The Critic's Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971-2013

Christina Barton, Robert Leonard, Thomasin Sleigh (editors)
Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi
Victoria University Press, 2014

 

Beautifully produced, The Critic’s Part delivers a hefty selection of Wystan Curnow’s art criticism. He has been barracking for and explaining ‘‘the new’’ for the last 40 years. His descriptions, of events and performances, of the space and feel of many ephemeral installations, are detailed, effectively atmospheric and imaginable. Curnow remarks that perhaps all art should be reviewed as though it were impermanent; and it is true that there is a pay-off in terms of images and objects being ‘fixed’.

There is significant writing on internationally regarded New Zealand artists like Len Lye and Colin McCahon. There are interesting reflections on the uneven development of the visual arts and literature. Curnow’s writings allow one to gauge the similar yet different responses of Australia and New Zealand to the changes these decades saw.

The two countries are not strictly parallel universes – but both are much exercised by the fact of their distance from the dominant centres of the art world. How to get its attention? How to feel equal to it? Were these tiny ‘‘universes’’ exactly parallel, who, here, would be Curnow’s equivalent? There is no exact fit.

Curnow urges a distinctly hallowed conception of art and the artist. He can come across early in his career as a stern and overbearing Jesuit professing his ‘‘disappointment’’ at ‘‘the lack of generosity’’ shown by a putative thoughtless and ungrateful New Zealand public. It is amusing, and of course ‘‘a bit much’’. People will have put up with this in exchange for something intelligent to read: his exposition of difficult art can be pleasingly clear. His position can also be absurdly elitist and, in a prissily churchy language, the critic intones on the need for the provision of ‘‘psychic space’’ and security for ‘‘the artist’’. Presumably, readers were both incredulous and delighted.

 

Ken Bolton is a poet and art critic. He manages the Darkey Horsey Bookshop at AEAF, Adelaide