Zen, art and alchemy

INTUITIVE ARTIST: Max Gimblett at Page Blackie Gallery in Wellington with his signature quartrefoil stretched canvases.
INTUITIVE ARTIST: Max Gimblett at Page Blackie Gallery in Wellington with his signature quartrefoil stretched canvases.

Max Gimblett's highly successful career as an artist was in limbo for 20 years while a butterfly waited for wings. He tells the story to Diana Dekker.

Somewhere, probably, there is a tall Maori man aged around 77 who is oblivious to the the fact he gave Max Gimblett artist's block for 20 years.

New York-based Gimblett is, at 77, one of most successful New Zealand-born artists.

His clear, bright, immediate, signature quartrefoils currently sing from the walls of Page Blackie Gallery in Wellington.

He is the only New Zealand artist to have exhibited at New York's Guggenheim Museum, in the 2009 exhibition American Art and the East.

There his work hung beside that of Georgia O'Keefe, James McNeill Whistler, Robert Rauschenberg and illustrious others.

Zen-Buddhist Gimblett's exhibiting history and the repositories of his work are too vast to begin listing. But, when he was a small boy, an only child, in primer two or three at Grafton School in Auckland, his budding joy and confidence in his creative abilities were snuffed out.

Possibly they were unconsciously crystallising, waiting to be discovered when maturity and circumstances combined to make them feasible.

Gimblett remembers the teacher giving all the children chalk and asking them to draw something - the sort of thing that happens without dire consequences day in and day out at primary schools.

"I started on a butterfly and a tall Maori boy beside me drew a cowboy, a cowboy a la Warhol."

So impressive, so unobtainably skilful, did Gimblett perceive the cowboy to be that he stopped drawing the butterfly and forsook art for 20 years. "And when I started, at 27, what did I draw? The wings on the butterfly."

While Gimblett is talking, and a day before his Page Blackie Gallery exhibition opens, the gallery director discreetly sticks a red dot under Lighthouse, a large, silver black and white quatrefoil slashed with calligraphy.

Lighthouse, price $55,000, is destined for the wall of a modern, architect-designed house. The buyer has been waiting for such a deeply beautiful piece of work. The gallery already has a smattering of red dots.

Gimblett's life as an artist emerged after he had worked as a textile researcher and salesman at Courtaulds in London - "walking around with little bits of painting." He had also contemplated a writing career, become an apprentice potter, and met his Canadian wife of 50 years, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

She was 19, he was 26, a perambulating Kiwi in transit from London "with a big red beard and long blond hair - pretty wild"'. She was a university student, now an academic and programme director at the Museum of the Holocaust of Polish Jews in Warsaw.

His wife, says Gimblett, is "an extraordinarily thinking type. She encouraged me to raise my thinking". Gimblett is a feeling type. His eyes mist when he talks about her. They commute between New York and Warsaw. His wife, he says simply, "pretty much gave me permission to become an artist".

They decided not to have children and he studied drawing at the Ontario College of Art and painting in San Francisco. He did not finish a qualification.

"I had a problem with authority. I didn't take too well to discipline . . . my father."

Twenty five years on, at an exhibition of his at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco, he met his old art history teacher, and admitted that he had walked out on his classes. "He said ‘Is this your stuff? A-plus'. So I got my grades 25 years later. Eighty per cent of artists are self-taught."

Gimblett thinks, paints and lives in a loft apartment in New York's Bowry. His painting, is intuitive.

"It comes to me in a flash. I would be dishonest if I queried what came into my mind. I think sky blue and I paint sky blue. Painting, I have all mind and no mental action. I can think beforehand and after but not while doing the act of painting . . . It's part of my Buddhist training. I surprise myself. Ninety per cent I get it right and 10 per cent I get it wrong." When that happens the canvas is stripped for a new start.

What backgrounds the work is his knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity, alchemy and classical mythology. He believes himself psychic and intuitive. He has three assistants who work with him three days of the week. "Thursday, Friday and Saturday I'm alone and paint and draw and make books."

A painting, says Gimblett is like a body, a psychic reality. A painting can be entered, moved around in and exited. "A painting is healing and transformative. It's not decorative. It's a psychic reality. It's alive."

His energy is prodigious. He needs little sleep, goes to the gym two or three mornings a week, and drinks five or six cups of coffee a day. Seventy seven, he says, is "quite daunting, as a number", but he is in the best time of his life - "absolutely the best, the best in China, America and New Zealand, in my studio and my life.

I feel most sure of myself, my spiritual life is growing. I'm happy with the fact I became a Buddhist monk. I'm constantly in touch with my [Buddhist] teacher. He has the full robes and I have what my wife calls my bib, which I wear when I go to temple."

Gimblett regularly exhibits in New Zealand and contemplates buying an Auckland warehouse space so he can work as well as exhibit here. About half his sales are to New Zealanders. He holds American and New Zealand passports. "Please don't use the word expatriate," he says. "I'm not an expatriate. I'm a patriot. I'm loyal."

Max Gimblett's exhibition, On A Clear Day, is at Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington until April 6.