Mrkusich: The Art of Transformation
Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling
Auckland University Press, $99.99,
I had a sort of epiphany the first time I saw a painting by Piet Mondrian. Prior to this my Mondrian experience had been mediated through colour reproductions in glossy art books, where they looked spruce and crisp and felt like an exercise in graphic design. Standing before this vulnerable physical object in all its hand-painted textured actuality, I was overwhelmed for the first time by a realisation of the earnestness, and the courage, of the artist’s vision.
I mention this here in relation to Mrkusich: The Art of Transformation because it highlights a problem faced by all art books, but which is particularly acute for those addressing modernist abstraction: how does one convey, in a small two-dimensional image, the power of physical presence? Well, one can’t, but in this significant and timely survey of the career of Milan Mrkusich, our senior statesman of abstract art, Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling have done everything possible to bridge the gap.
Firstly, the reproductions of the paintings are superb. Ninety-five full-page colour plates, comprising a generous portion of the book, meticulously reproduce nuances of hue, texture and handling, while the 11 substantial essays that precede them are themselves copiously illustrated by smaller colour images, including archival photographs and gallery installation shots which help to anchor works in space and time.
Moreover, where possible, the frame, if there is one, has been included in the shot. This may seem an odd point, especially since Mrkusich’s frames are generally unobtrusive. Nevertheless the effect of their inclusion is to emphasise the paintings’ physicality, their presence as art, not graphic design. This acknowledgement of framing is particularly appropriate, given that in series after series Mrkusich’s works have engaged in an almost obsessive conversation with their own edges: for instance, in Ambient Gold (1968), components nudge and nuzzle the frame, tuck into its corners, echo its shape and play with its conventions. Intriguingly, the authors mention that Mrkusich himself insists on the frame being included, where possible, in reproductions of his work.
The colour-plate section is isolated from the essays that pick their way carefully, with numerous references to the illustrations, through over six decades of Mrkusich’s career. This involves much flicking to and fro as one reads, but that drawback is outweighed by the subsequent opportunity to enjoy the works unencumbered by text: a wordless chronological overview of a complex and evolving oeuvre.
However, these essays are more than merely padding for a picture book. Rejecting facile biography, the authors focus on the works rather than the man, analysing Mrkusich’s various series – (Emblems, Elements, Diagrams, Chromatic Meta Greys) – with a detailed intensity teetering at times on the pedantic. Thankfully this is relieved by occasional anecdotes that provide flashes of personality. For instance, on a rare trip to New York, Mrkusich examined the ancient Roman floor mosaics in the Met with such close attention that he set off the alarms. He initially binned the competition brief for the façade design for Te Papa, only obliging after a beseeching phone call from Te Papa’s Tim Walker. And on being invited to participate in Hamish Keith’s Ten Big Paintings project of 1970, he sought but was refused permission by fellow-contributor Colin McCahon to use on-site workspace at the Auckland City Art Gallery (as McCahon and gallery-colleague Ross Ritchie were doing) and consequently had to evict both family and furniture from his own living room in order to accommodate the outsize canvas panels that comprise Untitled (1970-71). Sadly, we are not given Mrs Mrkusich’s reaction.
That last anecdote also illustrates an emphatic theme of these essays: by situating Mrkusich squarely as the aloof outsider to the “indigenous parochialism” of New Zealand artists’ black-singleted search for a national identity, the authors offer an unusual slant on our much-loved regionalist canon. Mrkusich, they argue, has carried the torch for a lofty, austere and universalist (read male European/ American) approach to High Modernism that embraced abstraction, in Kirk Varnedoe’s words, as a “purifying impulse”. Mrkusich has maintained this purity unfalteringly: during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when abstract art was at odds with the national preoccupation with landscape; through the 1970s when Petar Vuletic’s gallery attracted a small stable of fellow believers; and he continues to do so despite being swamped since the 1980s by the cacophony of post-modern pluralism. Through all this, Mrkusich’s art has “remained steadfastly inviolate” to the outside world.
Hanfling and Wright are anything but dispassionate in their argument: they go in to bat for their hero; they are unashamedly partisan in their support for the superior values of autonomous art; they deploy belligerent quotation marks, with withering disdain, about contemporary art’s political “engagement” with “issues” of post-colonial identity. Their views are elitist, but their enthusiasm is undeniably infectious.
In defining Mrkusich as an oppositional strand within New Zealand’s art tradition, the authors embed him within European-US mainstream modernism from the very start of his career, with Bauhaus-inspired Auckland design firm Brenner. Alongside a lengthy canon of artists, many weighty names are scattered throughout the text like generous fruit in a plum-pudding – Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Herbert Read, Wilhelm Worringer, Meyer Schapiro, James Elkins … the list goes on and on – providing an impressive (if cherry-picked) overview of 20th century thinking on Western modernism. Clement Greenberg’s attachment to pure formalism, the authors correctly point out, was in fact rarely shared by the artists he unilaterally recruited to his cause: Kandinsky and Mondrian, Rothko, Pollock and Newman all possessed a meta-formalist belief in art’s transformative power. Mrkusich, likewise, though not a simplistic social utopian, has always shared that belief that his paintings “sustain” their owners through the direct, sublime experience of what they are rather than of what they are about. They are not a vehicle for discussing the ills of society, but an “antidote” to them.
Hanfling and Wright have provided us not only with a thoughtful monograph on an under-appreciated current in New Zealand art, but also challenged us by restating a profound question: what is art for?
Stella Ramage is an art history research assistant at Victoria University of Wellington.