The Listener asked as many people as we could think of – friends, art-world figures, writers (in many cases a combination of all three) – for their memories of and thoughts about Ralph Hotere, who died on Sunday, aged 81. These are the first of them, but we will be adding more as the week goes on, so do check back.
Billy Apple, artist, friend: “I bumped into Ralph Hotere and [his then wife] Cilla McQueen outside King’s Cross Station, London, in the early 60s. We went for a beer. They brought me up to date with the New Zealand art scene and in particular Dunedin’s, which I knew nothing about. Ralph was instrumental in my showing at Dunedin’s Bosshard Gallery in 1979. He helped me install the show, which we redid some 30 years later. I was delighted he was able to be there — he assisted me in 79 then I turned around and assisted him 2008. He was a generous man, for whom I have a great deal of respect.”
Kriselle Baker, art historian, author of The Desire of the Line: Ralph Hotere Figurative Works and, with Vincent O’Sullivan, Ralph Hotere: “I first met Ralph in 2000, and since that time have spent hundreds of hours researching and cataloguing his paintings. Over the course of those years, it became increasingly apparent to me how deeply embedded his Maori heritage was within his work and how much that heritage influenced his perception of death and his use of black. If 20th-century art and modernism are the gloss of his paintings, it is the tangi and the karanga that haunt the depths of his work. The wailing of the kuia and the sadness of losing those close to you has always been there, from the first of the Sangro paintings through the decades of black of the Requiem works and into the angry slashes of acrylic on canvas and corrugated iron of the protest paintings. The one painting that is for me closest to the essence of the person I knew is the Godwit/Kuaka mural (now, thankfully, on display at Auckland Art Gallery). The thin chords of colour hum and vibrate with a keening sound that falls away into the liquid darkness of the black and the recitation of the tauparapara that speaks of death and the afterlife. Now that he has gone, that work seems more full of sorrow.”
Jim and Mary Barr, art collectors, bloggers: “Writing a piece about an artist who wouldn’t talk about his work was always going to be a challenge but when we got a reply back from Ralph Hotere it was warm, if unyielding on the interview thing. ‘I really have nothing to say to you,’ he wrote, ‘but you are more than welcome to come and spend a day with me and my work.’ So we did. Ralph was wry and funny and thoughtful, never once suggesting the two Wellington eager beavers might be keeping him away from important work. Of course, we tried to put questions to him, and he gracefully avoided answering them while keeping up a series of interesting discussions about the battles he was having over his land, what was going on in the world and local art scene, an exhibition that was coming up, and so on. All this was background to wandering through his studio and later having a meal up at the house. That was where we discovered Ralph was not only immersed in his own art but also a passionate collector of his peers and friends. On the walls were terrific works by Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Robin White, Pat Hanly, Tony Fomison, Jeffrey Harris, Michael Smither and many more. It was a collection you could cheerfully use to stand up for the 60s and 70s in any public art gallery in the country. Later, we would work with Ralph on some more commercial projects and discovered his enjoyment in collaboration. Always his own man, he was somehow able to insinuate his strict requirements seamlessly into the restrictions of the project. We have seen this same powerful modesty at work on the marae, where it is so often the quietest person in the room who is having the most telling effect on the outcomes. Ralph was that sort of quiet.”
Sebastian Black, formerly of the English department at the University of Auckland, friend: “In 1978, Ralph, with [then wife] Cilla and [daughter] Andrea, stayed for a few weeks in my house on the Balearic island of Menorca. This was the year in which he did his Avignon paintings commemorating the death of two Popes, but on the island he painted large canvases in white, offset by the odd splash of colour. They evoked the brilliant blue of sky and sea alongside the dazzling white of the houses. He left one in the house, and, generous as always, brought me one back as a gift. In both paintings, he placed the outline of three stylised fish. How the intelligentsia had fun. ‘Hotere has found another early Christian symbol,’ they proclaimed, when the only way to find my house was to follow from the airport direction markers of similarly drawn fish. Of course, Hotere knew what he was creating: both signpost and symbol.”
Shane Cotton, artist: “I remember seeing Ralph’s Black Phoenix at Shed 11, Wellington, in the late 80s – its sheer scale and physicality! It had a menacing presence that filled the space, but there was a great beauty in the structure and the composition. Seeing this work was a defining moment for me and hugely influential. It caused me to question the very nature of contemporary Maori art, and to re/consider its place within New Zealand art practice. Without doubt one of our greatest artists, whose legacy will continue to influence many more generations. E te Rangatira, haere atu ki te po nui … moe mai i te rangimarie.”
John Coley, artist, art writer, former director of Christchurch Art Gallery, friend: “There are myriad stories of Ralph Hotere’s responsiveness and generosity. In the early 80s, when he made his first corrugated iron works, I wrote in a Christchurch Star column about the extraordinary creative leap he had made taking a commonplace Kiwi material, with which almost every New Zealander had connection, and re-presenting it changed into images that netted memories of retrieving tennis balls from the roof and holidays painting the bach, while carrying messages of moral strength and national identity. The corrugated iron fence and roof would never look quite the same after Hotere. My enthusiastic piece was titled Hot Paintings on a Tin Roof. Some weeks later, a tube arrived containing a rolled sheet that opened into a Hotere original. He had riffed on the title of my piece, taking an item of domestic equipment, an iron, turning up the heat and scorching its heart shape silhouette onto the paper. Below this, he sketched a sheet of distressed corrugated iron, labelled TIN ROOF. At the bottom was a brief personal note, the title, his signature, address and the date, 10 VIII 80. The work encapsulated Hotere’s playfulness and displayed his virtuosity in conjuring up an unexpected purpose for a device for smoothing laundry. The idea having arrived, he made perhaps half a dozen related works in one session. I imagine him creating these with gusto, pleasure and total, timeless immersion in the creative process. I also imagine a viewer at a gallery suddenly realising the scorch mark as being something familiar. The domestic electric iron would never look quite the same after Hotere.”
Bill Culbert, artist, friend:
Ralph Hotere left us his Art,
as a Friend he will be missed,
a great Friend,
talking about his work Ralph
said, “say nothing , the work
speaks for itself”.
pinot noir bill culbert
Robert Ellis, artist, friend: “Ralph was a dear man. I first met him in 1961. We exchanged paintings in the 70s and he hung mine up in his bedroom, on the wall at the foot of his bed. Mine was an oil painting called Roads into the City with Red River (1966). We have his painting hanging in our living room and it’s a precious family treasure. It’s called Requium (1973, lacquer on hardboard). Anyway, some years ago a courier delivered a huge package to our home and when I unwrapped it I found the painting I had given Ralph, no note, no message, just the work. I was bewildered and a little bothered by the thought that maybe Ralph had got tired of it. I happened to meet Pat Hanly at a party and he said Ralph had returned his painting and I, of course, said Ralph had sent mine back as well. We were both a bit taken aback at the thought he didn’t like our paintings anymore, or worse still, he didn’t like us. We discussed it at length and came forward with wild speculations about why Ralph had rejected the works. The stories grew in magnitude with each glass of wine. At home, I revarnished the painting and stored it in my studio facing the wall. I didn’t want to be reminded of the rejection. A few months later, my wife, Elizabeth, and I visited Ralph and his wife, Mary, in their home at Careys Bay. I think Liz was there with another board member, to present the Te Waka Toi Supreme Award to Ralph that day. We made the presentation and then, when everyone had gone, I had a quiet talk to Ralph. I asked him why he’d sent my painting to me. I said, ‘Didn’t you like it anymore, were you tired of it?’ Ralph was surprised and shook his head. He was really emphatic he’d returned my work and Pat’s because he’d heard we were both unwell and he wanted us to have our paintings so we could sell them to pay medical expenses. We were moved by this act of selflessness. Liz said it was an act of love. We were quiet for a while. I told him I couldn’t keep the painting because it wasn’t mine and I’d send it back to him. He pointed to the blank space on the wall at the foot of his bed and said, ‘Yeah, do that, Bob, that’s where it belongs.’ What a relief for both of us. We talked about other things, other people, other times, but he kept coming back to the painting and telling me not to forget to send it back. At the door, he repeated it: ‘Don’t forget, Bob, send the painting.’ As soon as I got home, I called the courier and sent the painting on its way. I remember that day so vividly. We saw the painting on his wall the next time we went to see him. It filled the gap. I remember him through this story and it encapsulates a man of tireless creative energy and immense generosity of spirit.”
Marti Friedlander, photographer, friend: “Our first meeting was in 1978, and I spent a day with Ralph at his home in Dunedin, taking photos for the Contemporary New Zealand Artists A-M that was to be to be published in 1980. He gave me free rein to take photos of him, and I felt so utterly privileged to be there. We ‘clicked’ immediately, and from that first meeting continued a collaboration that was to last many years, and during which we forged a quiet and strong friendship. I did love Ralph. It was impossible not to respond to his warmth and generosity, as well as to be moved by his wonderful work, some of which I have in my home and enjoy seeing every day. He was a ‘Mensch’!”
Jim Geddes, district curator of Eastern Southland Gallery, friend: “In 2001, Ralph and [his wife] Mary organised to gift 36 of his works to our small gallery in Gore – and that act of generosity gave us an incredible boost. I guess he always had a soft spot for the underdog – not only for little places such as ours, but also the artists, writers, sportspeople (golfers) and social activists he thought deserved more support and attention. He was a very generous man on so many levels, but he also possessed this very quiet and determined commitment to both his immediate and wider communities. If you didn’t know him that well, he could seem very shy and a little difficult to talk to. We often worried about what he might think of any exhibitions we staged utilising his works – ‘What if he said something … what if he DIDN”T say something.’ It was generally understood he didn’t like to talk about his own work, because that would mean talking about himself, but he always seemed happy to talk about good art, good books, good wine, good food, good music, good people, good causes … in that sense, I guess, he WAS talking about himself.”
Jenny Harper, director of Christchurch Art Gallery: “Ralph was in every way an extraordinary artist: a colourful and yet humble magician. He seemed to be a real alchemist, taking ordinary materials and collected items and transforming them into something ‘other’ and then releasing them to life in another world. I shall never forget seeing the majestic Black Phoenix (1984-88) installed in Shed 11 on Wellington’s waterfront. It had just been finished, and looked spectacular, the prow of a burnt fishing boat arranged with other planks of burnt wood, some parts polished back, others left as they were. We [at Shed 11] were the National Art Gallery then, and so pleased we could buy it with a bequest. But I also love the works in Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu’s collection. Hotere had a real ability to transform our notion of black – to force recognition of the qualities of this colour. And his smaller works on paper were such simple statements. He and Bill Culbert were close friends and their collaborations, sculptural and other, will remain a great testament to both men: so willing to engage with spaces, issues and work together to bridge any sense of cultural divide in this country. Haere ra, Ralph.”
Jeffrey Harris, artist, friend: “For much of the early 70s, Ralph was like a father figure to me. It was he I would first turn to when I was in trouble or needed advice or assistance. In the studio building in Castle St we shared in 1970, he would often work at night or in the weekends. I remember the transparencies of Matisse and Rembrandt scattered along his table with bottles of ink and watercolor. Discarded works lay among the debris on the floor. He was immensely supportive towards me and I will never forget his generosity and loyalty. He was a true friend. One could see how women were so attracted to him. The smoldering intensity, the silences, the gentleness, the understanding and knowledge he possessed. You could see it in his eyes as he touched your arm. The greeting, the goodbye. Ciao, Ralph. I’ll never forget.”
Patu Hohepa, former Maori Language Commissioner, emeritus professor of Maori language at the University of Auckland, friend: “Yes, we were distant relations, we were close friends at the University of Auckland, and there were times in homes and pubs and parks and offices when we voiced our hopes, dreams, and despairs. Then the long times apart. Otago is a world away from Auckland and Northland. Ralph, moe mai rā e te hoa i waenga i nga whanaunga, tirotiro atu ki te tai tapatū a Kupe, te tai hauāuru i herea e Kupe ki tōna marowhara. You are the exemplar of what we of the north would love to be – the greater the fame, the more humble we are. It is a three-word code we are constantly enjoined to practise – whakaiti, whakaiti, whakaiti. ‘He kuaka marangaranga kua tau ki te tāhuna/A godwit who has been away for a long time returns to its sandy shores’ is our vision of the foremost Aotearoa New Zealand artist coming home to Hokianga. Ka tuohu koe, he maunga teitei. And if you bow, let it only be to a lofty mountain. You are that. Haere rā. Waiho mā ngā roimata e mau i te aroha.”
Hamish Keith, art commentator, Listener columnist: “Ralph Hotere was a warrior artist. Some of his greatest works embraced great causes and there is no doubting the impact they had. We should never lose sight of the truth, though, that these works never faltered in the elegance, power and beauty of his art. We should never forget, either, the easy humour and wit that ran through them – long after the cause has faded, quips like “Land of the Wrong White Crowd” or “It’s a Black Union Jack” will takes us back to the immediate humanity of the man. Much has been made of Ralph’s use of black – too much perhaps – and we need to be reminded the artist was a great colourist. The vast mural Godwit/Kuaka now in Auckland Art Gallery is one of the finest works of colour in 20th-century New Zealand art. And how much to the point Ralph was to choose a waiata of Te Aupouri, greeting the arrival of our greatest and boldest migratory bird, to welcome travellers arriving in this land or natives on their return home. Like Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere was a builder of bridges between people. Our culture is the greater for his time in it and while we farewell the man his art is still with us and the conversation with it that shaped our own voice continues.”
Mary Kisler, Auckland Art Gallery curator, art writer: “Gazing at Ralph Hotere’s art can be like stepping over a threshold into a different sphere. His work has the power to move you in unexpected ways – you have to be prepared to give it time, to ponder and reflect in order for its meanings to emerge. A master of dark and light, he could create surfaces that are determinedly challenging and provocative, the means by which he took up the political and social causes for which he is famous. Only Ralph could combine paint and corrugated iron in such a way that crumbling columns of Greek ruins become vital elements in his protest against the possible degradation of Aramoana. Equally, the blackened glass of a domestic two double-hung window, perhaps with touches of gold, can draw you into the mysterious spaces of the heart as well as the mind. He understood the need for majesty. He knew how to turn charred wooden planks and the crusted prow of a boat into a work so powerful speech is stilled in its presence. Black Phoenix has the ability to confront you with a sense of something otherworldly – some might say divine. Ralph saw aspects of this when he spent time in Spain – drawn to the region’s visceral, sometimes anarchic nature, where histories of blood, struggle, faith, life and death simmer beneath the surface of everyday life. To me, seen from a distance, that ship’s prow becomes a darkened silhouette – like a great, caped figure, arms outstretched – either warding you off or waiting to embrace you. As a close friend of Ralph’s remarked to me today, while some have described him as a reticent man, his paintings can shout, and he always let them do the talking.”
Janne Land, Hotere’s Wellington dealer from 1978 until her retirement in 2008, friend: “It was a privilege to be Ralph Hotere’s dealer. We became friends as well. His work was exciting and always innovative. I looked forward to each of his shows – he always had his finger on the pulse of New Zealand. Politics, race, environment – you name it: his views were all the more explicit in paint. You only have to look at his works in an chronological way to see his concerns and involvement in social movements, and to gauge the temperature of our society at any given time. What a legacy. Not many painters can do that for us. He did not need to do talk shows or front up to red carpet soirees. His circle of mates was an eye-opener for art industry people lucky enough to catch him off guard. While he liked the company of artists (he put in a word for good ones who needed a leg-up), he was just as likely to be found in the company of a retired stock agent, fishermen, golfers, writers or jokers who plied trades. He survived the effects of his stroke as best he could; it goes without saying his endurance alone was evidence of great courage and of the loving attention his family gave him. I can’t imagine I’ll ever meet anyone like him again.”
Jeanne Macaskill, artist, friend: “I first got to know Ralph in 1952 when we were students together training in the Gordon Tovey Art Advisors Team at Dunedin Teachers Training College. The next year we worked together in the Auckland Education Office for a year. When Ralph was in London, he often spent much time with me and my husband and we showed in group exhibitions together. I watched as his work developed and was very fond of him .As a person, he was very gentle but held strong views and was extremely inquisitive and interested in many things. The art work he was doing at the time was very experimental and creative and he was constantly looking at new ideas and approaches. But it was not till I returned to New Zealand in the early 1970s that his work really spoke to me. There was a travelling retrospective exhibition of his paintings shown in Wellington. When I went to it, I had a completely open mind about what I would see. I had been living in London for 17 years with times in France as well and I was completely immersed in the international visual arts scene. My eyes were very used to looking at major works of art in London and Paris’s top galleries but when I saw Ralph’s work I was completely floored. I stood in the middle of the gallery and wept copious tears. Never had I seen such powerful New Zealand painting before. Not only was it so strong in its emotional statements, so bold in its deep blackness (both in colour and also in sense), but it was so elegantly painted with such discipline and skill, and had an element of sophistication that was breathtaking. It would look good in any of those great London galleries. But I think what really got to me most of all, apart from the beauty of many of the works, was that it was so recognisely New Zealand. It expressed our biculturalism so dynamically. That day and that exhibition are probably the most memorable experiences I have had in the 40 years since I have been back. Alhough I saw Ralph from time to time, that experience stays with me. I often think how amazing it is that a boy who grow up in a large poor family in a house with an earth floor could grow into such an extraordinary artist. A truly exceptional figure in the art world and a great man.”
Cilla McQueen, poet, former wife:
Some memories from the 70s
121 Forth Street
Ralph made for himself a dark brown hat of cowhide, laced together with leather thong, with a plaited band. He crushed, twisted and jumped on it to soften the leather, put it on his head and hardly took it off for years. He taught me to spin straight from the fleece, on a small wheel he had retained from the Education Department. I spun and knitted an enormous jersey, which he also wore all the time. Black hair and beard, leather hat, pipe or cigarette, rough dark brown natural wool jersey, bright dark eyes. He liked the blue whorls of his cigarette smoke. This smoke found its way to curl in behind the glossy surface of the black paintings. He was not at all timid, but very shy of the art world.
27 Harbour Terrace
I came home from teaching one day and the kitchen wall was gone. ‘Don’t worry,’ Ralph called from the roof, ‘It’ll be fixed before dark.’ Barry Brickell had been working at the Aurora Terrace studio, where he had built a wood-fired kiln and was producing his hand-built, salt-glazed and terracotta pots. Some of the salt-glazed bricks were ideal for the back of the arched fireplace that now rose, freestanding, in the back yard. A new-old coal range appeared and the bricklayer made a wooden form for the arch – the dimensions supervised by Ralph, who was meanwhile extending and constructing the new room, as much a sculpture as a kitchen, made of hand-planed and adzed recycled kauri beams, floorboards and old furniture. Linseed oil gave the whole place a golden glow. At the last moment he decided to put a skylight in the roof, through which one could see the stone chimney-top, the sky, birds, rain, hail, snowflakes. It was all done without plans, by eye – his eye, a straight one, with its beautiful sense of proportion and perspective. A leadlight church window and French doors completed this domestic sculpture, whose shelves were at once filled with Brickell pots and cups and plates, with drawings and paintings. The Song Cycle banners were begun at night on trestle tables on the back lawn outside the kitchen window, under studio lights strung on extension cords, in light rain. I brought him cups of tea, and wine. The neighbours complained about arty hippies moving in to Careys Bay.
When the kitchen at home was finished, Ralph turned his attention to the new studio at Observation Point. This had been the coachhouse of the old stone house close by; it was derelict and had been used as a henhouse and shed, but we liked the wavy red brick floor and the beautiful situation looking out over the harbour to the heads at Aramoana. Ignoring the probability of the section’s eventual requisition by the Harbour Board, Ralph remodelled and rebuilt it in the same way as he had the Careys Bay kitchen. Eventually, the studio stood in a garden surrounded by sculptures. There was a pot-belly stove, a toilet cunningly connected to the sewerage, a garret room upstairs and several areas to work. When he ran out of space to work, he simply added more. Many artists and musicians came there; aroha filled that place with conversation and laughter.
When Ralph, [his and McQueen’s daughter] Andrea and I had found a place to live in Avignon, we went to a hypermarché – amazing – the Warehouse was unknown in New Zealand at that time. Ralph bought a large sheet of plywood but omitted to tie it securely to the roof of Vanessa Red, our Ford Escort stationwagon, so it crashed on the road, nearly caused an accident and broke in half. Luckily, there was enough of it left for him to wedge in the branches of the old apricot tree in the garden of Ma Villa, on the Ile de la Barthelasse, close to the old Pont d’Avignon. While Ralph painted in this plein air studio, I sat under the trellis at the long table and wrote a journal – a salutary, solitary practice I have continued ever since. We knew these were precious days, of dappled sunlight, warm earth, lavender, grapes, melons, rosé wine. I wrote because a camera was not enough.
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, Maori art historian: “Mitimiti, an isolated settlement north of Hokianga, Muriwhenua, lies directly under the flight path of departing spirits on their way to Te Rerenga Wairua, the leaping off place at Te Reinga, and from thence to the fabled ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. It was at Taikarawa, Mitimiti, that Ralph Hotere was born on August 11, 1931. For most of his adult life as an artist, he chose to live almost as far away from his birthplace as it was possible to live: Port Chalmers on Otago Harbour. But Mitimiti always lay close to his heart. If ‘The child is father of the man’, Ralph’s upbringing as a Māori and in the Roman Catholic faith (Mitimiti is a stronghold of Te Hahi Katorika, the Catholic Church) furnished his sensibility with mystical imagery, language and concepts from a dual heritage to which he was to refer constantly in his art. It is in the whare tupuna, Tūmoana, on Matihetihe marae, and in the church, Hato Hemi (St James), that the most sacred events in the cycle of life are played out for Ralph’s whānau, hapu and iwi. When his mother, Ana Maria, died in 1972, his great friend Hone Tuwhare, also a man of the north, and later, like Ralph, an inaugural Icon of the New Zealand Arts Foundation in 2003, inflected his elegiac poem A Fall of Rain at Mitimiti (published in 1974) with imagery drawn from the church, and its liturgy and the natural environment. Ralph’s father, Tangirau Hotere, died in 1982 and the whanau gathered in Tūmoana for his tangi. In her memorial poem Tangi at Mitimiti, Cilla McQueen compiles snatches of words to convey the splintering of emotion as the ancient rituals are re-enacted. She mentions the meeting house and the urupā Hione (Zion) but turns for solace to the natural environment – the beach, Moetangi (the stream), a stand of mangrove trees, the mountains, a hovering godwit and ‘of course/the cold rain’. Ralph quoted four lines from this poem on his drawing From Tangi at Mitimiti –a poem by Cilla McQueen. In his series Towards a church window at Mitimiti (1982), Ralph names locations along the West Coast of Muriwhenua, including Tarakeha, the mountain that looms over the marae, and the whare Tūmoana. All of the foregoing information I set out in an essay I wrote on Ralph’s links with Mitimiti, published in the catalogue Turuki, turuki! Paneke, paneke! When Māori Art became Contemporary for Auckland Art Gallery’s 2008 show commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first exhibition of contemporary Māori art. Ralph’s wife, Mary, read the draft of the essay to him and they were both moved by it. And now it is profoundly moving, and comforting, to think that this great artist, the most honoured New Zealand visual artist of all time, loved and revered by Māori and Pākehā alike, and one of our ‘immortals’, himself makes the customary journey to join his ancestors. Following a Requiem Mass in St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin, Ralph is returned to his humble origins in Mitimiti, to lie in state in Tūmoana, where his whānau and hapu keep vigil, and where many of his friends, fellow artists, members of the art community, political leaders and people from all walks of life travel great distances to pay their respects to this very remarkable New Zealander. His mortal body is laid in the ūrupa Hione, to join other members of his Rarawa and Aupouri affiliated whānau: his spirit is released into the ether, to undertake the journey to Te Rerenga Wairua and onwards to Hawaiki. E te rangatira, e te hoa aroha, haere ra, haere ra, haere atu ra.”
Bill Manhire, poet, friend: “You can talk about Ralph and his work in all sorts of ways. Most visibly, there’s Ralph as political activist. There’s also the way in which he figures forth Lorca’s idea of duende – often in the paintings that incorporate words, and especially in the Sangro sequence; but also in a monumental piece like Black Phoenix. “All that has dark sounds has duende.” But for me a central part of him was the sense of mischief that could turn up so suddenly. A couple of very different examples … When we were living in London in 1981, he sent a Christmas letter on the back of an A4 poster for an exhibition, Towards Aramoana, at RKS gallery. The poster showed a Gary Blackman photo of the official Aramoana aluminium smelter proclamation, an ugly signboard hammered into the landscape notifying the proposed development. An angry bucket of paint had been thrown over it – erasing words rather than adding them – and the drips ran down in a familiar way. Ralph added a note to his letter: ‘Probably the best painting I’ve done in 30 years. It took me 2 seconds.’ In 2006, I recklessly mentioned to Ralph that I was writing a blog for the New Zealand Book Month website. About a year later, a white teapot found its way from Careys Bay to Wellington. Inscribed in a circle on the lid were the words: “For Marion and Bill from R & M.” On one side of the teapot was a magpie, drawn by [his wife] Mary McFarlane; on the other, in Ralph’s hand-lettering:
RH AFTER GLOVER
Judy Millar, artist: “It was on returning to New Zealand from my first trip out of the country that I was most profoundly moved by the work of Hotere. I had been to Europe and had been stunned to encounter for the first time the work of so many of moderism’s heroes. On entering the arrivals lounge and seeing Hotere’s enormous Flight of the Godwit at Auckland Airport, I realised how much my vision had been shifted. Here was a work that brought me powerfully back home but with all the echoes of contemporary Europe. In my small travel notebook, I wrote, ‘into the minds of another man, he who knows the difference between a black and a black, frozen energy.’ It is Hotere’s work of the 1970s that I have held close in my heart ever since.”
Sam Neill, actor, owner of Two Paddocks vineyard, friend: “I was home at my parents’ one Christmas in the early 80s, and my brother and I went out to see Ralph at Carey’s Bay as we always would. We found him working outside, up the road, with a load of charred wood in a dump on the verge. Ralph was very saddened by a recent devastating fire at a boatbuilder’s shed, a historic one, around in the next bay. But he was also excited by some kind of possibility hidden in that pile, all salvaged from that boatyard. And he made it clear he could use a hand. So we set to. I was given an industrial gas mask contraption, and an enormous electrical sander. Ralph had measured off a section on each piece of blackened wood, and it was our job to sand the charcoal back to the wood beneath. I was happy to be part of this, whatever this was; some kind of mysterious Hotere thing. The sphinx-like Hotere. Not long after beginning, Ralph said he had to slip away. Something pressing. Three or four hours later, he returned; casually mentioned he was sorry, he’d got caught up in the pub. We’d got through a fair bit of the pile, but there was quite a bit left. I said I’d come back tomorrow to continue, and I did. And bugger me if Ralph didn’t slip off to the pub again. Probably giggling all the way. The work , of course, became that masterpiece Black Phoenix. A work I never fail to find profoundly moving, and one that will undoubtedly move me to tears next time I see it, now that Ralph is no longer with us. Like much of Ralph’s work, Black Phoenix resonates with layers and layers of meaning. But I like to think another layer of irony in the piece is the delightful fact much of the hard yakka therein was carried out by a couple of Pakeha idiots. Good on you, Ralph. You were the most big-hearted and generous of men, and I am eternally grateful I was allowed to help in a tiny way to scratch a great Hotere into existence. I hear you giggling still.”
Scott Pothan, founding director of Whangarei Art Museum: “When I returned to New Zealand to live in 1981, the first painting I bought was by an artist I knew nothing of – a work called Windows in Spain by Ralph Hotere. To me, it was Kazimir Malevich in Aotearoa – poignant, poetic – and I still own it to this day. Since establishing the art museum 18 years ago, we have exhibited Ralph Hotere’s works and substantive exhibitions many times; I have acquired work for the collection; and we were gifted a magnificent painting, Requiem, by Prime Minister Helen Clark from the repatriated MFAT collection in 2001. Seven years ago, I conceived a project for Hotere to work with the architects of a proposed new art museum in Whangarei – at ‘the front end’, ensuring the entire aesthetic of the new wing of the historic library building would palpably encapsulate his vision as an artist; not simply ‘art’ added to the architecture. This was my idea, ironically, to ‘put to bed’ the defunct Hundertwasser art project and honour a major New Zealand artist from the North. Through family friend Chris Carey and family members, I was able to facilitate a discussion and approval from the reclusive Ralph and [his wife] Mary for this project to proceed for Whangarei. Hotere was very keen to see a final legacy in the North realised. Several collectors and the artist were keen to participate and lend or gift works. Then Whangarei mayor Pamela Peters, Prime Minister Helen Clark and Associate Arts Minister Judith Tizard were enthusiasts for the project. I and the art museum trustees (particularly the late Brian Donnelly MP) worked for nearly four years to secure funding. The project was adopted by the council and was on the verge of securing Government funding when Hotere’s health began to decline too far to continue waiting. Then, shortly after, a newly elected council aborted the project altogether in favour of a revived Hundertwasser Art Museum. It’s all now past political history, of course. But it remains a salient story in art history – and a lost opportunity transfigured by the vagaries of time and decision-making.”
Francis Pound, art historian, author of The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity 1930-1970: “When I think of Hotere, I think first of his voice, to my mind the most beautiful of all speaking voices. It has always seemed to me more beautiful even than the Irish voice of Patrick Magee uttering Samuel Beckett’s late texts – his sparest, bleakest and most liable to induce in the reader a sudden flood of unexpected tears – and more beautiful even than the well-schooled, perfectly modulated instruments of the great actors of the English stage. I do not mean Hotere’s voice was in any way ‘posh’. It seemed to me it was the New Zealand voice brought — quite unconsciously — to perfection. I will not attempt to describe it, but certainly the Maori rhythm and vowels of its English enriched it, and many years of inhaling the smoke of roll-your-owns, and exhaling that smoke as spectral sculptures in the turning air. It was this long-held feeling for Hotere’s voice that made me suggest he should be asked if he would sing the waiata Te Tangi o te Pipiwhararua (Song of the Shining Cuckoo) for the documentary film on Colin McCahon, Victory Over Death. Hotere had learned that lament from his father, and had given its words to McCahon to inscribe on a fine painting of the same name. The lament tells of the soul of one recently dead, which, in the form of a shining cuckoo, is in arduous flight along Ninety Mile Beach towards the place of the leap of the dead from the cliffs of Te Reinga. Hotere kindly accepted this task. He intones his lament as the camera floats along the emptiness of Ninety Mile Beach in ineffable light. The affect is almost unbearably moving. This has always been my favourite moment in the film, perhaps in any film. At a painter’s death, the question always is: what will remain, what will last? To my mind — this will not be a popular judgment — Hotere’s finest works are his sparest: his three series of Spectrum or Black Paintings of 1968-69. They are not favoured by writers on Hotere because there are no words painted on them, and it is always easier for writers to write about words than to write about paint. I say my judgment will be unpopular. However, at least one person has agreed with me: Hotere himself. Once, standing before two complete series of his Black Paintings hanging in Sue Crockford Gallery — surely one of the two or three finest shows to appear in that space, itself now gone — he said: ‘These are the best things I have done.’ The realisation had just at that moment come to him, and clearly it was a realisation tinged with a certain melancholy, as well as with a justifiable pride. I do not think the influence of McCahon was fortunate for him. I believe his best later works are mostly to be found among the sculptures he made with his friend Bill Culbert, in a collaboration that always brought him back to his most minimalist manner, back, that is to say, most fully to himself. But who can know what works the future will prefer? All that one can say with certainty is that his name will survive. That, for the artist, is the true Victory Over Death.”
Lisa Reihana, artist: “My very first memories of Ralph Hotere are through his work – I think this would please him. While in Christchurch as a second-year art student, I came across his stainless-steel drawings. These works literally stopped me in my tracks. The exuberant grinder marks were mind-blowing, tough, unexpected – genius. I didn’t know about Hotere then, but he became an inspiration. During the ToiToiToi exhibition in Germany, I felt as though I was traveling with my dad, his Nga Puhi persona was so familiar to me. I recall a funny scene where Ralph and Bill Culbert were throwing 14 especially cooked baked beans over their shoulders to determine where the fluorescent tubes would be placed. Although vast, the beans kept ricocheting off the corrugations and landing in the same area. These beans had to be retrieved using a long stick with double-sided tape to a soundtrack of Ralph and Bill’s chuckles – two great friends. It was magic witnessing the completion of Blackwater – a killer work. Later, Ralph announced he was off to St Petersburg – everyone discouraged him because he was suffering from a terrible flu. I knew this proud Maori man would go regardless, so I bought him a hat, scarf and gloves and wished him safe travels. And now his last journey beckons him back through the lands of Taitokerau… safe journeys, haere ra…”
Ron Sang, publisher: “I had always admired Ralph’s work, but had never met him. Having successfully published major monographs on Len Castle and Michael Smither, I wrote to him to gauge his interest in Ron Sang Publications publishing a large format book on his work. I made up a ‘sample’ Hotere book and flew south to meet him. I received a very warm reception from Ralph, his wife, Mary, and their secretary, Pauline. This was the beginning of a long two-year journey to get the book published. It was launched at the Peter Webb Gallery in Auckland in 2008 to a large crowd, including many of the Hotere whanau. The launch was a huge success, starting with the powhiri, singing by the family and many speeches. Sadly, because of ill-health, Ralph was unable to attend. Ron Sang Publications is proud of Hotere, as it not only contains 10 of Marti Friedlander photos of Ralph, but also paintings from every period of his life. For me, it was a pleasure to meet such a humble man.”
Keith Stewart, wine writer, friend: “Carey’s Bay Hotel, winter, a meeting with Ralph Hotere and a noted photographer down from Auckland to take his photo for an upcoming exhibition catalogue. Ralph, relaxed in his favourite pub, quietly considers the nervously chattering city boy who is so obviously out of his comfort zone in a fisherman’s pub. Ralph’s still, brown facade gives nothing away from under its leather cap verandah, except the offer of a beer. Offer accepted, the little man leaves in silence to return with three jugs. Of Speights. Miles from the nearest espresso, the city boy is stranded, whittering aimlessly as Ralph’s smoke slowly envelopes the table. The beer goes down with difficulty. Ralph breaks the increasing discomfort of our little group with another offer. ‘You want some fish and chips?’ ‘Yes. Yes. Yes, please.’ Please be pleased. Please, please. ‘Come with me.’ They go. A short drive up the road to the fish shop. The fish and chips return with Jaguar enthusiasm, an elegant Mark 5 that is one of Ralph’s pleasures, along with sole and chips. And some oysters. Ralph and Patrick have shared the Jaguar, and the rest of the evening is comfortably convivial around another round of Speights and paper fragrant fish and chips. Times are set for photography sessions, during which the photographer becomes an artist, too, taking the first of what is now a collection of very fine works, a portrait of Hotere. Much later, in the bush of the Far North, Patrick confides that Hotere made the image as much as he, the photographer, did. Seems he set the pace of the session, and the moment at which art was made.”
Grahame Sydney, artist, friend: “Many friends and admirers will remark on Ralph’s innate humility and generosity, and as a student at the University of Otago University in the late 1960s I had first-hand experience of both. There was no art school at Otago in those days, but the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship had been established, bringing to the campus environment major names in the New Zealand art world as it then was – almost wholly amateur – and allowing frustrated painters like me (plodding sullenly through an English and geography degree) to get to know and observe some of these envied figures. Tanya Ashken sculpted her elegant forms in a small room beneath the archway; the youthful Derek Ball occupied an old villa close to the Student Union during a year in which he turned from painter to sculptor; and Ralph Hotere was given another Victorian villa on Castle Street. During his tenure there, my final year at university, Ralph rescued from his job at a Christchurch drapers the shy and rather other-worldly young painter Jeffrey Harris, bringing him south to Dunedin and installing him in a room out the back of his Hodgkins studio, I suspect unbeknown to the authorities. My painter mate Ross Jenner and I were eager to draw from a life model, but neither of us were comfortable with asking the parents if they would look the other way while we enjoyed the naked female form in our studio bedrooms at home: even finding a willing model was difficult enough, without confronting the oldies! But we did find a willing helper, and promised the enticing sum of $4 per hour for her to sit for us – if we could find a suitable location. Ralph came to the rescue. He offered Ross and me a room in the Hodgkins villa studio for Saturday afternoons, no charge, and we eagerly accepted. For several months, we drew our model, just the three of us in a cold and curtained Dunedin room, drawings I have still. It was a relief: prior to our ‘professional’ model, Ross and I had been drawing each other. On those Saturday afternoons, Ralph popped in to draw, too. That was the arrangement: he gave us the room, said nothing, and was free to join us at any time. He did, often. I was fascinated by how different he was to me. Me, bent over a sharpened pencil, looking hard and drawing hesitantly, anxious to be accurate; Ralph confident and fearless, drawing rapidly and boldly with a biro pen. Always unassuming, he never said much. But I do remember clearly, having looked over the studied ‘classical’ drawings Ross and I were slowly creating, his urging me to, ‘Free up! Free up !’ I couldn’t then, and I still can’t. Two other observations. First, never underestimate Ralph’s devotion to – obsession with – golf. He loved golf with a passion, and was always willing to stop work for a few holes. The same with fishing, out on the Upper Harbour from Port Chalmers. If he wasn’t at work in the studio, he’d likely be on the golf course or out on the harbour. (Rumour has it that the rather conservative Balmacewan Golf Club in Dunedin made a special dispensation for Hotere to be able to wear his ever-present hat in the golf house!) And I am aware of Ralph’s discreet and generous funding of the golf programme for the young players at Otago Boys’ High School. Second, Ralph’s natural and easy use of blue-collar workman’s tools is a very significant indicator of his lack of pretension, and his attitude towards making work: car-painters’ spray-painting guns, laqueur paint, hand-held electric grinders and polishers, blow torches … with all these tools of the skilled tradesman, Ralph made works that transcended the workshop and emerged as sophisticated art. But the workshop, the skilled workman labourer, was essential Hotere. Doing your work, making things, and looking forward to nine holes before heading for home.”
Brian Turner, poet, environmentalist, friend: “Ralph did what I believe true artists and writers ought to do which is he wasn’t averse to getting involved in politics, issues of the day, be they contentious or otherwise. He often nailed his colours to the mast. Would that there were more like him. He was a very fine artist and had, among other things, a genuine liking for sport. He knew that in sport as in much else there is no substitute for skill and that excellence is founded in technique. Ralph wasn’t precious; he was often generous. How good that is?”
Ian Wedde, New Zealand Poet Laureate, art writer, friend: “I met Ralph when we went to live in Port Chalmers in 1972. In his quiet way, he was one of the most hospitable and generous men I’ve known. His generous hospitality extended to showing me the best places for mussels out at Purakanui and to being there ready to shout in the back bar of the Captain Cook when I emerged from Dunedin Public Hospital after our son Carlos was born. When he and Cilla stayed with us in Wellington, he helped me to crimp the t&g floor of the shed I was building – he knew how to do it simply using a system of nails and 4×2 levers. He was at once grounded and practical, and capable of extraordinary refinement in his thought and art. For me, it’s that combination of groundedness and refinement that makes his art exceptional. He loved poetry and had a phenomenal memory for it. His anger was as uncompromising and grounded as his generosity, and he deployed it fearlessly and also with wickedly subversive humour – sometimes when Ralph laughed with a certain kind of glint you knew someone had better look out; he was pretty certain to get the better of them. His love of collaboration was another quality that combined social generosity and conceptual refinement. The work he made with Bill Culbert, for example, and his collaborations with Bill Manhire are wonderful not just in themselves but because they attest to a social instinct at once personal and political. The last time I saw Ralph was at the Sisters of Mercy home high up the back of Maori Hill, the day after his 80th birthday. He was waiting with a piece of birthday cake and a glass each of Two Paddocks Pinot Noir. Snow was falling heavily and I had to make a run for it before the roads were closed. My last image of Ralph is of him raising a glass against a backdrop of snow falling like the scumbled white of his corrugated iron Aramoana paintings. I was very lucky to have known him. Goodbye, my friend.”Back to top