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.


Martin Mendelsberg said...

I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my dear friend and colleague, Don Peebles. As a very young Lecturer in Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury from 1973–1980, I was guided by his intelligence, artistic sensibilities and humanity. I count myself fortunate to have known one of the icons of New Zealand abstract art. I wish his wife Prue and children my heart-felt condolences.

Martin Mendelsberg
Professor: Design
Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design
Denver, Colorado

Nick Wilson said...

I like Marty consider myself fortunateto ahve known and in my case study with Don between 79-82. His advice, suggestions and observations still resonate. Watching him work through his office window, the little time I spent with him since then, at his studio and a summer school, remain an inspiration and guiding light. His work is magnificant.
Nick Wilson