Eye-opening experiences

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Tuesday 30 August 2011
Warwick Brown

Friend of the Gallery Warwick Brown shares his memories of the Gallery building in today's instalment of 'If these walls could talk...'

Having been born in 1940 I remember the Auckland City Art Gallery building when the southern end still housed the Old Colonists’ Museum and the library. The former was infrequently visited and the displays never changed. I often wonder what happened to the exhibits when this museum closed.

I visited the Art Gallery as a schoolboy, and it seemed very old-fashioned and atrophied to me. My earliest vivid memory is of the Henry Moore sculpture show in 1957. Moore was already my hero, and, as I had never seen a full-size piece, the maquettes on show seemed monumental to me. I spent hours at the exhibition and returned at least three times, jostling with the big crowds.

This experience was followed in 1958 by the excellent show of British art toured by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was my first opportunity to view a body of modern work from outside New Zealand, and it further opened my eyes, as it did for many others.

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Unknown photographer, Mackelvie Gallery Sculpture Court, 1953
silver gelatin print, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Archive Folder PH 01/15

I remember the alterations done to create a mezzanine floor, the new curving staircase guarded at the bottom by a sculpture of a nude seated man, hands on knees. On that mezzanine I will never forget the wonderful show of big, fluted, painted canvas works by Don Peebles. They seemed to me then, and do still, to be works of international importance.

Of the many great experiences I have had in the gallery since, the two big McCahon retrospectives first come to mind. After studying the one in 1972 (Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition) on two occasions, I decided McCahon was an invention of the art critics, who were putting one across the public. Thankfully, by the time of the second one the scales had fallen from my eyes.

What else? Frank Womble’s fantastic Zpace Zhow of assemblages, paintings and collage in 1978. Gavin Chilcott’s wonderful painted dining room in the 1980s. The Boyle family’s reconstructions of reality in the 1990s. So much more.

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Boyle Family, The Gisborne triptych, 1990
painted fibreglass, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1990

One thing I really miss is the annual show of emerging artists, drawn from around the country. To a young collector they were a great help. Why were they discontinued?