Monday, March 29, 2010
Don Peebles, 1922-2010
Don Peebles, Work in Progress, 1980
A friend who worked as a cameraman in New York in the early 1990s had a polaroid of a vaguely familiar older man stuck to his fridge door. Yes, he said, it was Clement Greenberg; he'd just shot a documentary about modern art in which he'd been interviewed. During the shoot, when Greenberg discovered that his cameraman was a New Zealander, he asked if he knew an artist friend of his from New Zealand. "Don, his name is. Don Peebles."
I think this story illustrates a couple of things beyond the one- or two degrees of social separation that New Zealand is famous for. At a certain level, the international artworld is a club, or more accurately a series of clubs, in which the members recognise one another by their achievements and mutual interests. One of New Zealand's pioneering abstract artists, and an influential teacher of several generations of artists, Don Peebles -- not one, I think, to blow his own trumpet -- was a significant figure in the history of abstraction, connected at the highest level of his field.
At one of the public galleries where I worked, Peebles was a legend among the staff for his no-nonsense treatment of one of his 'fin' paintings on loose canvas, like that pictured above: in order to remove creases which had resulted from transporting the work, he took the painting outside, threw it on the ground, turned the firehose on it, and proceeded to shake and wrestle it into submission. I always loved the idea of this rough-housing by the artist, in stark comparison to the careful white-gloved museum-standard treatment of the work by gallery staff. Peebles's physical tussle with his painting revealed an entirely different kind of relationship with an artwork, one which I've always found instructive when thinking about his practice.
I was deeply moved to hear that a week or so before Don Peebles passed away, he visited the Christchurch Art Gallery in order to see, for the last time behind the scenes, his many works in the city's collection.