Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Wystan's world

The critic's part Wystan Curnow art writings 1971-2013 is an elegant book containing a selection of Curnow’s writings edited by Christina Barton and Robert Leonard. As Leonard says in his introduction, the great thing Curnow did was to leave New Zealand, and then come back. While Curnow could have gone on to have a successful academic career in the US, in 1970 he bought a ticket home.

The first thing to say is that this is a very good read. That's probably because Curnow has always had a firm grip on his position in regard to culture and is happy to put it in plain albeit stylish and sometimes playful language. You may not agree with everything Curnow says (why would you) but you could never accuse him of obscurity. The second point is that Curnow has a particular talent for sussing out where the interesting stuff is happening and going with it. His writing probably made some of it interesting in the first place. And it's good to have so much material so readily available. Curnow is also a diligent observer of our culture and very generous with giving over important dates, times and events.

Some of the pieces will be familiar to some readers but there are a lot of fresh connections to make now that it's all together. A nicely edited selection of photographs tells its own story - men in suits and with pipes look out at the world, people scramble across the moonscape of the Mount Eden Crater, the now vanished tiled floors of the Auckland Art Gallery take a formalist turn, and Colin McCahon holds the centre. The selection of writing feels pretty representative and the editors are relaxed about letting Curnow show his obdurate side when it works for him. He has always had a very personal take on what’s what so you get some odd artists corralled together and many, many important people and events missed out or skated over. Most notably this version of Curnow hasn't engaged with many women artists. Only three of the 22 chapters focused on single artists are devoted to them so let's note them: et al., Julia Morison, Linda Buis in partnership with Peter Roche and Jacqueline Fraser coupled with Gordon Walters. Obviously there are women included in some of the other chapters, but still.

What Wystan Curnow nails is a style of art reporting we don't see much. Even though he peers at things through a global lens Curnow is always fully engaged with the work in front of him. It's the local he cares for and like a concerned parent he urges it on to greater heights. An essay like High culture in a small province is still provocative reading and its updating at the end of this book demonstrates that Curnow hasn't let his guard down.

Now what’s needed is an annotated edition of Wystan Curnow’s travel diaries from his years in the United States. No pressure.

Image: The critic’s part: Wystan Curnow art writings 1971-2013, published by Adam Art Gallery | IMA | VUP with funding via Creative NZ. Edited by Christina Barton and Robert Leonard.