Robert Ellis


ink on paper
760mm x 560mm

Note: This work belongs to a suite of three drawings that were made as studies for a screenprint included in the Multiples portfolio, published by Barry Lett Galleries in 1968.

Private Collection, Auckland.


Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis (Auckland: Ron Sang Publications, 2014), 18.


In part, the modernist project was a reaction to the impact of technology on society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and even perhaps to the first stirri...

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Estimate $2,000 - $3,000
Achieved $2,522.63

Robert Ellis

Motorway Junction


acrylic on paper

signed Robert Ellis and dated 1968 in brushpoint lower right

705mm x 695mm

Auction N˚6

Estimate $3,500 - $5,500

Achieved $5,405.63

  1. Charles C. Eldredge, “Pacific Parallels, Artists and the Landscape in New Zealand,” cited in Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis (Auckland: Ron Sang Publications, 2014), 54.

Mapping the Terrain

by Andrew Clark

In part, the modernist project was a reaction to the impact of technology on society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and even perhaps to the first stirrings of the information age, as old certainties and informational hierarchies began to erode. Elements of this approach can be seen in Robert Ellis’ practice, in that it is also an emergent response to technology, specifically the massive mechanisation and technical specialisation that took place during World War Two. Whereas the 1930s had been a decade of cautious, gradual change in New Zealand, after the war the pace of technological progress increased rapidly.

Robert Ellis was uniquely poised to document the cusp of the technological and societal transformations brewing in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He grew up in Northampton, England, during the war, which became the background to his early life. After the armistice, he studied at the Northampton School of Art, and then at the Royal College of Art in London. In 1947, he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force, where he worked as a photographer, processing aerial composite images. This view of the landscape from above, as a segmented, flattened space, made a lasting impression on Ellis. This technical training inflected and synthesised with his fine art background, resulting in a painting practice that displays a combination of the technical and the expressive.

Just as the postwar era radically altered people’s relationships to technology, as the innovations in mass-production and standardisation developed for the war effort were turned to civilian ends, it also altered the places where they lived. After the war, the way cities were navigated and constructed was radically reinvented in order to accommodate the booming automobile industry, which promised a future when each person would have their own car, and would travel through an “elaborately signalled landscape,” in J.G. Ballard’s words. This connection—between literal and metaphorical travel and connectivity, between transport and communication—is something that gives Ellis’ work an ongoing relevance. The reason modernism has continued to have resonance into the present day, even as its search for absolutes and ideal forms has been continually undermined and eroded by the informational and philosophical maelstrom of the internet, is that modernism is about communication, and Ellis’ work is no exception. Just as the way people thought about themselves was changing, the way they built their spaces was also about to undergo a massive shift.

New Zealand was no different; although on a vastly smaller scale, the construction of motorways in Auckland echoed the immense freeway construction project taking place in Los Angeles during the 1950s and ’60s. In both instances, the reinvention of the urban landscape had the side-effect of carving up the city into distinct clades or territories, divided by impassable barriers of steel and concrete. In the case of Auckland, although the motorways were at first fairly limited in scope, the effect they had on the inner-city suburbs was drastic; entire suburbs, such as Arch Hill and Grafton, essentially ceased to exist, or were reduced to shadows of their former selves, phantom post-codes haunting the gleaming, sun-flecked flyovers.

Travelling through these newly-reconfigured city-spaces becomes not a traversal of the streets themselves, but a process of engaging with a discrete technological matrix, that simultaneously enables a seamless transition between districts and neighbourhoods and insulates the driver or passenger from the intervening terrain. In this respect, the motorway acts like a circulatory system for the city, replacing the old, granular terrain of the traditional urban environment with a series of binary decision trees: on-ramp/off-ramp, departure/destination, slow/fast. No more would navigating the city space be a case of gradually progressing through a vertically-aligned space, that impedes our lines of sight and blocks our ability to travel, but instead becomes a case of travelling through channels and routes carved out in advance of our passage, pre-determined corridors that deliver us to our destination, but discourage any orthogonal modes of travel.