Leonard Bell reviews Gretchen Albrecht for Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books


Leonard Bell has reviewed the revised edition of Luke Smythe’s Gretchen Albrecht: Between gesture and geometry for the Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books:

‘The first edition of Luke Smythe’s Gretchen Albrechtbetween gesture and geometry was published in 2018 and unsurprisingly sold out. This new edition this is more than a reprint: the numerous changes include a final chapter, “Time’s Measure”, which covers the years 2019–2022 and features twelve new full page reproductions of the paintings from that period.

Albrecht’s art is distinguished by its extraordinary orchestrations of colour and this new edition — with 170 full-page colour reproductions — reflects that. Luke Smythe has an intensive knowledge and understanding of Albrecht’s work. The writing about her paintings and collages is thoughtful, intelligent and measured; he contextualises them well in relation to both the New Zealand art world at the various stages of her long career and practices and trends internationally, especially in America and Europe. The only perplexing note is the epigraph, quoting John Berger: “Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance . . . is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the indivisible totality of existence”. Does such a condition as the “indivisible totality of existence” actually exist?

I’ve known Albrecht’s art since her first exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Lorne Street, Auckland CBD, in 1964, yet from Smythe I learnt a lot that I either did not know or had not thought about. Our “art world” in New Zealand is small, so full disclosure: since 1983 I’ve written several articles and catalogue essays on Albrecht’s work and for her most recent exhibition, Lighting the Path (17 November–2 December, Two Rooms Gallery, Auckland), I wrote the gallery text; at the accompanying launch of I gave the inaugural speech. To complicate matters further, I’ve known Smythe since he was a child. Could there be any more conflicts of interest? I’ve approached this review as a set of reflections stimulated by a book that explores prime aspects of Albrecht’s art and its relationships with art-making in New Zealand generally.

In my opinion, Smythe’s work is the best and most comprehensive piece of writing on Albrecht’s art and career. Smythe is a senior lecturer in Art History at Monash University in Melbourne. Born in Auckland, he graduated with a BA in art history and philosophy from the University of Auckland, then moved to the US for an MA at Columbia University and a PhD in Art History at Yale. His thesis focused on Gerhard Richter (born 1932), also the subject of his book Gerhard Richter, Individualism and Belonging in West Germany (Routledge 2022). Smythe has now been commissioned to write a monograph on another leading — and complicated — German artist, Sigmar Polke (1941–2010).’

Read the full review here.