As one of the most renowned experts on Colin McCahon’s work, Peter Simpson had the audience at ‘Hello’. He continued to hold everyone’s attention with his fascinating insights into how a mere four months touring USA could have such an impact on McCahon’s development as an artist.

McCahon was half-way through his working life when he was given the chance to explore America in 1958 with a Carnegie grant gained through his curating role at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Before then, his exposure to art had been largely European and Peter’s slides illustrated how McCahon referenced some of the great masters such as Titian and Bellini – not to recreate or slavishly copy – and Peter drew our attention to their contrasts rather than similarities.

Peter’s enthusiasm for his subject was evident and his discussion on McCahon’s religious paintings was illuminating. Particularly as some of these are in the Toi Art galleries  current exhibition to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

During their time in USA, McCahon and his wife Ann travelled extensively visiting scores of museums and art galleries, from New York on the East Coast to San Francisco on the West. Everything they saw had an impact. Peter’s choice of paintings to illustrate his points were well chosen – we saw what McCahon saw – and went on tour with him.

This was McCahon’s first exposure to oriental art, and he was particularly taken by Tomioka Tessai’s series of paintings on scrolls. He saw the West Coast Abstract Expressionists who were trying to find the middle ground between landscapes and abstracts, and he saw massive works such as Picasso’s Guernica “as wide as a cinema screen” and “paintings you could walk past”.

Peter explained how they all played their part in influencing McCahon’s work and when he returned from America everything changed. His 1959 works, the Northern Panels and the Wake – large scale abstract series of unframed panels using words and numbers reflect his experiences and are the new format for his work thereafter.

We could have listened to Peter for longer as he has so much knowledge and insight but it’s always good to leave the audience wanting more and with his new book on McCahon – Vol 1 There is only one direction – just published we know where to go.

Helen Pinson

Feature image: Koenraad Kuiper, committee member, Friends of Te Papa (left), Peter Simpson (right)