Northland Drawing

by Charles Ninow first published in Auction N˚1 catalogue, 25th Nov 2015

In 1958, Colin McCahon travelled to the United States of America, where the experiences and discoveries that he made during this two-month tour had a notable impact on the nature and direction of his artistic practice. Because McCahon was working as an exhibitions officer (essentially a curator, in today’s terms) at the Auckland Art Gallery during this period of his life, the trip was funded by the City Council, and it was intended as an opportunity for the artist to research the practice and protocols American museums. While McCahon was certainly able to gain first-hand experience of the workings of the country’s major collecting institutions, the trip became something of a milestone in his artistic career because it allowed him to experience contemporary American painting firsthand. Throughout his career, McCahon’s artistic strategies were often influenced by the discoveries and developments of other artists. However, prior to 1958 McCahon had, for the most part, experienced the practice of foreign painters through small reproductions that were often printed in black-and-white.

Before his American tour, McCahon’s paintings had primarily been influenced by turn-of-the century European modernism. Cubism, in particular, had a major impact on the way in which he worked. Upon McCahon’s return to New Zealand, however, the artist quickly unshackled himself from this European heritage and began to paint in a manner that was faster, messier and more gestural than before. McCahon’s exposure to the output of figures such as Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline is clearly evident in the paintings that he made following the American tour. Northland, which was produced in April of 1959, is one such work. In this painting, the way the artist manipulates wet media is of as much importance as the imagery which he seeks to convey. In limiting the painting to a single medium (indian ink) which is only available in one colour (black), McCahon ensured that residual marks such as brushstrokes and paint-splatter were as obvious as the subject matter which the painting sought to depict.

Northland belongs to a broader series of paintings by McCahon, all sharing the same title and all made in the same medium. This body of work was a departure from his earlier practice not only due to the manner in which it was executed but also because it was painted from memory rather than first-hand observation. In relation to the genesis of the series, McCahon explained that “my lovely Kauris became too much for me. I fled north in memory.”¹ This was a significant development for an artist whose work had previously been mostly a reflection of his immediate surroundings. When viewed in retrospect, this change of subject matter, from the immediate to the intangible, can be seen as a realisation on McCahon’s part that paintings had the potential to be much more than an illustration of a particular place or idea. The Northland series (specifically the works on paper of the very late 50s) sees McCahon recognise that meaning is conveyed equally by both pictorial content and the manner in which that content is described.

  1. G. H. Brown, Colin McCahon, Artist (Reed, 1984), 95.
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