Bold colour, simple geometry: the late artist’s never-seen-before last works revisit the themes that illuminated his early career.
In 2008, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He managed to battle on for five more years, spending much of that time in his studio revisiting the simple linear forms with which he began. Almost exactly four years after Scott’s death, his last works are being exhibited for the first time alongside the early paintings that informed them. Together, they show a lifetime in art as an almost-perfect circle: an artist, facing death, re-investigates the themes that drove him in his youth, and finds himself returning to a place of simplicity and pure calm. Jeremy Hansen spoke to Scott’s son, artist Chris Corson-Scott, about the exhibition.
JEREMY HANSEN Your father, the artist Ian Scott, died in 2013. What made you want to show these, his first and last works, now?
CHRIS CORSON-SCOTT It’s taken me and my mother until now to feel like we’ve had enough distance and time to feel comfortable showing his work again. The works are what remain of the person – they’re at the heart of him. His whole life was his art. Some of the works from 1974 and 1975 were shown at Peter McLeavey in Wellington and Petar/James Gallery in Auckland, but they’ve rarely been shown since. I think part of why it’s taken so long for them to be appreciated is that they’re still difficult and challenging works: white grounds with a few lines of spray paint on them. While preparing this exhibition, and looking at them again, we were amazed by how fresh they still feel. Ian sort of voiced that they were the most unappreciated of his work. He kept them for 40 years, moved them from studio to studio and house to house and looked after them. Michael [Lett]’s idea was to link those works – Ian’s first abstract works, which led to his more famous Lattices - to those he did in the last years of his life. The new works haven’t been shown before, but you can see the kinship between the two series, the first and last abstraction he did.
What circumstances was your father producing the new works under?
Some of these were made in 2008, the same year he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A lot of them were done when he was really sick. He was really aware of trying to make use of the time he7had left to do as much as he could of what he wanted to do.
And how would you describe these later works?
They’re not the same as the Lattices he’s most known for. They’re much more minimal. They’re pared back to the essentials of the Lattices. Often you just have one or two bands of colour. They’re experimenting with how much you need to make a painting, and trying to do that with the most economy. And that’s powerful in terms of what he’s going through.
Why do you think he wanted to revisit the themes that had inspired him when he first started out?
It was probably going back to what he loved most in painting, which was American colour-field and minimalist art of the 60s, and abstract expressionism of the 50s. He and his peers used to argue about how they should respond to masterpieces by American artists like Rothko and Pollock. What could they do here, in this context that would mean something? The use of spray cans and casual do-it-yourself rawness and directness, was part of his answer in the 70s. He was looking for attitudes and paintings that could make sense as an artist living in Henderson, Auckland, rather than New York. With the New Lattices he’s revisiting those same questions and issues, but with 40 years of painting behind him; so the answers are different, but also have many continuities. His teacher at Elam [Colin] McCahon, and mentor [Gordon] Walters, were confronting the same issues of making art in New Zealand. I think people tend to forget that when Ian, [Richard] Killeen, [Gordon] Walters and [Milan] Mkrusich, who are so respected now, were first producing this abstract work it wasn’t accepted or considered art in any remotely mainstream way here. There were routinely letters to museums and newspapers complaining about abstraction masquerading as ‘art’, even though this was the middle of the 1970s, so 25 years after these public arguments had happened overseas. But in New Zealand there really was the feeling that they were fighting for something, to move art forward here.
What was he trying to move New Zealand art forwards to, in particular?
They wanted their work to meet the standards of international art, rather than be stuck in a self-referential loop. For Ian in particular, I think he was conscious of wanting to get a sense of joy into art, and especially New Zealand art, where so much work has been concerned with New Zealand gothic and heaviness. I think he saw that as something not many other people explored in the 70s and 80s. For example, the works are quite antithetical to Hotere and McCahon. I think he didn’t see New Zealand with the same darkness as artists born here might. His family emigrated here in 1952 when he was seven, after World War II and going through food shortages and rationing and things like that. They were from Bradford in Yorkshire, a big industrial town. I think he saw New Zealand as a colourful, free, optimistic country compared to the greyness and weight in Britain at the time.
You worked with him as a studio assistant in the creation of his last paintings. How were they made?
There’s a lot of intricate use of masking tape on these paintings – they’re quite time consuming. It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to take five hours or even days taping up one work, and then it wasn’t uncommon for him to stand it up and say it was too loose, or the relationship of the painting wasn’t quite right, and we’d rip it off and rethink it. They look very precise, but they wouldn’t look right if they were done on a computer. There’s still an element of laying down the tape and getting the right tension to the lines and relationship between them. There are variances that are about visual feeling – things that aren’t technically perfect, but feel completely right.
These paintings make it look as if his artistic output was very disciplined, but it was actually wildly varied. He did a series of bold realist paintings – many of them are in public collections – and the Lattices, as you mention, as well as series that were almost like a patchwork of found images in the 1980s, late 1990s and early 2000s.
Did these changes affect his work commercially?
Commercially his work hasn’t been valued as highly as many of his peers, who perhaps stuck to what they were doing when they found a style that was successful. Ian was always willing to take large risks to move his art forward, which he continually did over 50 years. He often moved fast and it was certainly confounding to art buyers who want something recognisable. Critics have referred to him as a renegade. There was a sort of irresponsibility, a wonderful lack of any concern for where his works would go and how they’d practically fit into art systems. He’s done five-metre-long paintings that art galleries can’t deal with stretched because they’re too big to fit into service elevators. The downside is that when auction catalogues would arrive and his work was undervalued he would get annoyed. But he also was able to live off his work since 1970, and was one of the few New Zealand artists to do so at the time. Talking to Robin White recently, I asked her what it was like going to Elam in the 60s, because artists now can be very career conscious and shrewd. She said there was no expectation you could have an art career, because none of their teachers like McCahon had one – they all had to do other things to support their families. And for our family, it could be difficult and tight at times when Ian would change. He would lose the support of critics, museums, even friends, and he would feel the financial results of doing what he believed in rather than what the market wanted. He would often talk about how it would take decades after he was gone for some work to be appreciated properly.
You’re an artist yourself. Was that inevitable?
Ian was so obsessed with art the only way you could be close to him was to become obsessed yourself. I was determined not to be an artist after seeing how difficult it was, and went and studied music, among other things. But becoming close to him, his passion for art was contagious. I didn’t go to art school, which made it really hard for me to get a break. My initial art school was talking to him and his friends. That’s what I miss most about him: his excitement and passion for art. Nobody I’ve met can walk into a museum and look at people’s work and have the same excitement that he would. It’s quite hard. I wish he could be there to see this exhibition. I think he’d be really thrilled that someone has treated his work in such a beautiful and respectful way – and that people were finally appreciating something done 40 years ago.