Abstract painter Max Gimblett is widely touted as one of Aotearoa’s greatest living artists, exhibited all over the world and lauded for his embrace of eclectic practices and philosophies that also span the globe—and millennia. In February, he arrived with his academic and author wife, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, for a nationwide series of exhibitions, lectures and events, and to receive an honorary doctorate from the Auckland University of Technology for ‘his advancement of the arts in New Zealand’. Max never finished high school, let alone university, so an honorary doctorate (his second), he says, is especially poignant. I meet up with the couple a couple of weeks before their return to the US.
Auckland-born Max has lived in New York since 1972, but remains a fiercely proud Kiwi. He greets me in the lobby and we shoot the breeze as we make our way up to the twenty-second floor rented apartment where Barbara awaits. He tells me that their trip has been a roaring success and something of a “victory tour”. “I’m at 83 now,” he says over his shoulder as he strides purposefully through the corridor. He looks good for it. And I tell him so.
Barbara welcomes me warmly into their apartment overlooking Waitemata Harbour. The bruised sky appears to be hanging lower than usual. And it’s drizzly. Just a few days since the attacks in Christchurch, it feels as though it’s been raining non-stop since. The country’s still in a state of raw shock, a daze. Later Max’s eyes will moisten as he recounts his adoration for Aotearoa, for his home; but first, he and Barbara will speak of their adoration for each other. All 56 years of it. We pull up our pews and I press record and drink in the story of these two wise souls.
The couple met in Toronto, Barbara’s birthplace, in 1963 where Max was an apprentice with master potter, Roman Bartkiw. Barbara’s mother was taking classes at the studio, and commented to her daughter about an unusual man (whom she mistook for an Aussie!), with a big red beard.
“The first time I met Max, the very, very first time, I told him that I had no intention of getting married,” teases Barbara. “I was 19 years old—seven years younger than Max—and I thought that marriage was a bourgeois institution. He said something about us always supporting each other. Along the lines of how we would always be there for each other. He’s very convincing. A year later we were married.”
The pair put their love’s longevity not just down to the usual—“commitment, loyalty, trust and respect”—but mutual admiration, support and genuinely getting a kick out of each other’s success. Max tells ms that each believes the other to be the leader of their union. Well ahead of the #MeToo era, Barbara says she was lured by her beau’s talent, and drawn to his emancipated ways, partly the result of being raised by “two very strong and wonderful women”, his mother and an aunt.
Having completed her PhD at Indiana University (she previously attended the universities of Toronto and California, Berkeley), Barbara held positions at some of the USA’s most prestigious universities, including Columbia and New York. She is an award-winning author and a recipient of the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland—where she is the chief curator of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. She serves on advisory boards for the Council of American Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum Vienna, Jewish Museum Berlin, and Moscow’s Jewish Museum of Tolerance Center, and advises on exhibitions internationally. Max proudly beams that Barbara’s one of the most sought after museum authorities in the world. She describes her work as “enabling a space for reflection and debate”. I ask Barbara how concerned she is about reports of rising anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is the oldest hate,” she says. “But my concern is with xenophobia more generally, the massacre in Christchurch was an important indicator of that. People of colour are more likely to suffer. I see xenophobia as the critical issue.”
Barbara was the main breadwinner during their early years together with “little income” living in “bad neighbourhoods”. For all his talent and potential, I wonder if she ever gave Max an ultimatum, some sort of time limit before he had to find a ‘proper job’.
“Short of my being incapacitated, and Max having zero income, I mean, that’s a worst case scenario of a kind that I’ve never even let myself imagine, but otherwise, no. I would never ever put Max in that position. He will paint until he can’t stand up.”
It possible to remain as creative into older age?
“I believe in the human capacity to remain creative until the end of one’s days,” says Barbara. “So long as you have your health and your wits about you, and others are encouraging. My father began painting when he was 73 and continued for the last 20 years of his life. [Barbara co-authored a book, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, with her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, a collection of his paintings and reminiscences.]”
Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings were also exhibited at Jewish museums around the world.
Max describes himself as an “extroverted intuitive” that paints by instinct: “I believe in painting without thinking. I get things from the unconscious, colours come to me, but they don’t come in any orderly, linear fashion. They just arrive. A little bit like how you arrived today.”
The artist says that he sees his paintings as “sitting above an altar” providing nourishment for all who approach. A Zen Buddhist, spirituality is vital to him. “I believe in karma. I believe that I’ve had many lives, and this is a result of those. This life is an accumulation.”
And what an accumulation it has been. Max is honoured in permanent collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the National Gallery of Art of Australia, Melbourne; the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; the Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and in New Zealand in Te Papa and the major art galleries in Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin, among others. In 2015, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to art, and two years later he received his first honorary doctorate, from the University of Waikato. In 2016, Max led New Zealand’s largest ever art fundraiser, donating thousands of brass quatrefoils that raised $1 million to save his boyhood church, St David’s in Khyber Pass, from demolition.
Now, he says, it’s all about his legacy.
“It’s New Zealand that has always supported my career,” he continues. “I’ve had a lot of shows in America, placed work and done well, but the core of my support has always been New Zealand, ever since I started painting. I have painted some really difficult paintings and thought, ‘This is a Eucharist that no one is going to swallow,’ but I’ve brought them here and they’ve been placed immediately. I get so much respect here, so much love, so much support. It’s magnificent.”
Interview over, we embrace and bid our farewells and Max escorts me back down to the lobby.
As I step outside, I notice that it’s stopped raining.