Visiting America 1958

It was largely in his capacity as an art administrator that Colin McCahon visited the United States of America from April to July 1958, his visit being supported by grants from the Carnegie Trust and the Auckland City Council. His plan was to visit major galleries and museums in the United States and to study their operations and exhibition practices in the hope that this would help to modernise and professionalise the Auckland City Art Gallery, as well as increase his own professional experience.  He extended his visit somewhat on his own account as an artist in order to study works in major American collections, his first such opportunity since visiting Melbourne in 1951.

McCahon visited dozens of museums and dealer galleries in San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington, Buffalo, Kansas City, Chicago and many other cities. Among the artists to impress him, and who are mentioned explicitly in his letters home to Charles Brasch and others, were Tintoretto, El Greco, Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian, Juan Gris, and Hans Richter.

McCahon also viewed much non-European art and was especially impressed by Chinese and Japanese scroll painting, including Tomioko Tessai, whom he later acknowledged in one of the Jump series. He also saw as much as he could of the work of contemporary American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn and others from the currently dominant school known as the abstract expressionists, much of which impressed him by its large scale and gestural vigour.


Autumn Rhythm 

Autumn Rhythm

Artist: Jackson Pollock
Date: 1950
Medium: Oil


Two paintings he singled out particularly for comment were Picasso’s Guernica (seen in Baltimore) and Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York whose large size gave him the idea of ‘paintings you could walk past’, a discovery he put into immediate effect once he got back to New Zealand.

Unfortunately the Museum of Modern Art in New York was partly closed because of fire; nevertheless he was able to see a large exhibition by the Cubist Juan Gris which greatly impressed him, as did an exhibition of Mondrian’s work, The Earlier Years, showing his development towards abstraction, that he saw in San Francisco. One artist he met in person was the New Yorker Allan Kaprow whose environmental installations contributed to McCahon’s approach to installation on his return to New Zealand, especially in The Wake (1958).

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