It is with sadness that Te Papa acknowledges the passing last week of New Zealand artist Milan Mrkusich (1925–2018). Our thoughts are with his son Lewis, extended family, and friends.
Here we pay tribute to this pioneer of New Zealand abstract painting and his special relationship to Te Papa.
Milan Mrkusich spoke very rarely about his life or work, but for over 60 years his considered and committed art practice has had a profound influence on the artistic landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Early in his career, Mrkusich rejected the idea of regionalism and landscape art practices that were the focus of New Zealand art schools in the 1940s. Instead his interest turned to European modernism and the Bauhaus movement, and in the links that could be made between modern art and life through architecture, design and painting.
It was a move that in 1946 led to him abandon the figurative image and turn instead to geometry and the grid as a means of order. It was 15 years before his contemporary Don Peebles (1922–2010) followed suit into full abstraction. Already Mrkusich was leading the abstraction charge.
These formative influences, and his engagement with architecture as co-founder of the architecture and design firm Brenner Associates in 1949, can be seen in paintings like, Buildings, 1955.
In this work Mrkusich used the city lights of Auckland as a starting point for the attractive rectangular shapes of varying sizes, tone, and colour. Intuitively painted yet perfectly balanced, the works he produced during this period became larger and more abstract as he began to focus on the application of paint and surface texture, as well as the significance and meaning of colour.
Squares and circles
As his investigation of the formal language of painting continued Mrkusich developed his own visual language of geometric form. Squares and circles remained recurring motifs throughout his work. In the ‘Diagram’ series of the late 1960s they were pushed to the edges of the canvas, leaving a large ‘field’ of textural colour at its centre – as seen in works like Dark painting, 1967.
These works marked a turning point for the artist. His learnings at this time went on to inform his artistic output for the rest of his career; leading eventually to the highly formal and mathematically considered ‘Chromatic’ and ‘Shaped’ paintings of the 1990s and beyond.
There is much to say about Milan Mrkusich’s quietly meditative paintings, but in their 2009 book Mrkusich: The art of transformation, Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling most accurately express the enduring appeal and relevance of his work:
“In Mrkusich’s paintings small things matter. It is an art of subtlety and nuance, the careful edge, the faintest transition from one shade of a colour to another, the self-effacing touch – an art of things that are barely there, as if to suggest that experience itself is infinitely varied, shifting imperceptibly from one moment to the next: change, transformation, time.”
At Te Papa
If you live in Wellington or have visited Te Papa you will have seen Milan Mrkusich’s work. An example of his mastery of colour and space, and his passion for precision, is built into the very fabric of our building.
In 1994 Milan Mrkusich, along with 11 other invited artists and designers, submitted a proposal for an artwork for the exterior of Te Papa’s then unconstructed Cable Street building. Mrkusich won the commission and his array of coloured enamel-on-glass panels, two storeys high and running the length of the building along Cable Street were installed ready for the museum’s grand opening in 1998.
Next time you happen to stand on Cable Street in the sunshine, wind, or rain, take a moment to appreciate the enormous contribution this pioneer of New Zealand abstraction made to the art of Aotearoa.
– Te Papa’s Art Team
1 Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling, Mrkusich: The Art of Transformation, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009, p.113.
2 Ibid, p.10.
My favourite Mrkusich quotation is what he told the ‘Woman’s Weekly’ in 1969, in response to critics who still wanted to see a recognisable landscape element in painting: ‘You want a landscape? Take a drive to the country.’ He didn’t compromise, and his intelligent rigour is there for us to admire.