SHAPES OF SPIR­I­TU­AL­ITY

His sig­na­ture qua­tre­foil art­works are cov­eted by the world but colour­ful oc­to­ge­nar­ian Max Gimblett tells Sarah Cather­all it’s his fel­low New Zealan­ders who are the most con­stant and loyal

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

His sig­na­ture qua­tre­foil art­works are cov­eted by the world but colour­ful oc­to­ge­nar­ian Max Gimblett tells Sarah Cather­all it’s his fel­low New Zealan­ders who are the most con­stant and loyal.

Max Gimblett sweeps an arm around the light-filled New York loft that has been his art stu­dio for 43 years, and says: “I thought I would die in this room. I was con­vinced I would die paint­ing here.”

The 82-year-old ex­pat artist and Zen mas­ter turns to­wards a shrine of Bud­dhas sit­ting on a paint-splat­tered palatte ta­ble cov­ered with paint pots. His soft, grey-blue eyes fill with tears. White stu­dio walls are dot­ted with colour­ful Gimblett works — a green rec­tan­gu­lar work sits on one wall be­tween two sig­na­ture qua­tre­foil art­works. As fans whir to push away the 30-de­gree heat, art­works wrapped in pack­ag­ing lean against the walls, pre­par­ing to shift to a new space.

One of New Zealand’s most suc­cess­ful and in­ter­na­tion­ally prom­i­nent liv­ing painters, Gimblett has been work­ing in Amer­ica since 1962. Later this year, the artist and his wife, the aca­demic Bar­bara Kir­shen­blatt, will leave this 4000sq ft space — the stu­dio and their ad­join­ing loft apart­ment — and shift to another space and home on Broad­way: an 1884 build­ing.

The move is sig­nif­i­cant, as the prac­tis­ing Bud­dhist de­scribes the stu­dio as his “holy place”. “This room turned out to be my body. I feel the walls like my flesh,” he tells me.

In his ninth decade, Gimblett is re­flec­tive. Now a le­gacy artist, he has six books to his name, his art has been pre­sented in more than 100 solo ex­hi­bi­tions and is held in ma­jor pub­lic gallery col­lec­tions in the United States and Aus­trala­sia. He is also be­ing ac­knowl­edged by in­sti­tu­tions he has in­flu­enced: what is now AUT, where he stud­ied a man­age­ment di­ploma at night school in his late teens, has be­stowed him with an hon­orary doc­tor­ate, and one from the Univer­sity of Waikato for his ser­vices to the arts.

On a hot North­ern Hemi­sphere day, Gimblett sits in a chair near the shrine, re­fill­ing my glass with sparkling wa­ter as mu­sic plays softly in the back­ground on an end­less shuf­fle of CDs. He is, he says, ap­proach­ing his third Saturn cy­cle — the oth­ers came when he turned 28, and then 56. When he turns 84, his life will “round out”. “No one has a fourth cy­cle. It’s a time when I will come to full ma­tu­rity. I’ll be say­ing good­bye.”

I ask what hap­pened when he reached the last stage? At 56, he had a midlife cri­sis. “I had a doozy. It lasted years. I’ve had very heavy trans­for­ma­tion in my life. Artists do. The art doesn’t come from just any­where. It comes out of tur­moil.” He was, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, un­able to paint for a year, struck by un­re­solved tur­moil associated with his fa­ther. Asked about this now, he doesn’t want to elab­o­rate.

Gimblett wears a black paint-splat­tered apron boast­ing the New Zealand sil­ver fern. New York is home, but he calls his birth na­tion “my beloved New Zealand”. Even his lo­cal friends are mainly ex­pat Ki­wis. New Zealand, he says, has been kind to him through­out his ca­reer. His top deal­ers are Gow Langs­ford in Auck­land, Welling­ton’s Page Blackie, and Nadene Milne in the South Is­land. Many of his col­lec­tors hail from his birth coun­try. “My sup­port has been on and off in Amer­ica. New Zealand — solid as a rock. New Zealand deal­ers are very con­stant and loyal. I’m a pa­tri­otic New Zealan­der.”

Each morn­ing, he ar­rives at his stu­dio and med­i­tates be­fore the shrine of Bud­dha and Ganesh. He then be­gins work­ing at his paintsplat­tered ta­ble. There are two paint­ings of his wife perched near paint pots.

Aided by as­sis­tants, each art­work starts with a sup­port and a can­vas shape. Gimblett ap­plies lay­ers of acrylic paint of var­i­ous den­si­ties to the sur­face. When the light is right, he dips a Chi­nese horse­hair cal­lig­ra­phy brush into the paint, wait­ing for the colour to flow from his oc­to­ge­nar­ian body to the can­vas.

“I feel my body fill up with colour and it comes out my fin­ger­tips. If I go green, it comes out green. If I go red, it comes out red.”

“I per­form a ges­tu­ral mark, in­spired by spir­i­tual and dance tra­di­tions.”

Af­ter a few days of ob­serv­ing and con­tem­plat­ing the work, he coats it with resin to get the per­fect colour, cre­at­ing a shim­mer­ing, mir­ror-like sur­face, fi­nally gild­ing the cal­li­graphic stroke in pre­cious leaf metal. “Re­cently I have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous medi­ums mixed with acrylic paint cre­at­ing sur­faces that are as dy­namic, vivid and sat­u­rated as the resin sur­face with­out us­ing resin it­self. It is in­vig­o­rat­ing.”

1983 WAS one of the most sig­nif­i­cant years of his life. He went to In­dia and got a Bud­dhist guru, who helped him on his spir­i­tual jour­ney. That same year, he dis­cov­ered the qua­tre­foil shape.

“I’m go­ing to cry. I had a dream in 1983. It was a qua­tre­foil. It said, ‘Paint me and I’ll heal you’. No one else was paint­ing them. It’s the sig­na­ture shape.

“I or­dered six 19-inch qua­tre­foils. I painted them one at a time, paint­ing them on that wall there,” he says, point­ing. “I thought, these look awk­ward. They look like a Eucharist no one is go­ing to swal­low. But I took them over to New Zealand and half sold out within a week.”

He says: “Col­lec­tors come to buy a rec­tan­gle or a square work. Then they re­turn to the stu­dio to ‘buy a real Gimblett’.”

HIS WIFE of 54 years, Kir­shen­blatt, emerges from their apart­ment be­hind the stu­dio, linked by a dark hall­way lined with book­shelves heav­ing with rows and rows of books. In the open-plan liv­ing and kitchen area, she spends her days at a com­puter sur­rounded by stacks of books.

She calls him “Maxie”, they smile warmly at one another. The scholar, who is chief cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion for the Mu­seum of the His­tory of Pol­ish Jews in War­saw, is the “love of his life”. Kir­shen­blatt was born in Canada to Pol­ish Jews. He ad­mires her in­tel­li­gence, and his eyes well when he talks about the time she got her dis­ser­ta­tion pub­lished.

She shakes her head though, when he im­plores her to be part of his story. How­ever, she will talk about her hus­band’s art. “I’ve seen his art change and ma­ture. Peo­ple think of Max and think of his paint­ings, but I love his draw­ings, in some cases, even more. They’re their own thing.”

Gimblett rises from his chair and her cam­era clicks as he demon­strates mak­ing a cal­li­graphic ink work. He has been draw­ing in ink since he be­gan as an artist in the early 1960s.

With an A5 sheet of paper in one hand, he picks up his paint­brush, takes a deep breath, pauses as though think­ing, and streaks black ink across the sur­face. De­scrib­ing him­self as an in­tu­itive artist, over the next few min­utes, he makes three works, all dif­fer­ent; one with streaks like a light­ning bolt, while another is cir­cu­lar — another sig­na­ture Gimblett shape.

I ask Gimblett about the yel­low qua­tre­foil work on one white wall. Gold metal on the work glints in the af­ter­noon sun­light. “Yel­low is cer­tainty. Yel­low is an as­pect of the sun, and sun is con­scious­ness. In­dian gu­rus say there is no such thing as a per­son, and what is im­por­tant is the level of con­scious­ness. What the world is try­ing to do is come to a higher level of con­scious­ness.”

A work of that size will sell for about US$55,000 — an in­cred­i­ble price for some­one who grew up so poor he had to leave school to help sup­port his mother.

BORN IN 1935 and raised by his mother, a work­ing class Scot, and an aunt in Grafton, Auck­land, Gimblett vis­ited the Auck­land War Memorial Mu­seum weekly, in­spired by its col­lec­tions. At the age of 15, he had to leave school to work to help pay the rent.

In his late teens, he went to night school for three years at the now-AUT to get a man­age­ment di­ploma. At 21, he fled New Zealand. He says: “I re­ally ran away from New Zealand. I had quite a lot of tur­moil as a teenager and I had to run. I ran to Eng­land, and to New Zealand, then to Eng­land again. Then I learned to paint in North Amer­ica.”

He be­gan paint­ing in 1963, study­ing at the On­tario Col­lege of Art and the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute. When he and Kir­shen­blatt shifted to Austin, Texas, for her aca­demic post­ing, he be­gan ex­hibit­ing in dealer and pub­lic gal­leries.

“All those years, we lived off her univer­sity salary, which was quite small.”

I feel my body fill up with colour and it comes out my fin­ger­tips. If I go green, it comes out green. If I go red, it comes out red. Max Gimblett

Gimblett says he did his first ma­ture paint­ings when they moved into his cur­rent stu­dio in New York 43 years ago. Back then, the East Vil­lage road was home to artists and drug ad­dicts. “It was Skid Row. There were dead bod­ies at the en­trance,” he says.

Since then, he has painted hun­dreds, pos­si­bly thou­sands of art­works, in the space which gets af­ter­noon light. He won’t say the ac­tual num­ber. “My deal­ers don’t like it,” he smiles.

In the ci­ta­tion for his hon­orary doc­tor­ate, Waikato Univer­sity says Gimblett has forged a record of artis­tic achieve­ment un­matched by any other New Zealand artist in terms of his in­ter­na­tional prac­tice and ex­po­sure, while also de­vel­op­ing a con­sis­tent and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing in New Zealand. His work has con­trib­uted to the di­a­logue be­tween East and West, fus­ing el­e­ments from East­ern spir­i­tu­al­ity, cal­lig­ra­phy, and sumi ink paint­ing with Western con­cepts of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, mod­ernism and pop art.

ABOUT 20 years ago, Gimblett had a dealer show in San Fran­cisco, when two monks came. One in­vited him to the zendo for a cup of tea, and asked him to draw some cal­lig­ra­phy.

As they drew to­gether, the monk said, “You are my cal­lig­ra­phy teacher”. Gimblett says he turned to him and said, “Well, you’re my Zen Bud­dhist teacher.”

In 2000, Gimblett took a Bud­dhist name — Kongo Hitsu Kaku Shin (Di­a­mond Brush, Awak­ened Heart) and pre­pared to take his vows in 2006. “I’ve been spir­i­tu­ally search­ing all my life.”

He is re­fer­ring to his child­hood. An avid Sun­day school at­ten­der, he later be­friended the Amer­i­can Catholic sol­diers his mother in­vited into their home, at­tend­ing Sun­day Mass with them. Later, he trav­elled the world with his Pres­by­te­rian Bi­ble. A few years ago, Gimblett helped save the 1920s St David’s Church in Auck­land, mak­ing 800 15-inch qua­tre­foils in brass to sell. “I was able to give the church a cheque for $1 mil­lion.”

“Ti­betan karma says you have many lives, birth, death, in­ter­me­di­ate be­ings. Your spir­its build up life to life.

“I’ve had thou­sands of lives. I imag­ine I’ve been ev­ery­thing. I’ve been a mur­derer. I’ve been a crim­i­nal. Artists are imag­i­na­tive types.”

How much of his spir­i­tu­al­ity comes through in his art? “A hun­dred per cent.” He draws from Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­ity and clas­si­cal mythol­ogy.

Sip­ping wa­ter, he yawns. He still goes to the

I’ve had thou­sands of lives. I imag­ine I’ve been ev­ery­thing. I’ve been a mur­derer. I’ve been a crim­i­nal. Artists are imag­i­na­tive types. Max Gimblett

gym, al­though he’s not long ago re­cov­ered from an in­jured rib. Work­ing and paint­ing keeps him young.

It’s not a bad life for a man of his age: paint­ing for 10 months a year, and trav­el­ling for two, when he vis­its mu­se­ums, gal­leries and art studios for in­spi­ra­tion and to ab­sorb na­ture. “Art comes out of art,” he says.

Gow Langs­ford has re­cently se­cured a large archival space, which will be a home for his New Zealand works. There are projects in the pipe­line, but he can’t talk about them.

Gallery di­rec­tor Anna Jackson says Gimblett, who re­turns to New Zealand at least once a year, is one of the gallery’s early artists, ex­hibit­ing there since 1988. Gow Langs­ford holds a Gimblett show there ev­ery 18 months. It has also started man­ag­ing a large stor­age unit of Gimblett works in a spe­cial ar­chive — hun­dreds of works dat­ing back to the 1970s.

She says they had a show ear­lier this year of lim­ited-edi­tion art­works for a lower price point — $3500 framed — to bring in a new gen­er­a­tion of col­lec­tors. A qua­tre­foil will start at $15,000 and fetch up to $120,000 for a work. “His work is en­dur­ing. Some­thing that was painted 20 years ago can still feel rel­e­vant. There’s a story and a big char­ac­ter be­hind it.”

Asked how his work has changed over time, she says: “It’s easy to think that Max is mak­ing more of the same, but he has had some big shifts through­out his ca­reer. One of the big­gest shifts was when he ex­hib­ited at the Warhol Mu­seum in Pitts­burgh in 2011. That show was in­cred­i­bly bright and poppy, and there was a big shift in colour of his works at that time.”

Jackson says Gimblett has al­ways been com­mit­ted to New Zealand, and is a gen­er­ous bene­fac­tor, do­nat­ing art­works, along with his time, and giv­ing work­shops and pub­lic lec­tures. “He’s def­i­nitely bet­ter known here ... When he comes home he hits the ground run­ning. He’s more than dou­ble my age but he comes here and his di­ary is full.”

Asked about ca­reer high­lights, Gimblett reels off a few. A Guggen­heim cu­ra­tor, Alexan­dra Mun­roe, de­scribed him as one of the finest cal­lig­ra­phers work­ing in the West. Be­ing se­lected for a group show there, along with the one-man show at the Andy Warhol Mu­seum in Pitts­burgh.

At the end of the month, Gimblett and Kir­shen­blatt will move into a new home. The new space was in­hab­ited by a Swiss artist for more than 50 years un­til he passed away. The artist’s daugh­ter was happy that a painter of Gimblett’s stand­ing would con­tinue the tra­di­tion.

The stu­dio catches the morn­ing light. With typ­i­cal Gimblett warmth, he chor­tles that he will switch to be­com­ing “a morn­ing artist”.

And with a part­ing state­ment that sums up this ec­cen­tric artist, who is as colour­ful as the art­works he paints, he says: “Some peo­ple say that they’ll die mak­ing love. That’s not me. Now I’m go­ing to die paint­ing in another room.”

Max Gimblett

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