Gretchen Albrecht is one of New Zealand’s most established and recognisable painters with an exhibition history spanning more than five decades. She had her first solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 1964 shortly after graduating from Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts and was selected to exhibit in Contemporary New Zealand Painting at the Auckland City Art Gallery in the same year. Since these initial exhibitions, she has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and four major surveys. In 1986, the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, organised Afternature — a Survey, 23 years; in 2002 the Auckland Art Gallery curated Illuminations, an exhibition surveying 24 years of Albrecht’s hemisphere and oval paintings; while in 2005 the Dunedin Public Art Gallery curated the exhibition Returning, which also travelled to the City Gallery, Wellington. Albrecht is represented in all major public and many private collections in New Zealand and in 2000 she was invested as a Companion of the Order of New Zealand for services to New Zealand painting.
Most recently, Albrecht has been working with the prestigious fine art printmaking studio, Thumbprint Editions in Camberwell, London, where she has produced four limited edition polymer photogravure etchings that feature a lyrical use of colour offset by two strong horizontal lines, which has become a signature feature of her current practice. Her latest exhibition — Colloquy — was held at Two Rooms in late 2015, and offered something of a retrospective glimpse into her career with an impressive array of paintings that exemplified the breadth and depth of her oeuvre. The selection of works was chosen from the artist’s personal collection and many were reproduced in the accompanying book of the same title — Colloquy — that was launched at the exhibition opening. Featuring essays by Colm Tóibín, Linda Gill, and Mary Kisler, and an introduction by Laurence Simmons, the book is a welcome addition to an impressive number of publications centred on Albrecht.
The paintings focused on in the book, and exhibited in the accompanying show, are markedly diverse in terms of format, colour, scale, and painterly application. Works such as ‘Cloud over Whatipu’, from 1976, present the viewer with a large square canvas that is replete with sensuous and glowing swathes of liquid paint. By comparison, ‘Ember (dusk)’, painted in 1991, is executed on two quadrants bolted together to form a semi-circular shaped stretcher. Here, sombre tonalities build a tenebrous ground of dark pigments briefly punctuated by a glimmer and flash of a lustrous red. Indeed, as many critics and historians are quick to comment, Albrecht is one of New Zealand’s leading colourists, and her chromatic mastery is readily apparent in each and every work.
When she began painting in the 1960s, Albrecht was part of a generation of artists swept up by the pioneering developments of the New York School — particularly the work of Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. Characterised by a freedom of expression and an unrestrained celebration of the emotive and metaphorical potential of paint, the resulting artworks all have something of a meditative element about them: beguiling to the eye and quieting to the mind. It is this quality that appears throughout the series of Albrecht’s saturated and stained works. It has been noted however, that Albrecht’s art historical roots can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance and the likes of Fra Angelico, Duccio and Piero della Francesca. While these influences and connections add another layer to Albrecht’s chromatic explorations, the corporeality of her method graces her paintings with a tactility and physical presence that demands immediacy and, both eschews and acknowledges history.