Don Driver: An Ounce of Ambiguity

Don Driver, Dimension No 1, 1970

When I think of New Plymouth I think of Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver. Of the three, Driver was the only one to make New Plymouth his lifelong home after moving there from Hawke’s Bay as a boy. Peryer lived there for many years later in life, but had a far more peripatetic early life. And though Len Lye never lived in New Plymouth, he chose this city, of all he could have chosen, to house his work after his death. What is it that drew these artists to New Plymouth? And what did New Plymouth give them?

When I think about Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver a slight smile forms at the corner of my mouth. I see Peryer’s Dead Steer, an image at once sombre and inexplicably funny; the beast is as dead as anything, but with its legs splayed in the air it becomes farcical. I hear the music from Len Lye’s Kaleidoscope, see the whirling, swirling patterns and imagine the comic gyrations and secretions of his Water Whirler on Wellington’s waterfront. And most of all, because he always managed to see the heart of the matter and put things together in just the right way, I see works like Driver’s Rollaway. 

Don Driver New Zealand Art Rollaway introduction
Don Driver, Rollaway, 2000

A small skull sits upon an upturned clay flowerpot, which sits upon a giant plastic sneaker with wheels at the back—all of which is seemingly held together by a length of blue rope. Absurd, morbid and hilarious at once: Rollaway is a memento mori for our postmodern souls. Put it on your mantelpiece, reflect on it daily. It’ll make reading the news a little easier, a little funnier. It’ll put things in perspective. 

Movement and stasis, life and death, sincerity and irony—Rollaway, like so many of Driver’s works, is work is brought to life through the artist’s genius assemblage of these ideas. As he said in a 1997 interview, just three years before he made Rollaway: “I want to place in an exaggerated context things normally in an everyday range of vision.”

The skull, first of all: millennia-old artistic symbol of death, used by most great painters from Rembrandt to Picasso to continually remind viewers of the ephemerality of existence. But with postmodern eyes it is difficult for us to look back at an old master memento mori without a hint of irony, without Warhol’s car crashes and his Marilyns repeated over and over at the back of the mind. Driver saw Warhol too; he knew a skull could never again be used sincerely. And so enter the absurd: a giant shoe that could only have been worn by the likes of a clown, or Ronald McDonald (but what is the orifice-like hole on its top for?) Most skulls aren’t going anywhere, but this one appears to be skating off to the horizon, horns bent back for aerodynamics like a Tour de France time triallist. It gives the impression of motion, but without moving; a little like our modern lives, with all our tweeting and flying that gets us nowhere.

Don Driver Chromatic II New Zealand Artist
Don Driver, Chromatic II, 2000

Or consider Chromatic II, a work from the same year as Rollaway, in which Driver takes a different approach to movement and stasis. Made from aluminium airplane wing struts, the work’s materials reference travel and great distances. But hung flat and still against a wall, these small parts of one of the great industrial inventions are rendered ineffective; they are reconstituted for an aesthetic function, never to move again. The work raises questions about the life of industrial inventions; the opposite, in many ways, to Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, prevented from fulfilling their functions. Add to this ideas of sonority and silence (the horizontal aluminium struts appear as keys on a keyboard—might the work’s title refer to the musical scale?—and yet hang mutely, silently, forever) and a small work becomes a site of complex ideas and dualities.

If death is Rollaway’s central idea, its message is to not take it too seriously. Don’t let life roll away from you, but don’t get too caught up in it either. Remember death, but rather than letting it weigh you down, have some fun with the prospect; laugh at it; read Milan Kundera rather than Nietzsche. It is this irreverent spirit that defines the New Plymouth artists. Peryer, Lye and Driver share an ability to deal with weighty ideas without ever losing the smile in the corner of the mouth.

Rollaway is quintessential Driver at the height of his powers. The work is a totem like the many that Driver owned and displayed in his own home. Yet Rollaway is a totem for our own times: humorous, cynical and wry, caught between sincerity and irony, speeding off somewhere but making questionable progress.

Driver seems sometimes to occupy a corner of New Zealand’s art history that we haven’t yet come to terms with. Looking at his works, whether it be Dimension No 1 or major installations like Ritual (held by Te Papa, and presaging assemblages like Rollaway) it can be easy to forget that he was contemporaneous with McCahon, Angus and Woollaston. So separate were Driver’s artistic concerns that he may as well have been living in a different country to that great trio. And ironically, far from making him provincial, it may be that New Plymouth shielded him from the dominant frame of art in New Zealand at the time, with its continuing references to regionalism and landscape, and its ongoing struggles with even tepid abstraction. When looking at Don Driver’s art, New Plymouth seems in many ways far closer to New York than to Auckland or Wellington.

Dimension No 1 is a major early work that emphasises the international world of ideas Driver was engaged with. If Rollaway is Driver towards the end of his career, most free in his associative powers of assemblage, Dimension No 1 is Driver in earlier years, finally finding a way to reconcile the young man’s disdain for tradition with the then-prevalent mode of international hard-edged abstraction. Driver’s is abstraction with a twinkle in the eye—Donald Judd if he could have taken himself a little less seriously.

And the comparison to Donald Judd is more apt than it might at first seem, at least for the first half of Driver’s career. A 1979 exhibition catalogue describes Dimension No 1 as a “Wall relief on a constructed wooden base with two diagonal corners and five horizontal ribs over which canvas is stretched taut so they show through…” In other words, it comes very close to one of Judd’s “specific objects.” These were artworks that blurred simple categories between painting and sculpture—tied up with what we now think of as Minimalism, specific objects didn’t fit artistic categories of the time. Nor did Driver’s works. In breaking through the picture plane with the horizontal struts that force parts of the canvas forward and off the wall, Judd both declared his own future directions (never to be held back by the limits of a canvas) and opened up new possibilities for art in New Zealand. 

Dimension No 1 is one of Driver’s more subdued abstractions, granted—part of a series from the years around 1970—and yet in its arrangement of colours seems to maintain an ironic mode that separates it from both the abstraction of the likes of Milan Mrkusich, and the sincere Minimalism of New York at the time. Driver’s colours are almost-neon hues; comic tonal gradations (blue on purple on orange-red, in this case); and never once conceding to living room decorum that said a painting should at least try to not clash with the curtains. Subtly introducing humour to hard-edged abstraction is no easy task, but Driver managed it—and always with an ounce of ambiguity, so that gallery-goers are still not quite sure whether to smile or scratch the chin sincerely.

Much early writing on Don Driver tried to place him in the New Zealand box in which most people thought any artist working in New Zealand inevitably belonged. The logic, which now seems so naive, was that because he lived in New Zealand, his work somehow dealt with New Zealand. We find, for instance, attempts to link his art to his immediate environment, such as: Driver’s “acid yellows, hot pinks and sharp greens… derive from what he sees and finds around him in New Plymouth”; or that in his assemblages Driver sought to represent rural New Zealand through his use of materials like sackcloth and industrial waste. Try as I might, last time I visited New Plymouth I could not manage to make out any acid yellows or hot pinks. 

On the contrary, far from seeking to represent his own city or country, Driver’s art is cosmopolitan. Not the Gordon Walters kind of cosmopolitan, slick and sleek and sexy and at home in any European capital. Instead the traveller cosmopolitan: the kind of person who travels and finds themselves wide-eyed, interested in everything. At his home Driver collected an eclectic range of objects, from fetish dolls to Buddhist statues and an enormous range of materials that many would categorise as junk. Out of all this Driver created his own vision, a view of the world far more expansive and daring than that of many of his New Zealand contemporaries. His was an “internationalist and universalist ethos mixed in with values from regionalist and non-Western art sources”, as writer John Hurrell has put it so well: “The resulting sensibility allows his work to oscillate between aesthetic delectation and black humour, serene contemplation and overt manipulation of primal fears.”

Driver’s gift to us is a kind of vision that is unique not just here, in McCahon land and Man Alone land, but which is in many cases unique anywhere. His relationship to New York was one of fruitful looking, but he does not seem to have been concerned with borrowing from or contributing to the New York art world. His 1965 trip to America (undertaken only because his funds did not stretch to Europe) no doubt influenced his work—yet it is not a part of the Hero’s Journey in the same way that McCahon’s 1958 America trip is now seen. Driver might just be difficult for us to place because of the uniqueness of his vision. He appears now to a new generation of New Zealanders as a genial man with an astoundingly generous sense of humour.

I’m reminded of the way Peter Peryer described his own artistic development. “I think there’s been an emotional maturing in my image-making,” he said in a 1994 documentary on his life and work. “In many ways I was moving from West to East in my attitudes. I think I mean that they have moved from the crucified Christ to the laughing Buddha. That is what I mean by a maturing.” And the same seems true of Don Driver. The hint of the inner laughing Buddha was always there in his work, even in his most sincere abstractions, but it took time for it to develop. In Rollaway the thoughtful good humour is clear, where the wheels at the back now appear to represent some kind of Buddhist cycle of life; and it’s clear too in Chromatic II, which seems to say we should live by music and colour. 

Essay commissioned for Webb’s Works of Art catalogue, November 2019.

Gordon Walters

Gordon Walters New Zealand abstract art koru
Gordon Walters. Untitled, 1973. Ink on paper. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters estate.

Drive along Wellington’s Oriental Bay and you’ll find, just opposite Freyberg Pool, the city’s imitation of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian yacht club, a car garage stencilled with Gordon Walters’ unmistakable interlocking inversed korus. It is fitting, really: one of Walters’ most significant works is titled simply Oriental, after this Bay. One can never be too sure how an artist feels about becoming “iconic”, but in this country Gordon Walters was likely the first artist to claim this status. The appealing simplicity of his designs lend themselves far better to reproduction than the earthy, dense pigment of a McCahon landscape—far easier to print on a tote bag or a business card or a car garage, and far easier, even, to tattoo, as has become a favourite of the young Kiwi expat. Walters’ iconic design is today something like New Zealand’s yin and yang, a feel-good, corporatised image of happy biculturalism. That, despite the reality that the koru was a motif included in far less than half of Walters’ paintings.

Of all the New Zealand artists, Gordon Walters was the most adamant that he be known simply as an “artist”, free from the confines of geography. At the same time, he often seems to be “New Zealand Artist” Number One. His koru symbol has become to New Zealand’s visual culture what Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is to the United States’: in it we find the essence of a popular and an historical culture, an icon (even in the word’s religious sense) that provides a kind of passage to a world of national meaning and associations. And yet the questions to follow the work of Gordon Walters are how such a simple form could come to mean so much to a nation, and whether that meaning was ever intended. “The form I use in my painting is not really a Māori koru—I think of it as a line ending in a circle,” explained the artist sardonically on one of many occasions. But the artist’s protestations of intent were ineffectual, once the art had entered the national consciousness; the years of hostility to the artist’s “modern” and “foreign” painting were forgotten by the public, replaced with a lusty demand for the artist’s images; and from then on, Gordon Walters was the favourite artist of every half-patriotic New Zealander.

Born less than two months after Colin McCahon in September 1919 on Te Whiti Street in Wellington (street names were always significant to this artist, becoming the titles for many of his works), Walters was brought up during the years following the birth of abstraction. Kazimir Malevich painted the Black Square in 1915, the artwork said to have first discovered pure, or “non-objective”, abstraction. From this point onwards, art could be conceived of even if it did not refer to the “objective” world of nature (of course this doesn’t mean most art viewers liked abstraction; far from it, for a long time). So Malevich was painting his Suprematist compositions, and Piet Mondrian was painting his grids—not that the young Walters would see much of this in his childhood and during his schooling at Rongotai College, beyond, if he was lucky, a few black and white magazine reproductions. It was a heady time to be born, for a future European abstractionist, yet a time seemingly like any other for a future New Zealand painter. That a painter born in Kilbirnie, Wellington, could come to create art as deep and as limitless as that of the best European abstractionists is a testament to Walters’ mind and ethic.

Gordon Walters New Zealand artist
Gordon Walters. Chrysanthemum, 1944. Oil on card. Starkwhite Gallery. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

There never seemed to be the possibility that Walters would be a naturalistic painter, recording recognisable landscapes or this country’s flora and fauna. Even his early works depicting landscapes or flowers hint at high-modern tendencies: Waikanae Landscape of 1944, a conté crayon drawing of tree stumps on an ethereal beach, suggests a future Surrealist path, while his Chrysanthemum of the same year—a colourful, exploded, deconstructed flower on a light blue background—intimates the pure abstract path Walters would later take. Chrysanthemums are, after all, often now thought of as Mondrian’s flower: the hundreds of studies of this flower that the Dutch abstractionist did in the late nineteenth century showed his processing of many European artistic styles, as if in preparation to surpass them. So it seems with Walters, and by 1947, when the artist was just twenty-eight, we find the last of his works to retain even a hint of the recognisable, natural world; his The Poet from that year is the point of departure, depicting a seated figure, but drawn with the Māori-influenced style that would later become Walters’ own unique visual identity.

Gordon Walters koru shape New Zealand
Gordon Walters. Ranui, 1956. Ink on paper. Te Papa Tongarewa. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

One discerns in Walters’ personality a scientific rigour and rationality, combined with an ethic of hard work; these go some way to understanding his lifelong focus on geometric  abstraction. Abstraction, particularly the “hard-edged” kind of Walters’, has interesting associations with the world of science, technology and machines. Walters was not particularly interested in the spontaneous, reflexive effects that a paintbrush held in his hand might produce (think of McCahon’s individualistic scrawled words). Instead, he was concerned with order and rigour: he found over time found that perfectly straight lines, and perfectly circular circles, produced far better the effects he was after, even though these removed the impulsive, human touch of putting discernibly human marks on a canvas. At first, in an early koru work like Ranui of 1956, Walters drew his lines and his circles by hand, the shaky wrist of even a master artist visible all over. But later, from around the early 1960s, even that remnant of a human touch is removed: all lines are ruler-sharp, all circles drawn seemingly with a compass. Walters’ art, from here on, possesses a clean clarity—a trait we can link back to the artist’s own mind. 

And then there were the encounters, of which a few are critical to this artist’s oeuvre. In 1941 Walters met the Dutch artist and craftsman Theodorus Johannes Schoon, better known as Theo, a figure whose influence on New Zealand’s understanding of its tradition is immense but who has been for too long ignored. Schoon’s influence on Walters is difficult to understate, though in later years the two would publicly disagree over the sway each had on the other. What we do know is that a few years after they met Schoon and Walters travelled the South Island together, exploring caves containing relatively unknown early Māori rock carvings. The experience left Walters deeply interested in non-Western art: his later visual diaries are a fascinating record of his lack of cultural bias, freely exploring connections between a Paul Klee painting and Inuit masks, for instance. Picasso, it’s true, had decades earlier been influenced by the art of non-“Western”, non-“modern” cultures; but with him it seemed if anything more a plundering than an exploration. Yet despite Walters’ committed and sensitive explorations, the charge of cultural appropriation would later dog him and his koru works. He never did find a neat way through the quagmire of cultural politics.

Two other encounters did much to shape this abstractionist’s work. In 1950 Walters left for Europe, spending a year in London with excursions to Amsterdam and Paris. Just as Colin McCahon’s 1958 trip to the United States has come to have almost mythological status, after he returned and painted the Northland Panels, so too should Walters’ European sojourn—it was here that he saw at first-hand all the different strands of Modernism, and determined which were most worthy of his attention. After the trip Walters’ work becomes more linear, more geometric, and within years the koru motif would be born. But there was another path that would present itself to Walters not long after his return to New Zealand: Theo Schoon one day brought to Walters a number of drawings made by Rolfe Hattaway, a diagnosed schizophrenic and inpatient at Auckland’s mental hospital. The drawings are remarkable, leading for Walters to many of the insights that the European Surrealists had spent decades trying to obtain—and for years afterwards Walters would work with Hattaway’s designs, pulling them into his own paintings, sometimes seemingly unconsciously. The borders of rationality were always of interest to Gordon Walters: step one way and his artworks are the product of a scientific, machine-age ethic; move slightly the other way and they are its opposite, the non-linear workings of the subconscious mind.

Walters’ artistic style and his earlier working life combined fortuitously in the late 1950s when he had the chance to produce a screenprint of one of his works. After finishing his formal artistic training at the Wellington Technical College School of Art Walters worked as a commercial artist and designer, including at the Wellington Government Printing Office. The experience left him aware of how art might reach a larger audience through mechanical reproduction, and Walters reacted to the possibility of screenprinting many of his koru works seemingly with glee. The thirteen screenprints he would go on to produce—all except two from his koru works, signalling the public demand for these New Zealand icons—are perhaps the most significant body of prints a New Zealand artist has produced (with the exception of John Drawbridge). They did much to cement Walters’ reputation and widespread awareness of his work; but they also, maybe unwittingly, demonstrated the ease with which the koru works lend themselves to reproduction. Search TradeMe for “Gordon Walters” today and one will find hundreds of listings, yet not for his work, or even, unfortunately, for books about him. Rather one finds the full range of commodities that prop up an artist’s public reputation but which also make a mockery of it. A cotton tote bag for $32.99, featuring Walters’ 1972 Untitled? A bargain! Or an umbrella, perhaps—just $54—embossed on the top with bold interlocking korus? Mostly that cynical reaction is just art-world snobbery, but unfortunately familiarity does breed a certain kind of contempt. The korus have today lost some of their visual power through sheer abundance.

Gordon Walters pure abstraction
Gordon Walters. Painting H, 1975. Oil on canvas. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

The works of Walters’ that were never produced as prints—never, because most people weren’t interested in them—are those that demonstrate the intellectual depths that this artist plumbed. New Zealand needed Walters’ koru works. What it did not need in the twentieth century, and what no one knew what to do with once Walters had brought them into existence, were works like his Painting H of 1975, now in the collection of the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth. This square canvas is divided perfectly down the middle. The left side is painted a nectarine red; the right, a muted white. Nothing else. The harmony between the colours is gorgeous, and the eye flicks back and forth between one side and the other, enjoying the simplicity and distillation of Walters’ work. Yet an art-interested public didn’t know what to do with such a painting: does it represent traditional Māori red, and the white skin of the coloniser? Perhaps the colours are an attempt at expressing the harsh clarity  of New Zealand light at sunset? No, neither of those things. There is no representation. Instead it is another exploration—a continuation of the artist’s lifelong project, “an investigation of positive/negative relationships within a deliberately limited range of forms”, as the artist described in 1966. 

Gordon Walters Oriental Pacific art
Gordon Walters. Oriental II, 1967. Oil on board. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

So it is that Walters’ greatest contribution to the history of art—not the history of New Zealand art, but simply of art—is liable to be ignored. His later mise en abyme works depict (though the analogy is not perfect) a painting within a painting like the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are visually powerful and intellectually stimulating works that make a refined contribution to a consideration of self-reflexivity in abstract art. Oriental II of 1967, for instance, is a horizontal black-painted canvas with a thin, vertical white strip to the left of the canvas; but to the right of that is a smaller, thin white strip, with a white rectangle to the right of it, mirroring in inverted colours and smaller size the larger canvas composition. The painting exists as itself, but contains within it an inversion of itself; it lives and breathes through the duality. Here Walters has distilled all his lessons: the early European pure  abstractionists’; the Surrealists’ focus on the workings of the unconscious mind; Hattaway’s works, bringing the irrational to life in art; and all his explorations of the sheer variety of art forms in Asia and the Pacific. 

The title Oriental at once refers to the place of Walters’ childhood, Oriental Bay, and the possibility of art made in New Zealand connecting with the art of the wider Asia Pacific region. At a time when modernism is no longer within the sole purview of London, Paris and New York, Walters’ art is a testament to the sheer range of its possibilities. But, trapped within the borders of this country by our demand for that which most directly represents the nation, he remains unknown overseas.

Alberto Manguel Packs His Library

Alberto Manguel Packing My Library book review

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, by Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press, 2018.

Having packed and unpacked many nascent libraries over the past decade, this was a book I needed. Manguel grew up in Israel to Argentine diplomat parents; after schooling back in Buenos Aires he set off for Europe at 21. Since then he has lived in France, Canada, Tahiti, New York and Buenos Aires again, where since 2016 he has been director of the National Library. My own diplomatic upbringing meant Manguel’s peripatetic perspective spoke to me, and his latest book offered the promise of (finally) a way to think about the paradox of diplomatic and educational itinerancy combined with the desire for the permanence and solidity of physical books.

Recently, in Oxford, I have been surrounded by all the books of one of the world’s great libraries, and yet I’ve felt oddly cut off from them. My own books, the ones I’ve annotated and dog-eared and which have followed me from place to place, are packed in boxes and kept in storage just as Manguel’s books are. Here I go each day to the libraries but request books in advance and say goodbye to them each evening; I have none of the serendipitous reading that I had back home. Of course, this is partly grass is greener syndrome, for at home I was frustrated that no library in New Zealand had some of the books I was wanting to read.

Manguel is a guide through many of these thoughts, the odd and sometimes embarrassing feelings of wanting to possess leaves of paper between two covers. This slim book is purportedly about Manguel’s experience of packing his 35,000-volume library in a small French town when for bureaucratic reasons (he never explains more) he and his partner moved to New York City. Riffing on Walter Benjamin’s famous Unpacking My Library essay in at least one chapter, the book soon becomes a musing on the role of public libraries. I wanted more of the Packing My Library and a bit less of Manguel’s role at a public library; he is at his literary best when writing about the personal role of books, rather than the institutional or societal.

On first reading I didn’t read the book the way Manguel wanted it to be read. Each of the ten “chapters” (each just a few pages long) is followed by a “digression” picking up on one of the ideas of the previous chapter. It felt as though Manguel had written the key storyline and then interspersed the digressions later, and so I began skipping the digressions to read the primary essays. I then went back to the digressions afterwards.

Some of the best chapters I had already read: what felt to me like the essay upon which the whole book rests, for instance, Manguel had published in 2008 in a New York Times Home & Garden essay. The book’s opening pages come from this essay, albeit with a slight modification. Where in 2008 Manguel, living happily in France with his library in the old barn, had written “I knew that once the books found their place, I would find mine”, here in 2018, after packing his library, he adds “I was to be proved wrong.”

I found it curious to trace the editorial changes between that 2008 essay and the chapter in this book. Again, from 2008:

The library of my adolescence — a time when the simultaneous discoveries of sex and the injustice of the world called for words to name the frightening stirrings in my body and in my head — contained almost every book that still matters to me today; of the thousands that have been added since, few are essential.

Come 2018, whether for editorial reasons or some kind of embarrassment, Manguel has adjusted this simply to “After this came the library of my adolescence, which, built throughout my high school years, contained almost every book that still matters to me today.” What happened to the discoveries of sex and the injustice of the world in the interim?

Some of Manguel’s most vivid and even heart-wrenching writing seems to sneak up, mid-paragraph, with no warning. These make whole the idea of the book as an elegy for a lost library, and for time passed. Standing at a street-side second hand bookseller’s stall in New York reading the same volume of a book now in storage, Manguel muses that “the fingers that now turn the pages as I stand on the sidewalk among the passerby execute the same gesture they made long ago, on a morning when they were not stiff and speckled and gnarled. But now the gesture has become part of a conscious ritual, enacted every time I come across the same book with the same remembered cover…”

In later sections Manguel thinks about the societal implications of public libraries, and on the habits of mind brought about by the internet. “Negative freedom (answering the question “What is allowed to me?”), Manguel suggests, “might correspond to the Alexandrian kings’ ambition to collect everything, reflected today in the vast scope of the Web, collecting facts, opinions, information and misinformation, and even deliberate lies “because everything should be allowed to me.” Better, Manguel suggests, to think of Rawls’ notion of “freedom’s worth”—and it is allowing citizens to act according to that notion that is the central function of a national library.

While critically important, these latter sections didn’t feel like Manguel at his best. They read like Yeats’ “sixty year old smiling public man” saying what he knows he needs to say, rather than what he wants to say and most deeply feels. I finished the book without the answer to my confusions over the strength of my desire for physical books—but, Manguel would say, that was inevitable. “Reading Kafka”, he writes “I sense that the elicited questions are always just beyond my understanding. They promise an answer but not now, perhaps next time, next page.”

The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography

New Zealand typography signage design, Robin White
Robin White, Fish and chips, Maketu (1975). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Robin White.

I’m reminded of an American friend who visited me in New Zealand. We took a road trip down the West Coast, from Wellington to Queenstown, and after a few days of driving through small towns, my friend said something along the lines of: “Typography and signage in this country are fascinating. Everything is so clear, direct and uncluttered.”

Peter was talking specifically about shop signs and billboards—the Tip Top dairy and Fish&Chip shop kind of signs. But his comments stuck with me for some time afterwards.

Comparing some twentieth century NZ and British printing for instance, New Zealand’s is refreshing in its simplicity. Yet it’s a simplicity with strength and directness; it’s not watered-down “minimalism” or any kind of Instagram-age aesthetic (it has obviously existed long before any of that, as Robin White’s painting shows). I almost want to say that printing work like the Caxton Press’ has a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. I’ll stop just short, but it’s nice to think about the signage of your local fish-and-chip shop in the same way as Winckelmann once pondered the Apollo Belvedere.

Maybe, perhaps, possibly the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light” is expressed somehow in our typography, and maybe our book printing? Perhaps the peculiar quality of our direct and un-ozone-mediated light influenced our typographers as it was said to influence the likes of Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins and Colin Mccahon?

I’m not as interested in causes as I am effects. Our signage and our typography is as it is (is as great as it is)—what now? Kris Sowersby’s National typeface is now in use all around the world, from the Huffington Post’s website to a new biography about Mies van der Rohe. (Of all accolades for a modernist-tradition designer, being called upon to help sell Mies’ design must surely be among the highest.) My personal favourites are Sowersby’s “Untitled” typefaces, a kind of distillation of type design to a level where our subconscious barely recognises them as design at all. They have a kind of simplicity to them, even a noble one, but that’s coupled with a—well, screw it, a quiet grandeur. They aspire.

Kris Sowersby Klim Type Foundry New Zealand Typeface
Kris Sowersby and Klim Type Foundry’s Untitled Serif. The choice of sample text is his not mine.

Sowersby is drawing on the “Super Normal” philosophy of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, where design is so subtle as to be invisible. He didn’t invent the idea. But again, a New Zealander is at the cutting edge in typography, as, supposedly, one was at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s it was said by a “leading English typefounder” that “‘For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand”—this being a reference to the work of Robert Coupland Harding and his Typo journal.

To belabour the point about Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry: what I am most enamoured with is the insistence that (as he titled an exhibition last year at Objectspace) “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” That’s right! This is not a New Zealand typeface. It’s just a typeface, a really good one. One that happens to have been made by a New Zealander. Whether you’re talking about his “National” or his “Untitled”, or even his “Newzald“, they’re just typefaces. They also just happen to be some of the best that designers around the world can get their hands on.

In an interview in 1944 Jackson Pollock said:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problem of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.”

I think that’s what Sowersby and Objectspace were getting at with “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” It’s also why I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem “solves itself”, because a New Zealander is a New Zealander and his or her work will inevitably be shadowed by that fact.

Peter Robinson was then half right with his 1998 work Strategic Plan, where the challenge was laid down: “Mission statement: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.” Well, they’re being taken—but not quite with Robinson’s instructions, like “Always attempt to speak the native’s language”, and “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity, marginalisation and globalism.” Robinson’s work is still in Auckland, but the typographers are well and truly in Manhattan and Berlin.

I’m being unfair to Robinson. His work is much more nuanced than that, and points out the hollowness of those “instructions” as much as it implies we should follow them. But I raise it because really, the New Zealanders doing some of the most groundbreaking work, in art, writing and typography are doing it in the most New Zealand way possible: so damn modestly that it’s sometimes hard to even see. No emphasising idigeneity, no American-style self-promotion. Just fantastic work. The best seem to have absorbed the lesson of Allen Curnow that somehow or other was forgotten along the postmodern way: “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular that any of these songs are news: if they are good they cannot but be news of the human condition.”

One more quotation, this one Donald Judd’s: “The importance of art done in the United States since World War II… is most easily explained by saying that a few artists simply decided to do first-rate work.” Granted, it was maybe a little more complex than that; but unless artists know they’re doing first-rate work, what can dealers, curators, publishers and politicians ultimately do? I end with this quotation because people who happen to have passports issued by New Zealand are doing first-rate work.

Can you tell I’m excited?

Peter Robinson New Zealand art
Peter Robinson, Strategic Plan (1997). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Peter Robinson.