Monday, May 12, 2014

Post McCahon

If you follow the auction business you'll know that a piece of NZ art's true cross is on the block: Colin McCahon’s Partridge Street letterbox. It's been owned by the artist Paul Hartigan for the past 25 years and at one stage was incorporated into a photograph Hartigan made called Temple (thanks A). While the letterbox may not be art itself, McCahon did choose to sign it, as opposed to just painting his name in block capitals, say (although given McCahon’s history of ‘writing painting’ even that would have caused a flutter). The McCahon box is based on an American classic, the Joroleman mailbox. It was named after American Postal Department engineer Roy Joroleman who designed it in 1915, if the McCahon box is an official American one it will have the words ‘U.S. Mail and Approved by the Postmaster General’ stamped on its base.

In the taxonomy of the museum world objects like this (often offered up for donation) used to be wryly slotted into the “Nelson’s toe nail clippings” category, things that in themselves are only of limited interest but are highly valued by association. Simon Starling alluded to the allure of association when he produced his concatenation of copies based on the Australian writer Patrick White’s desk. McCahon’s letterboxes have their own independent art connection via the Australian artist Peter Atkins who has based at least one of his abstract paintings on a McCahon letterbox.  And while we are free-basing postal associations here, let’s not forget the 1997 issue of McCahon stamps.

But for now, if your heart is set on owning a Colin McCahon letterbox be prepared to stump up at the Art + Object auction (estimates $12,000 to $18,000) on 21 May.