When Max Gimblett was eight he fell in love with America.
With Japan a growing Pacific threat during WWII, American troops moved into Auckland and Wellington in 1942. They also moved into Gimblett's backyard. "My father bought a second-hand caravan and put it on the back lawn and we had six or seven American soldiers and sailors stay every weekend. I fell in love with them. They became my big brothers," he says.
From that moment the US would hold a mystical attraction for Gimblett - now one of New Zealand's most internationally successful artists, home from New York last month, talking to Sunday in between discussing upcoming exhibitions and two teaching stints at Waikato Universityand Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts.
He first arrived in New York in 1957, in the era of the civil rights movement and the Beat Generation. "I walked down Broadway. I went into Jack Dempsey's Restaurant and ordered a steak. I looked up and the heavyweight champ of the world shook my hand. Then I went to a jazz bar and Stan Getz was playing... I was seduced," he says.
He's lived there ever since, working from the same 5000-square-foot loft in the Manhattan neighbourhood of the Bowery since 1974. He bought the loft apartment from James Rosenquist, one of the leaders of the pop-art movement. It's two-thirds studio space and one-third home-cum-library. His wife Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who spends time between New York and Warsaw where she is the director of the New Museum of the History of Polish Jews, keeps more than 20,000 books in the loft.
But despite the eternal attraction of the States, Gimblett's heart remains firmly in New Zealand. "I am very proud to be a New Zealander and I won't be talked out of it. My ashes are going to be scattered at Bethells. I haven't lost my New Zealand dialect."
The loft's library includes a huge collection of New Zealand cookbooks. And the artist's birth country has reciprocated the love. He sells well at home and has received the patronage of a number of local galleries. "I believe New Zealand has the highest proportion of art collectors and patrons of any country in the world per head of population," he says.
"It needs to be acknowledged, how supportive New Zealand has been of my career and me. I have been able to live in New York because of New Zealand."
Born in 1935, Gimblettwas raised in the Auckland suburb of Grafton. It was an independent childhood in a then rough suburb, with a tough father. He took up boxing at primary school. He would haunt the hallsof the Auckland War Memorial Museum. He battled his father, education and authority.Pushed away from art, he left school before completing fifth form (Year 11) and worked asa textile salesman.
"Creativity is innate," he says, "but there is the education system to get through.I was closed down from drawing at Grafton primary." He didn't draw again until he was 26. When he did start painting again, the clash with authority continued. He lasted just two months at the San Francisco Art Institute. "I was 28 years old and I was unteachable."
New Zealand art curator Hamish Keith visited Gimblett in San Francisco after he had dropped out of art school. "He looked over my shoulder at a pile of my drawings and made some comments. As I bristled he said: 'You've never had a critique have you?'"
He found his artistic voice in New York. Mentored by New Zealand filmmaker Len Lye, who lived round the corner in Greenwich Village, Gimblett discovered he had the ambition to be very good at what he did. "He taught me to go for the world stage. He taught me a verbal rap. He taught me to feel very free. He taught me not to be clichéd. But mainly he taught me to go for broke."
This desire to succeed on an international level meant New York had to be his home. Self-taught, he is the only New Zealand artist to have shown work at New York's Guggenheim Museum. At his last exhibition in Auckland, his paintings sold for up to $115,000.
"New York is anonymous. New York is ambitious. New York is a distribution centre. New York is great if you make a buck - it is no good if you don't," he says. Gimblett cites De Kooning, Pollock, Motherwell, Polka, Raphael, Michelangelo and Giotto as his artistic influences. His work has been described as "geometric abstraction". He frequently employs metallic foils anda quatrefoil shape (kind of a flattened, four-leaf clover).
"My ambition? I need to be a global painter. I need to be in the world scene. I need to be in the world history books."
The Bowery loft was the birthplace of his first developed work. He was 47 and it was his first taste of success. "My entire body of mature work hascome out of this one space. This space is like my skin. I am not separated from it at all," he says. "I have done extremely well. But if we had been doing this interview 45 years ago, I didn't have a dime."
The greatest aid to his success has been his ability to surround himself with others with the same ambition. "I have collected people - I have collected dealers, curators, writers, museum directors, artists."
Spiritual enlightenment and mental collapse have guided his success and style. He is a monk of the Japanese Rinzai Zen school. He was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 2006 and meditation is part of his intensive work routine. Japanese Zen masters come and visit Gimblett in his studio.
"There is a free interchange - it is psychic," he says. "It sounds loony, but they sit in the chair and look at me." Japanese calligraphy, sometimes refracted through his number eight wire attitude and performed with a 22-inch household mop, has become a powerful part of his technique.
"In many ways I am in the Asian tradition, and the Asian tradition has masters. I realised when I was about 50 I was a master. I am timeless. I am highly disciplined."
In 1983 Gimblett had a severe bipolar attack. Unresolved emotion towards his father rose to the surface. He couldn't paint for a year. But when he emerged his creativity had been fertilised. "Near the end of the year," he says, "the quatrefoil appeared as a mandala of wholeness." He ordered six symmetrical overlapping-circle canvases over two metres tall and began to paint.
"I looked at them and thought, these are difficult, no one is going to swallow these. I bought them back to New Zealand and showed them, and three or four of them placed in their first week. And what that showed me was that New Zealand would support me in whatever I do: 'If Max has done this, it is important.'"
Distance has made Gimblett's heart grow fonder of New Zealand. He is a member of Kea New Zealand's World Class New Zealand network. He finds a sense of hope in Kiwis and royalty in the country's landscapes. He loves its food and its women. "I am very attracted to New Zealand women and I am very attracted to the way they speak. I look at the skin on their face and it is very honest," he says.
"New Zealanders have an element of equality to them. They don't take any crap. They are fairly independent." The sand of New Zealand's beaches and the strength of the southern hemisphere sun have had an alchemic conversion into the gold of his art.
"Gold is consciousness. Gold is God. Gold is Jesus. Gold is majesty. Gold is the crowning of the self. If you gild gold for a week, you raise up. You float."
Gimblett is obsessed by gold and geometry. He takes shapes he finds in everyday life and turns them into huge regal statements. Giant golden Easter eggs play tricks on your eyes and tarnished quatrefoils glow dimly. He is also fascinated by the confinements of geometry. The lift to his loft dictates the size of his canvas. His large paintings slide in and out of the apartment with just a few centimetres to spare.
"If I lived in a different building I would be painting different shapes," he says. Gimblett says he has bipolar attacks every 21 years. And from each he emerges inspired and uplifted. "It is no fun, but when you get through it, it's great reward. You take off; you lift off. It is a type of shedding of skin."
His last attack was in 2004 and he thinks he is good for one more set of skin. "I'm going to make it to 100," he says. "I'll paint the day I die. Painting is effortless. Painting is a great joy."
- Sunday Magazine