Ralph Hotere 'Black Window'

Peter James Smith
Posted on 7 November 2023

In 1968 Ralph Hotere created a series of seven austere black paintings in vertical format using black lacquer on glass. The Black Paintings were variously infused with the faint glimmer of a thinly painted cross whose extent reached from top to bottom to the very borders of the image. The presence of the painted cross ranged from warm visibility in the first painting to lighter tones of cold invisibility in the final image of the series. This visibility had the sense of light faintly creeping through a deliberated crack in the field of darkness. Such an image is reinforced using glass as a medium, and through the flicker of the cross—barely made visible—we are made acutely aware of the spiritual overtones to the series. We are also reminded of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics:

‘There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’[1]

Perhaps the genesis of Hotere’s Black Paintings was in the abstract fields of modulated black in the late 1960s canvasses by American artist Ad Reinhardt. Hotere was drawn to not only the flat blackness of Reinhardt’s canvasses, but also to the potential of how a sliver of light could fall through the blackness from here to infinity. Such cascades ripple in lines down the canvasses of Reinhardt’s contemporary, Barnett Newman, although Newman was much more of a colourist.

The notion of window that is both a spiritual and a physical portal builds on the early brilliance of the Black Paintings, 1968, which seemed so illumined by darkness. Hotere chose the austere structure of reclaimed colonial sash windows to paint on and in. The current Black Window signed in brushpoint across the years 1982 to 1990 clearly demonstrates the ongoing impact of these works across a decade. The painted surface of the window is now boarded up, the glass removed. But the dark restlessness of the brushwork tellingly remains.

Ralph Hotere
Black Window

oil, acrylic and metallic pigment on board in Colonial sash window frame
title inscribed, signed and dated ’82 - ’90
1060 x 757mm

Kriselle Baker and Vincent O'Sullivan, Hotere (Ron Sang Publication, 2008), p. 184.

Private collection, Auckland.

$150 000 - $200 000

View lot here

‘The energy of reflected light and darkness is contained within a weathered timber frame. This language of light refers to and extends an earlier language developing in the black lacquer works of the late 1960s of light moving within and beyond an immaculate surface in the way that wreaths of kelp swirl and rock in the tide.’[2]

From the home shared by Hotere’s then wife Cilla McQueen at Carey’s Bay on Dunedin’s Otago Harbour, the windows looked out on the beautiful mouth of the harbour to Aramoana/ Pathway to the Sea. It is there, at Aramoana, that by 1981 a consortium sought to construct an aluminium smelter. The project eventually failed due to a concerted ‘Save Aramoana’ campaign and Hotere was central to the cause. Many of his paintings from the period are inscribed with Aramoana. This setting and this text seem to symbolise a meeting of the sacred and an active social justice, all falling comfortably within the boundaries Hotere’s religious faith.

Black Window, 1982-90, brings together these socio-political tensions through vivid restless brushwork inside the frame. The blazing red ground has the smelter’s furnace in its sights and is all but obliterated by the black staccato brushstrokes that coil into an obscuring soot, a dense smoke that yields to an overriding silver patina—a smelting of metallic aluminium paint.

As in the Black Paintings of 1968 the illumined cross acts like a crack (letting the light in). But the essence of the black window remains as a black shadow on the retina and a black shadow on the wall, for a window looks both into the soul and out into the world. The cross shape may be seen as a glowing X marks-the-spot geographic location marker, a signature of that place Aramoana, or even the basic human signature of permission, of agreement, of acceptance—or indeed denial.

In a final triumph, an overcoming, the top of the painting shines with the white light of hope across a distant horizon. The blazing white line first angles then splits in a restorative, even protective mode, hovering over the gilded symbol of the bleeding heart of Jesus.

Peter James Smith

1 Leonard Cohen, Anthem, chorus lines 3 & 4
2 Cilla McQueen, ‘Dark Matter’, in Ralph Hotere: Black Light, 2000, Te Papa Press and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Wellington and Dunedin, p40