October 22, 2004
Ian writes about Max
Max Gimblett�s in good shape. Yes, that�s a bad pun, and no, it�s not. A hale and hearty almost 70 years of age, Max works out, plays squash, hasn�t touched a drop in decades, is full of mirth and easy tears, and the shaped canvasses that have characterized his work since the �crisis� of 1982 (see later) are looking great too.
I ask him if he�s happy about the exhibition, The Brush of All Things, curated by Wystan Curnow for Auckland Art Gallery (and now at Wellington City Gallery). Max�s eyes fill with tears � that�s a yes. Some of the emotion comes from a sense of rightness: there have been many dealer shows in New Zealand and the U.S.A. where he and his wife Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett live, but this is the first time a sample with the emotional outline of a personal journey has come home.
�Home�? What�s this about? Max has been a contented denizen of New York City for more than thirty years. Let�s talk about this �home�, and while we�re at it, let�s talk about some other big words: wisdom, beauty, and self, for starters. �O.K.,� says Max optimistically, as is his way. �Sounds good.�
Are you an expatriate, Max? Is that what�s meant by �home�, even after all these productive years somewhere else? Now Max gets angry. Home is where your sense of self is deeply stirred. It�s where your sense of yourself is strong enough for you to let it go unprotected in your work and when you work. It�s wherever Barbara is � when she and Max were young, home became so when Barbara placed a piece of fine fabric in whatever accommodation their love was passing through. Besides, the word has such a feeble purchase on the robust, satisfying complexities of living in a geocultural space tensioned by locations, histories, and art, rather than merely by subway stations. Home is a trampoline for the spirit.
I�ve seen the sculptor Bill Culbert, who lives in Provence and London and visits New Zealand yearly during the Bluff oyster and whitebait seasons react with similar angry scorn to the idea that he�s �ex� anything simply because he chooses to live somewhere �else�. Even the term �belonging� seems insipid in the context of a discussion of �home�, if the teeming contemporary traffics and landings of people and cultures all over the place are to make better than small-talk sense or generate more than third drink passion. Before you can say �Venice�, �belonging� will transform perfectly good art into national identity. �Belonging� sags in a hammock between �roots� and �routes�, suburbanizing a prime site of cultural toing and froing. It sedates the hearty appetites most of us have for different ideas nurtured in other places by foreign cultures and cooked up in the globalising kitchens of media fusion. If you don�t agree with that statement, then you won�t be able to think of any good reason why other people somewhere �else� (like Venice) might be even a bit interested in what we do here aside from grow meat and make monocultural assertions on Fonterra�s �Milk� website. We need to embrace the likelihood that traffic might both enrich local culture and sharpen the definitions of its differences, while simultaneously advancing its global playtime. Think Pacific hip hop.
Zen rapper Max was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1935, and has been resident in North America, and mostly in New York City, for more than forty years � that�s part of what makes home. He and Barbara have come back to New Zealand regularly, in ways both businesslike and emotional, for years � that�s another part. Max�s painting has often reached into a sense of Oceanic space and brilliance, learned also on the Pacific Coast of the USA, where he used to maintain a second studio in L.A. � that�s another part. I visited Max�s Western outpost once with a couple of my kids � they were impressed by the steel fortress of the studio�s security system: this Pacific had gangs and guns in it. And the work also reaches into Asia, into a mix of philosophies, practices, and places sampled in 1994 by Dianne and Peter Beatson�s exhibition at the Manawatu Art Gallery, The Crane and the Kotuku � Artistic Bridges between New Zealand and Japan � home is also back and forth along these bridges, and where they disclose friends like the Chinese American poet John Yau in New York.
What about wisdom? It comes with great mentors, says Max � with great traditions of discipline. If you don�t �get it�, you don�t get it. But if you think you�re wise, you�re not (and if you don�t think you are, it doesn�t follow that you might be). Being wise is remaining open to learning: it�s valuing ignorance. It�s not wanting to finish.
As Thomas McKevilley reminds us in a shrewd essay for the Brush of All Things catalogue, Max retro-entered the moment of high modernism in America as one born twenty years after and far away from the great American abstract expressionists Pollock, Kline, and Motherwell; also de Kooning, who introduces a narrative pressure to Max�s influences. His mentored American practice began as the baton of high art was being passed to the pop artists of the 1960s who wanted to be rid of the heroic and the transcendental, and as American modernism�s huge confidence began to break up on the Coney Island beach of the post-modern.
Seventeen years ago, at the height of neo-expressionist frenzies (not least around Max�s hood), Thomas McEvilley�s famous Artforum essay about the artist Agnes Martin, �Grey Geese Descending�, drew a careful line under the moment when the post-modern began to spin out, and suggested it might be time to look again at the thoughtfulness, the mentoring, of modernism�s rested wisdom. It seems easy, now, to say blithely that Max Gimblett�s an unabashed modernist from way back, with all the transcendentalism and heroics intact. But his persistence wasn�t just stubborn, or dumb, nor was it just a consequence of the time-lapse noticed by McEvilley. Max processed the disciplines of modernism, he stayed with them while finding ways to change his practice and take on new learning. He didn�t finish. From 1982, his monochromatic and colour-saturated paintings began to be shaped, most memorably as quatrefoils. They became physical � signs of action appeared that owed as much or more to Zen learning and traditions of bold brush ink calligraphy than to the �action painting� of the great abstract expressionists, with the possible exception of Franz Kline, though the gestures weren�t exclusively calligraphic � there were also pours, throws, pools, jabs, and spatters.
In The Brush of All Things there�s a big quatrefoil painting from 1995 called �Action Painting�. Yes, that�s a bad pun, and no, it�s not. The title�s a homage to the physicality of Jackson Pollock and the heyday of American abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 50s. But it�s also a way of measuring the distance Max Gimblett�s use of that teaching has enabled him to travel from it. The title�s an historical artifact, and the disciplines that have directed the work�s astonishingly fluent calligraphic choreography are now Rinzai Zen ones of �all mind/no mind�. They disclose a self unrestrained by distinction between body and consciousness: the impacts, swirls, and halts of paint beautifully within the container of the shaped canvas seem as thoughtless as they are perfectly articulated. There�s a sense of freedom that�s captured in something Max says in a lovely interview with Barbara (�How do you know when a work is finished?�) published in the Brush catalogue: �You can beat the mental thought process with your body movement. Get ahead of it. A lot of sport does that.� He also says, �� you might beat the personal identity, you might beat the narcissism, you might beat being caught up in any self-consciousness.�
Max says at one point in the same interview that Jackson Pollock was �a master of completion�, and a bit later that �there�s something unpleasant about the two words �completion� and �finished�.� In �Action Painting�, Max seems to be saying it�s possible and necessary for him to admire Pollock�s bloody-minded heroic staying-in the painting till it was done, while also developing strategies to escape that material lock-down and its attendant anguish. And in another terrific, lucid interview from 2002 with Anne Kirker, the curator of The Language of Drawing exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery, Max says of ink drawing that �it is a form of meditation�. As such, the drawing and on occasion the painting can�t be �finished� � rather, perhaps, the work comes to or wakes up in the world where the artist is putting his brush down, turning his back, and going through to the kitchen for caffeine and sugar and, with luck, a smooch.
Well, we seem to have done �home�, �wisdom�, and �self� without finishing any of them. That�s all right. Time for a story. �Beauty� might make an appearance.
As a staunch modernist, Max is also a staunch internationalist, whose passion for his art is matched by his passion for damn-nuisance causes. Max�s frequent e-mail spams with anti-Republican chain letters, alternative website connections, and rabble-rousing blasts have probably got him on some National Security database down at FBI Central � along with half the population of the remnants of New York�s Bowery, Soho and Lower East Side art loft community that have survived the gentrifying urban renewal processes of the 1990s. The members of this cotton-top community of internationalist lefties, crazy artists, and Zen radicals, if they didn�t self-destruct, might recognize a familiar spirit abroad in the polyvocal internationalism of hip-hop. And I�d even have to say, watching Max whirl into big kungfu action at one of his canvasses, the guy can get down. In the Kirker interview he says, �The language of modern dance is a parallel sensation in my studio when I�m painting.� The words �action� and �gesture� slide away from art towards bodies in motion.
On September 11th 2001, all suited up on a cultural mission, I found myself shut out of the New York hotel I�d left shortly before the catastrophe of the twin towers. Max and Barbara took me in, hooked up an e-mail connection I could talk to home on, fed me, and let me tear around the TV channels looking for a way out. They let me make a grand mess in their kitchen while attempting to get home to the Pacific by cooking seafoods from it. The air outside their Bowery loft was full of dust, and there was no way of getting past the security lines at 14th St., even if there�d been somewhere better to go, which there wasn�t, except home. There was nowhere better to go partly because they made it easy to be at home with them. A couple of days went by. I made the occasional foray out. They indulged me with the Chinese wet markets. Barbara worked away within an immense catacomb of books under a cone of light, like a Talmud scholar. Max�s studio looked fresh and empty and ready for some action. But how could anyone achieve the lucid state of mind required to make art as a �form of meditation� when huge trucks were still tearing up and down outside through the smoky dust day and night?
One morning, I woke to the sound of music and emphatic thumps on the floor of the studio. There were occasional yells. It sounded as though a substantial dance workout was under way. It was. �At every step the pure wind rises,� asserts Rinzai. It sounded more like a hurricane. The days were long, with lunch-breaks. Max was back at work. The studio filled with an astonishing daily quota. We invented a grandiose new work naming ritual. The paintings seemed to be simultaneously somewhere the racket outside wasn�t, and filled with what was outside: whirling destruction, light and colour through dust, phoenixes of hope rising, bones, reincarnations.
Max showed me the Spirit Box cabinet of drawers filled with the jeweler Warwick Freeman�s realizations of Max�s death mask skulls, drawn by former studio manager Todd Strothers. Signs of mortality but not, in Max�s scheme of things, macabre or morbid, they nonetheless seemed in the context of the enormous catastrophe outside the studio to be fearsome warnings about pride and confidence. In the figurative drawing from four years earlier, �Fuckin� Charmer� (1997), a grimacing raver with wild tongue rants from the surface of the paper, partially obscuring the serenely smiling profile of � a woman? There are narratives reaching for the surfaces of many of the works in this exhibition, as Wystan Curnow observes in his canny notes.
You might expect the narrative of 9/11, the bones and skulls of mortality, the political rage, to now break those surfaces. Max used to look at the Towers from his studio window. But the circular Jade, Tiger, and Onyx paintings of 2003 are among the most serene he�s ever made. Their splendid shiny surfaces throw back light � it would be easy to say �illumination� � not fire and smoke. They make it necessary to think again about responsible ways to use words like �beauty�. The simple diagrammatic internal intersections of the four circle components of the red and gold quatrefoil painting Sky Gate (2003) form the shape of a lotus or frangipani � it now seems to have been sweetly implicit in all the hundreds of quatrefoils. More violent � �distressing� is Curnow�s good word � are earlier, pre 9/11 works such as Crucifixion � after Peter Gabriel (1989-91). It�s as though another �crisis� has enabled Max to move his learning along, and the path it�s found for him is a radical purpose for beauty, a beauty that interpolates itself like grey geese calmly descending into blindly reactive situations whose enraged oppositions are cranking each other up towards apocalypse.
Reflecting on his collaborations with Max, and the fact of having not seen him since 9/11, his friend the poet John Yau wrote in October 2001, �I know I will go to Max�s studio soon. Something unexpected always happens when we work together.� I don�t know, these old modernists. There�s no stopping them, thank god.