Max Gimblett: Freedom Encapsulated

At 83 years old, New Zealand-born, New York-based painter Max Gimblett has established himself within a strong generation of abstract expressionists beloved on both sides of the Pacific.

Words: Mark Amery

RADIANCE, VIRILITY, VIVACITY, prodigiousness and abundance. Words that describe a Max Gimblett exhibition, but also the man himself. For in this artist’s work there is all of life’s creative spirit; the joy and sorrow, the peace and turmoil of living.

“Basically I don’t do much more than paint and draw,” Gimblett tells me, describing a six-day-a-week practice. “I have a couple of assistants in a big loft in New York. It’s about life.” Prodigious? Aged 83, Gimblett has four 2019 solo exhibitions in New Zealand alone. One is an entire Gow Langsford stand at Auckland Art Fair 2019. New York- based since 1972, Gimblett is part of a strong generation of American abstract expressionists and continues to exhibit in both America and New Zealand. The numbers stack up. Of 100 solo exhibitions, 54 have been back home. He’s beloved on both sides of the Pacific.

Made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2015, I catch up with Gimblett back in New Zealand on what he records as his 55th return visit; exhibiting, teaching and receiving a second honorary university doctorate from Auckland’s AUT. I wrote in Art Collector for Gimblett’s 80th birthday exhibition that “the internal bodily energy of life is at his work’s heart”. Western and Eastern cultural and spiritual traditions join on the Gimblett plane. Modernism meets Zen Buddhism in swooping, looping gestural marks within a calligraphic energy field; bound by exquisite use of colour and material. In new work this March at Wellington’s Page Blackie, there was a delight in the looseness and languidness of line on some occasions, electric snaking sprightliness on others. Freedom encapsulated.

The Gimblett is a distinctive language. It has changed over time – but much like a river does in changing course. “It’s a natural flow,” he tells me. “It changes with the season and certainly every year. I gave a lecture recently at Auckland Art Gallery on 55 years of practice and I was amazed at the amount, the range and all the different shapes. It looked to me like the work of two or three people!

“I paint gestural painting coming out of Bill [Willem] De Kooning and Japanese sumi calligraphy. I take the attitude of ‘all mind no mind’. You can think before and after, but not during the action of painting. The act of painting is in the fifth dimension. It’s more like dance, more like gymnastics than anything projected.”

An 83-year-old gymnast is quite different from a 24-year-old one. For the first half of his career, Gimblett says he did everything, including stretching his not-inconsiderably-sized canvases. He’s not capable of that now. Energy with his assistants has become increasingly important. However, the generosity he extends through his work and person remains potent. “I’m feeling a little bit of aging for the first time in my life! [But] I try to act like a 46-year-old,” says the artist. “Basically, a man shifts his ground in his mid-40s, with his midlife crisis. He shifts into gear for a very happy, very successful second half of life. The ground is shifting but I’m still giving four workshops to 80 to 100 people here in Auckland at AUT now… There’s definitely a wisdom that comes with experience.”

For AAF 2019, Gimblett is presenting oil-based high colour screen- prints on aluminium. Some are one of a kind, others are editions of 20. The form remains calligraphic, within his hallmark quatrefoil shape. Gimblett says the quatrefoil came to him in a dream in 1983 (“It said ‘Paint me, and I’ll heal you” he told a journalist last year of that midlife moment).

“The quatrefoil is an Indian tantric mandala, a female cross, a Christian middle ages form. It was on the pews of Saint David’s Presbyterian Church in my childhood,” continues the artist. “It is also a symbol of a South Pacific plant form. I’m one of the very few painters using this shape – and that is a mystery.”

This article was originally published in Auckland Art Fair Special Edition Art Collector, 2019. 

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