Tom Kreisler was born in 1938 in Buenos Aires, where his Jewish Viennese parents had recently settled, after making their escape from Nazi persecution. Aged fourteen, Kreisler was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, George and Edith Roth, themselves refugees, in Christchurch. There he studied art at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, and in 1968 took up a position as art teacher at New Plymouth Boys High; later he lectured in art at the Taranaki and Waikato Polytechnic Institutes. Kreisler travelled extensively in Central America, during visits in 1959-60, 1977-79, 1988 (and South America) and again in 2000, basing himself and his family in Mexico City for periods. He died in 2002, aged 63, and his funeral took place at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
Kreisler’s first solo exhibition Murf the Surf took place at Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland in 1967. His major museum shows were the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s Not a Dogs Show in 1986, which toured to the Wellington City Gallery, and Private and Confidential at the Waikato Museum of Art and History, which was shown in New Plymouth. Another iteration of this project took place at Auckland University’s Gus Fisher Gallery in 2001, as part of the “Displacement and Creativity” conference. His paintings were featured in the touring show Putting the Land on the Map, 1990, curated to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. A major retrospective, Tom Kreisler, curated by his son Aaron and organized by the Govett-Brewster, opened there in 2007 and toured nationally (Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, ARTSPACE, Auckland and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery). Comma Dot Dogma, a monograph on his work, appeared that same year. Also, Tom Who? The Enigma of Tom Kreisler, a documentary by the renowned filmmaker Shirley Horrocks, was released in 2015.
Tom Kreisler was one of this country’s finest (and funniest) painters. He died too young—just one brush with death too many. And so there wasn’t time enough for word of how good he was to really get around. Maybe Two to Tango will help make up for lost time. This is an invitation to the dance.
Four weeks ago a Dr Leonel Alvarado gave a lecture on the tango and the bolero at Auckland Art Gallery and he said: Tango, the lyrics are about country left behind, family left behind, about loss, about looking to the past and not belonging either here or there. It was, he said, an identity crisis in music. The print series, Caminito (“little street”) is named after a famous tango, which has brought fame to the street in Buenos Aires to which it refers.
But what of the dance said to have originated in the poor La Boca district of central Buenos Aires? And how about the histrionically furious public couplings it entails? And what of those dogs that dance and prance in the paintings? Well, Tom said, “I started off with a ceramic [of ours] of two dogs sort of dancing which I at one stage used as a subject of a still life class . . . the dogs are given human qualities. They’re those little Mexican hairless dogs that the Indians . . . the Aztecs had these dogs as pets and food . . . these little dancing animals . . . representing both hope and futility and that sort of thing.”
Tom Kreisler was Tony Fomison’s contemporary. But could two painters be less alike? The argument between them matters a lot, because of how clearly it exposes what’s at stake in the painting of their times. To better grasp this it helps to bracket Kreisler with a somewhat younger set: with artists Greg Burke put in his exhibition Drawing Analogies in 1988, like John Reynolds, Paul Hartigan, et al, John Hurrell and Terrence Handscomb. Kreisler should have been in that show, for who else proved so well how drawing as investigative and metamorphic best practice can radically energize painting?
Two to Tango is dedicated to Lesley Kreisler, and Aaron, Eugene and Nick.