Bespectacled with long silver hair and a penchant for wearing black, at first glance TJ (Terry) McNamara looks like most people’s idea of an art academic. However, looks can be deceiving and McNamara has built a forty-seven year career out of eschewing artistic jargon in his columns for the New Zealand Herald. He has since become one of New Zealand’s most well-known art critics.
While art critics were once widely thought of as being the taste makers, nowadays, art critics help their audience to ‘see’ the artwork. They do not barricade the works into explanations. Rather, they seek to open each work up. This usually involves contextualising them art historically or within a particular artistic practice. While viewing art is meant to offer the viewer a chance to reflect on it and to heighten their discernment, there also has to be a connection with the world outside of the painting. What art criticism intends to do is to establish or clarify the relationship between a work of art and society. In theory, this means that art writing should be straightforward and easy to understand. However, many people deem art writing to be complex and too easy for readers to become tangled up in excessively floral language. But McNamara has always been straightforward about the intention of his writing.
For him, put simply -“respond to what is on the wall. I see myself as a spokesman for a public completely outside the art practising community.” He has struck a fine balance between the two literary worlds of art writing and journalism, operating in a space in between them. As a result, his work is characterised by an approachable, well informed writing style akin to international art critics such as Robert Hughes, Simon Schama, and E.H. Grombrich.
When one considers his style and ethos, it makes sense that McNamara’s roots are in teaching, as he strikes the balance between amicable and scholarly. As a boy in Orakei, a state house suburb in Auckland he grew up with books, but no art. It was Eric Newton’s Penguin book on the history of Western art that first sparked his interest in art history. After winning a public speaking prize in his final year of high school with a talk on da Vinci, McNamara studied English at Auckland University before going onto teacher’s college. It was these years that were to be especially formative, and solidified his burgeoning interest in art history. It was during this time that he met some “particularly lively” art graduates from Christchurch, including prolific artists Trevor Moffit, John Coley, and Quentin McFarlane. This acted as impetus for McNamara to read more widely on modern art. Upon graduating, he began teaching English at Auckland Grammar School. During the 1960s the salient art organisation was the Society of Arts, where McNamara was soon asked him to give some lectures on art history. After his series of four talks on the old masters- Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Goya he was approached by the Deputy Editor of the New Zealand Herald who asked him to do some reviewing during the Auckland Festival of 1966; he has not stopped since. Generally, the word ‘critical’ implies to find fault. McNamara sees it as meaning “interpreting, evaluating, and rejoicing in what was well done. I do not believe in constructive criticism. It is not my job to tell the artist what to do, but to look hard at what has been done and seek out the artist’s purposes.”
Art historically, 1966 was a fascinating time for New Zealand In the words of McNamara “there were battles to be fought, and New Zealand art was frontier art.” This was an era where, idyllic landscapes were still the favoured artistic genre, and modernism was controversial. But the times were changing. We were beginning to strain at Europe’s apron strings in a bid to establish our own identity, and the bold contemporary art of this time began to reflect that. Our art began to bear distinctly ‘Kiwi’ motifs in a way that had not been seen before, and artists such as McCahon were beginning to make their mark.To meet the demand of an audience hungry for original New Zealand art, dealer galleries began cropping up. Aside from being a business, they were also used as a space to exhibit then-contemporary art. It was this influx of dealer galleries that helped lead to an enormous growth in artistic ventures, which has been one of the most notable changes during McNamara’s career. In the embryonic stages of the modern New Zealand art scene and McNamara’s writing, there was usually only one gallery opening a week. McNamara would attend this before dashing to the newsroom to write a piece for the next day’s paper. “This was good because it appeared on the news pages and made new, original art part of the news alongside politics, big fires, and sport.”
Nowadays there are upwards of twelve gallery openings per week in Auckland, meaning that McNamara is spoilt for choice. Previously, the sight of McNamara’s now infamous cape sweeping into a gallery could strike fear into the heart of an exhibiting artist. Because in the beginning, McNamara could be “judgemental about what he thought was poor art.” Now, it’s simply a matter of leaving what he considers to be poor art out, unless he feels that it has been unjustly lauded. When searching for an exhibition to review, McNamara likens himself to “a gas cooker set to zero. I go to the show to see how much it raises the temperature.” This involves considering a cross-section of elements within the exhibition, namely intelligence, emotion, and technical ability. He is seeking to grapple with art and make it understandable to a ‘news’ audience, to “provide some sort of bridge into the works.” A pertinent approach as the definition of ‘art’ becomes broader, and seems increasingly impenetrable.
This article was first published in the Waikato Times, November 2013.