posed to humanity by the early ’60s cold war threat of nuclear annihilation and, at the same time, an artist’s response to the technical challenge of finding a way beyond the two-dimensional picture plane.

TC: One of the paintings from this period that riveted my attention bears the inscription “Here I give thanks to Mondrian.” The rectangular form is embedded in a relatively flat space, very shallow and planar, done in that glossy enamel. But the rectangle is set diagonally into the picture plane, and Mondrian abhorred any deviation from the horizontal and the vertical. The way that the square is set into the picture, here and elsewhere in the series, more strongly recalls Malevich’s White Square. McCahon seems to put into play a whole set of ironies about this tradition of geometric abstraction—especially when one is aware that he’d said to his students, “How do you go on painting after Mondrian?”

MB: It’s exactly that. For McCahon, this was a deeply felt challenge. Although Mondrian painted the square grid, McCahon responded by exploring it at an angle. That was the only way to get around the problem. He saw Mondrian like Michelangelo: “the painting to end all painting.” Malevich had the black square hanging in the corner of his room on the angle. McCahon combined those things, always choosing those painters—Mondrian and Malevich, for example—who had declared a utopian vision of the future.

TC: These paintings are also directly linked to the series—one of which is on the cover of your exhibition catalogue—where McCahon introduced a text from Christ’s Passion. In Christ’s moment of doubt and despair on the cross, the onlookers think they hear Him call upon Elias, or Elijah, the ninth-century BC Hebrew prophet believed to have escaped death, and they ask, Will Elias come to save him? But they misunderstand. Christ is speaking out to his Father: “Eloi, Eloi, why have you forsaken me?” In their minds, Christ is succumbing to a kind of cowardice, not addressing his Father, the divine aspect of His self. It’s almost a Monty Python moment, but it’s there in the gospel of Matthew, and it occurs at the exact moment of Christ’s death (this also being the “cry” that Newman treated as absolute). In that this body of work precedes the greater formality and intellectualization of the “Gates,” do you see the “Elias” paintings as transitional too?

MB: No, no. I think you are misreading the Gospel account, perhaps putting a secular, twentieth-century reading on the incident. In fact, the Gospel account can be equally interpreted as the Hebrew onlookers thinking that Christ’s imploring Elijah to save Him was legitimate; it would have been a quite legitimate act among Jewish believers at that time.

But this is, of course, a moot point. More important, I think that the “Elias” series is really the first work in which McCahon finds himself, where he knows what he’s doing and has his own language. The fact that he chooses that text is fascinating because it’s about doubt and all the possibilities of misunderstanding. Interestingly, there is already the theme of a “gate” in some of the images: How do you create a way through the flat surface? The whole idea comes from Cézanne, this modernist doubt about representation itself. But in McCahon, the trigger for this can be something totally different—his fascination with the Crucifixion, the question of life and death, the possibility of being saved. After the “Elias” series, he relies more and more on words and a bare landscape. The same phenomenon is evident later in his use of the story of Lazarus, because he chooses that specific story again and again, all those different voices with their communication and noncommunication. And I think that this threads through all of his work.

TC: To which ancient language lends a paradoxically contemporary urgency. That leads to the question: Might McCahon be better or more usefully understood outside of his own time? Beyond New Zealand and Australia, at any rate, he’s a new artist. Might it be the case that his day for Europe and for America has only just arrived? Benjamin Buchloh talks about language-based subjectivity coming under assault in every quarter, a whole culture no longer at home with language in its higher uses—which gives visual art its diagnostic priority over literature. Raymond Pettibon, whom Buchloh has championed on just these grounds, exploits visionary and prophetic tracts from American charismatic sects also in a demotic graphic style. McCahon’s sense of self entailed going over and over comparable texts, visually rehearsing their rhetoric: “I sing my paintings to myself,” he said in 1972. He likened himself to a close friend’s eccentric uncle, a Moral Rearmament preacher and self-described evangelist; indeed, McCahon dedicated a major painting to him. To think of oneself as an evangelist is to go back to the Gospels and the source of the common command of language, one now largely lost but abundantly available in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

MB: It does. I’ve always looked at McCahon’s use of popular images and texts like the cartoons that were popular in his youth. He paints an understandable story, and then you can give it multiple interpretations. Now should be about the right time to show McCahon to the rest of the world, because it is a moment of transition in our society. It’s a moment to rethink modernism, which is being attacked by fundamentalists and other conservative forces that want to limit its possibilities. That’s what McCahon is expressing and trying to deal with. At the beginning of his career, he was outside or behind the development of modernism. At the end of his life, he was far ahead, because he was dealing with questions that we are only getting to now, at least in the visual arts. We have a problem with the Bible because our times are so secular. On the other hand, if you can really understand the Bible, it’s just a system to explore and explain things you don’t really understand or don’t know how to express. That’s what McCahon was trying to do.

Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute and a contributing editor of Artforum.