Gretchen Albrecht ‘Karekare Sky – Sunset’

Laurence Simmons
Posted on 7 March 2024

Karekare Sky — Sunset (1974) is one of the finest examples of Gretchen Albrecht’s first mature works of the 1970s, poured acrylic stained abstractions of sunset landscapes of West Auckland beaches. It is a location that has remained embedded in her memory and is now the place where Albrecht, and her husband James Ross, have a much visited seaside home. Acrylic, then a new medium in vogue, provided Albrecht with a palette of vibrant natural colours: sun yellow, smouldering orange, raspberry-red, parsley-green, electric blue. In crowded overlapping pourings they gave her compositions a flooded look of the all-engulfing weather fronts that scud onto New Zealand’s West coast from the Tasman Sea. The poured landscapes were vitally torn between the dreamy calm of pure colour and the rough and tumble of West coast meteorology. A swarm of piquant, fugitive notes falling like spontaneous dropped sheets of paper, each cradled element has a hovering yet sagging weight achieved by the relative densities and deliberate contrasts of colour. With Albrecht you come and stay for the colours. At their best they feel both surprising and inevitable; at their worst they are merely very nice to look at. You can’t stare at her colours without feeling a twitch of recognition — clocking their associations. Colour for Albrecht is a form of storytelling: in Karekare Sky — Sunset pink feels like a plot twist, and orange is a blunt entrance point. Unlikely pairs of colours scrape against each other and then smooth things over with a horizontal band.

Gretchen Albrecht

Karekare Sky – Sunset

acrylic on canvas

title inscribed, signed and dated 1974 verso

1200 x 1800mm

$100 000 – $150 000


Private collection, Auckland. Purchased from Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland.

View lot here

The deus ex machina of Karekare Sky — Sunset is the delicious uplifted band of grey/crimson/pink which gives her composition life and some nuance. Albrecht makes pink infused with tinges of grey exude a heavy brooding presence and causes the deep blue (sea?) to levitate up to meet it. The colours are definitely inside the surface of the painting, not on it. They are fused into the unprimed fabric: pooled, puddled, and left to dry. It is as if her painting was inspired by water; as if she understands that the art of painting is, at its most basic, a matter of moving coloured watery liquid over a flat surface. The critic Leo Steinberg famously wrote of the “flatbed picture plane” (borrowing from the name of the horizontal flatbed printing press) as the characteristic picture plane of the 1960s. He contrasted this to the concept of the picture plane of Old Master and subsequent paintings that represented the natural world as a vertical field associable with human posture. The flatbed picture plane, he proposed — whether or not lifted to the vertical — makes “symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards.” Albrecht’s works, mostly composed on the flat floor of her studio, have this flatbed quality; a flatness that calls up the expanse of sea or the stretch of black sand between Karekare and Whatipu. We are invited to see the overlapping layers of paint both as flooding the flatbed picture plane from distant to near, in evocation of a succession of incoming waves across the expanse of beach, and as falling — or, better, suspended from falling — from the top edge to the bottom of a vertical field. Or as blowing sunset clouds over a landscape above the water. Or even just something fleshy, warm, and corporeal swelling over something thinner and cooler. The poured landscape paintings create their own imaginary space, and their horizontal format confirms this; it is as if they don’t want to stop at the edges of the canvas. Albrecht’s painting is not an idea nor a style. It is a constantly changing engagement with feeling and the subconscious. And it is not all abstract either. Karekare Sky — Sunset has all the freedom and ranginess of abstract expressionism, but the scene really is Karekare on which the sun is setting. Despite the abstraction there exists the strong feeling of an order that is associated with nature. The form of her painting occupies a terrain that is somewhere between description and metaphor. As Irish writer Colm Tóibín has insisted, Albrecht is a painter of nature who operates from within her subject matter responding to its wild luxuriance.

Laurence Simmons