At the time of his return to Britain in 1961, after eight years in New Zealand, John Blackburn was arguably the most radical painter working in Auckland. Yet there is not a paragraph in New Zealand art history about him.
The only contemporary reference to him is his inclusion as one of ten artists at the Auckland City Art Gallery in November 1959. The artists were probably selected by Colin McCahon, who might have spotted Blackburn’s work at his first solo exhibition at Auckland’s short-lived Circle Gallery.
The late Les Harvey, renowned for the developments that helped to make Parnell what it is today, was impressed enough by the exhibition at Circle Gallery to buy several paintings. A couple of years later, in 1961, Blackburn showed some uncompromisingly abstract paintings. Harvey, recognising Blackburn’s promise, acquired the whole exhibition in exchange for tickets to Britain for the young artist – and his wife Maude – so he could further his career.
From his return to Britain in 1961 until his last solo exhibition before changing his focus to a business venture in 1980, Blackburn was an adventurous and exciting full-time painter. His first London exhibition was at the Woodstock Gallery which in the late 1950s and early 1960s developed a strong identity with the progressive painting coming out of St Ives.
Indeed Blackburn’s lyrical abstract paintings of simple, reduced strong forms in limited pure, unmixed colours, could easily be appreciated in the context of the work of that earlier generation of stars of the British art scene at that time.
It was the chance discovery of some of Blackburn’s works acquired in the 1960s by the renowned collector, curator and writer, Jim Ede, which led to renewed interest in the artist. So after an absence of quarter of a century, Blackburn was re-launched back into the art world with a full-scale retrospective, including striking large new works, at Folkstone’s Metropole Galleries in 2006, followed by an exhibition at the prestigious Mayfair gallery of Osborne Samuel in London.
The Harvey family’s continuing interest in the work of Blackburn led to an offer from Nancy King, Harvey’s daughter, of accommodation and a studio at Muriwai. Blackburn took up the offer in 2008, producing work for his first exhibition in Auckland since the 1960s. Artis Gallery is proud to welcome John back to Parnell after all these years.