Don Peebles, one of the pioneers of modern painting in New Zealand died on Saturday 27 March at his home in Christchurch. He was 88. On behalf of Te Papa, I’d like to our offer sympathies to Prue, Don’s wife of fifty years, their children and grandchildren. He will be missed.
His first art lessons were in Florence at the end of the World War II, following service in the Pacific, Middle East and Europe. He learned about Cézanne with John Passmore in Sydney in the 1950s, where and began his journey towards abstraction. It was tough going: reviewing Peebles’ first solo exhibition at Wellington’s Architectural Centre in 1954, the Evening Post’s critic dismissed abstract art as ‘an obscure cult’.
In 1960 Peebles went to London on an Association of New Zealand Art Societies Scholarship. There he encountered the work of the British constructionist painter Victor Pasmore, later describing it as ‘like a kick in the guts.’
His own constructionist works – poised between two and three dimensions, between painting and sculpture – followed Pasmore’s logic but had a lyrical quality to them. Relief construction, 1966, which Peebles generously donated to the collection in 1991, was a particular favourite.
His work didn’t stand still for long. By the end of the 1970s, he was making expansive works like Untitled, 1978, a dazzling grid that unfolds over nearly eight metres of canvas. Fellow painter Toss Woollaston described the work well: ‘There is nothing mysterious here, nothing hard to understand. It is open handed painting, painted (as Cézanne said a painter should) ‘‘as a bird sings’’.’ This was followed by Peebles’ relief canvases, with their mysterious flaps and folds, and these grew and mutated into other forms. The last two decades saw no let up for Peebles’ tennis game or his painting.
He was afforded various honours. In 1999 Peebles was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the visual arts, and in 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Canterbury. The Arts Foundation of New Zealand made him made him an Icon in 2007, one of twenty individuals recognised for their life-long achievement.
I can’t recall when I first met Don Peebles – I come from Christchurch and he was always a strong presence there, as of course were his paintings. I do remember with great fondness working on his survey exhibition The harmony of opposites when it was shown at Auckland Art Gallery.
The show was toured by the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and I oversaw the exhibition’s layout and installation in Auckland. When Don arrived we went round the show together, and while I think he liked the hang well enough, he couldn’t resist giving one of his canvas reliefs a good shake because it was looking a bit flat. That would do, he said, but really, the best thing to do was to take them outside and turn the hose on them. He wasn’t kidding, either.
He was delightful company and a mine of interesting stories. At lunch a few days after the exhibition opened he was doing impressions of Clement Greenberg, who he’d kept in touch with since the American critic’s visit to New Zealand in 1968. ‘Ya know Don, I think ya might be on to something there…’ Clem was right about that.