Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art

To hell with making art. What you do is experiment. What that experiment leads to is quite inconsequential. The only thing it leads to is knowledge.

Theo Schoon[i]

Theo Schoon danced his way into the art and culture of Aotearoa. The Indonesian-born Dutch national arrived in Christchurch in his early twenties in 1939. He came with his family, essentially as a war-time refugee, and in the vanguard of a large wave of Dutch migration that would gain momentum in the postwar period. He claimed, however, to be ‘only Dutch by half’.[ii] The other half of his cultural makeup was realised through classical Javanese dance, of which he was a trained practitioner. Some of the performances were public—at balls or reviews. Others took place at private parties, often featuring the art community with whom he immediately fell in (and as frequently out) with after his arrival. The elegant movements, poses, costumes, and masks of these dances embodied his Indonesian connections and the life he had left behind. They also asserted his otherness from what Schoon regularly described as the disappointingly monocultural, mainstream Pākehā society he encountered—‘a branch of the Salvation Army’ as he memorably put it.[iii] His dances carried dangerous ideas—opening access to the trance state, alternative realities, and ‘the east’.

Schoon was a figure of cultural fascination. Photographer Spencer Digby took a dramatic suite of staged portraits of Schoon in full dance mode, one of which was published in Art in New Zealand in 1944, alongside Schoon’s essay ‘Oriental Dancing and the Trance’. There are also less formal photographs of Schoon performing in various venues in Christchurch and Auckland, where he stands out against the drab interiors and occasional skepticism of those watching him. Even when not performing, Schoon moved with a distinctive grace and rhythm. When Douglas MacDiarmid painted a portrait of Schoon in 1946, he chose to depict him in the lotus position. This is how Schoon always sat—part of the repertoire of rhythmical movements and contorted hand gestures he would regularly enact. Such gestures were equally performative—a way to mark a bodily difference from most New Zealanders and prevailing mid-century notions of masculinity. Schoon confronted those terms in almost all possible ways. He was European, an artist, a dancer, gay, a war-time pacifist.

This project uses MacDiarmid’s depiction of Schoon as an alien figure dropped into the local context to account for his role and importance in art and culture here. He was a reluctant arrival, carrying his dual European and Indonesian cultural inheritance. He had trained as an artist in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and had a first-hand experience of European modernist art and ideas that was rare in Aotearoa in the 1940s. His immersion in Indonesian art and culture was even more unique. MacDiarmid’s portrait seems haunted by the question of just what this strange being would bring to Aotearoa, or what Aotearoa would offer him.

Schoon was a restless, nomadic artist. He refused to settle anywhere—both inside and outside his work. His regular movements up and down the country brought him into contact with many of the most important artists and developments in Aotearoa. He arrived to a Christchurch in full swing as the Bloomsbury of the South, and developed friendships with some of its key figures: Rita Angus, MacDiarmid, and Betty and Allen Curnow. 

In 1942, he moved to a culturally flourishing Wellington, rejuvenated by a strong European émigré community. His studio in the basement of the YMCA on Willis Street became a regular gathering point for artists like Gordon Walters, Dennis Knight Turner, and Rita Angus. (Angus and Schoon would paint portraits of each other during this time—the suave, sophisticated Schoon conjured by Angus also evinces the sense of cultural difference found in MacDiarmid’s portrait.)

Schoon’s shift to Auckland in the 1950s paralleled and contributed to the city’s replacement of Christchurch as the centre for modernist art. He became closely connected to and exhibited in the gallery of fellow émigré artist Kees Hos, befriended artists like Colin McCahon, and joined the growing craft community headed by potters Len Castle and Barry Brickell. A subsequent move to Rotorua located Schoon within a complicated site of Māori art at the moment when customary and modernist factions were negotiating over the future of Māori cultural production. A later obsession with jade carving took him to the West Coast, and into the orbit of carvers Peter Hughson and Bill Mathieson.

Schoon’s desire to seek out new experiences saw him contribute to many of the key developments of modern art in Aotearoa. He appears either peripherally or centrally in many accounts of key artists—resembling a Leonard Zelig or Forrest Gump figure moving through the background of others’ stories. Nevertheless, in each of those moments or relationships, Schoon made and pursued new discoveries that stepped outside what the main figures were doing. 

In Christchurch, his project of copying and arguing for the importance of the Ngāi Tahu rock drawings went far beyond the prevailing regionalist imagery of rolling hills and empty tracts of land awaiting culture’s arrival. Schoon forced recognition of what was already there, making new claims for the importance of these drawings, and, of course, his own work that sprung from it. Decades later, in Rotorua, he would make photographs that capture the effects and patterns created by light hitting geothermal formations. This ‘mudpool modernism’ celebrated the mysterious workings of nature, and made a unique contribution to the broader modernist project of finding or making the modern within the local. The photographs can legitimately be considered in the objets trouvés tradition and as an alternate local landscape tradition—but Schoon may have pushed it a bit far by claiming in 1970 that they constituted a twenty-year contribution to ‘environmental art’.[iv] Earlier in Auckland, he had made a similar ‘discovery’ in the drawings of institutionalised schizophrenic Rolfe Hattaway. He made improvisational paintings based on these drawings, and it can be argued that in his desire to escape or unlearn conventions he offered the major (and certainly the most problematic) contribution to the burgeoning primitivist interest in the art of children, the untrained, and the mentally unwell in Aotearoa.

Schoon’s body of work and the contribution it made to modern art here is substantial. Yet, to him, the work itself was always of secondary importance. Schoon was an inquiry-driven artist, always seeking new discoveries, possibilities, and revelations as the primary outcome of his practice. It was getting there that mattered most to him: generating the idea, working it through as an idea, process, and form. The finished work itself was the least interesting part of the process. Once a work was completed, he would photograph it as a record or to show others, then essentially discard it—often giving it away or destroying it. Sometimes it is hard to tell what Schoon considered a finished work, and what was a sketch. Some of the paintings now thought of as major works were made on cheap materials to be used as backdrops in photographs of his carved gourds—more props than paintings, or props as paintings. 

Over recent years, Schoon’s photography has been reassessed and revalued as arguably his greatest achievement. While he certainly pushed the possibilities of the camera (as he did with every medium), Schoon never treated photography as an end in itself, but rather as a means to record or capture ideas. He treasured his tea chests full of negatives because they were a repository of artistic ideas and experiments, much more easily stored and transported than finished artworks, and infinitely reproduceable. Like a lot of Schoon’s work, photographs were regularly given away or discarded. They were concrete realisations of ideas generated through discovery, debate, and process.

Schoon rarely pursued these investigations alone. He was an instigator, an agitator, and, while incredibly harsh and critical of those he deemed unworthy of his attention, he was intensely supportive of artists he valued. Schoon shared or even forced his ideas and knowledge onto others—and through this process introduced new possibilities into the cultural ferment. He worked closely with a handful of artists, always pushing them to extend beyond what was considered good practice here. Those closest to him, such as Gordon Walters and Rita Angus, acknowledged his role in the shaping of their own work. He also acknowledged the impact these artists had on his work, and always seemed to be in search of what we would now consider a collaborative or even collectivist approach to making art. He even described the photographs of geothermal activity as a form of collaboration—with nature ‘as an artist’.[v] This is the Schoon invoked in MacDiarmid’s portrait—the charismatic outsider, mysteriously arrived in Aotearoa, who sees the world, culture, and art with fresh eyes and a ‘double vision’, which he was impelled to share to make a difference and transform an art scene and wider society that was, to his way of thinking, unable to see and appreciate what truly mattered.

These ideas all collide in what would become Schoon’s overarching project—to find a way of fusing Māori art traditions and European modernism to reinvigorate both. He saw this as a process of give and take—another form of collaboration, although one where he always maintained control. Māori art would reveal its secrets to him—a sympathetic receiver already familiar with non-western art forms—and then, through a Bauhaus-inspired process of analysis and synthesis, he would master and breathe new life into it. This, Schoon asserted, was necessary for Māori, since their culture had lost its way and become decadent. Māori art needed somebody to speak for it and carry it forward, and Schoon had no hesitation in appointing himself to this role. By the end of his career, he would claim to be making authentic Māori art, the equal of any of the taonga preserved in local museums.

Presenting Schoon’s work now involves facing up to a series of issues. The most urgent is his appropriation of Māori art. The colonialist—at times, patently racist—ideas underpinning his project are difficult to see past from a contemporary perspective. There are legitimate questions as to whether such work should be given time and space now and if an exhibition such as this necessarily endorses or excuses such attitudes. Māori art certainly did not need or ask for Schoon to be its saviour—this was a delusional and potentially harmful position to adopt. But Schoon’s overt and unashamed assertion of these dynamics opens up a way to put them on display, and to discuss how these kinds of ideas have shaped modernist art in Aotearoa. At a time when some of Schoon’s contemporaries are receiving surveys of their work based on their interactions with Māori art, the rawness of Schoon’s claims—and the various ways he co-opts entire artistic genres that are also obviously Māori modes, such as gourd and jade carving—forces unpleasant realities into view that can more easily be subdued in tasteful retrospectives of paintings that keep Māori art in the category of ‘sources’, far away from the artworks themselves.

There are other issues that a Theo Schoon exhibition raises. His work is as chaotic, uncontrolled, and as porous as his life. A tasteful ‘masterpieces’ show is out of the question—Schoon’s work never aspired to and actively refutes such status. He freewheels across media, breaking established boundaries and hierarchies, such as those delineating art and craft, or the finished and unfinished. Such an exhibition would necessarily have to impose a rigorous shape and order on a practice that simply didn’t have them. Value judgments around the relative merits of diverse modes and objects would need to be artificially and arbitrarily asserted. Exhibitions in this mode also do not like to acknowledge the input of others—the artist needs to be sealed off to assert their primacy and the value of their creations.

None of those conventions of the art world serves Schoon well, which might explain why this is the first major exhibition of his work since the 1982 survey curated by John Perry for the Rotorua Art Gallery. For a long time it has been difficult to see Schoon clearly, let alone imagine what an exhibition of his work might look like. The artist himself didn’t make it easy. Almost every claim the work makes for itself on formal, material, and conceptual terms is met with its own counterclaim. He burned bridges and opportunities, and, in the process, a lot of his art was destroyed or lost. While this means that Schoon has not been seen as an ‘exhibition ready’ artist, the same qualities have made his work important to more discursive projects—notably group exhibitions, such as Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art (1992), which sought to complicate prevailing nationalist narratives. Within such projects, Schoon’s art serves as a productively troubling force. For the same reason, he has long been of interest to art historians addressing larger cultural issues and problematics that extend beyond the art work.

The time has come to see Schoon afresh, to embrace the problems of his work as its urgent and vital elements. In many ways, contemporary art leads the way here. What we describe as the atomised nature of Schoon’s practice chimes closely with contemporary art which seeks to break media boundaries, roam between and across different modes and forms, and reject any notion of a coherent, signature style. The once rigidly upheld boundaries between art forms—especially between art and craft—have now well and truly been blown apart. Schoon’s art is idea driven, process based, performative—all modes associated with the contemporary. The connection with Indonesian art, which was once so alien, now predates the mass artistic traffic between Aotearoa and Asia—based on the desire to forge connections that allow the art and cultures of the region to speak to each other in new ways. 

Schoon is, in many ways, a proto-contemporary artist. He exemplifies a romantic, but non-heroic, model of the artist, the value of a life of pragmatic and dogged curiosity, and art-as-inquiry obsessively pursued largely for its own sake. In this sense, his work speaks differently to the formalism and professionalism of many of his peers—then and especially now.

Contemporary artists are forcing us to look at Schoon again. Andrew McLeod’s Camowhaiwhai works of the late 1990s inserted themselves into the problematic cultural space Schoon’s work pried open with a more acceptable self-awareness and irony. Australian-Dutch painter Matthys Gerber has set up a decade-long dialogue with Schoon’s art. An early-1960s photograph of Schoon surrounded by his gourds was the inspiration for a 2019 installation, The Poet’s Room, by jeweller Karl Fritsch and curator Justine Olsen at Objectspace.

In 2018, Michael Parekowhai included a number of Schoon’s works in his Détour installation at Te Papa, which draws from and unpicks the national collection. There is even a hint of a Schoon-like ‘collaboration’, turning the tables or returning the favour by ‘touching up’ one of his photographs, in reference to Schoon’s own interventions within Māori art. The terms of this encounter are left open, but Parekowhai holds back on explicit critique. He says that Schoon’s ‘toi moko images push my own limits of taste and what’s acceptable’,[vi] but that ‘without them [Schoon and Ans Westra] breaking rules and protocol we wouldn’t have a lot of the things they documented’.[vii] Schoon definitely did transgress in all sorts of ways—ways which Détour, like this exhibition, argues are equal parts vital, alive, and problematic for contemporary culture. 

This is the most substantial gathering of Theo Schoon’s art in almost forty years. Yet, like Schoon himself, it does not use these works as end or high points in a clearly defined and delineated practice. Rather, each work is treated as a point of gathering and departure that momentarily captures flows of ideas, histories, and processes that open onto a larger set of conversations and possibilities—often made with and between other artists, cultures, and art forms. We want to reveal Schoon’s larger project. As such, the exhibition revels in moments of experimentation and encounter—it brings in the full range of his work and seeks to reveal the links and ideas that connect seemingly disparate or even clashing forms and agendas. This is not a practice to be smoothed over.

Most importantly, this exhibition presents Schoon as an artist who was constantly in dialogue or dispute with others. Each section of the exhibition explores a connection or a relationship with other artists or cultural forms (often in combination). That most of these sections come with vexed questions of authorship and appropriation highlights something fundamentally important about Schoon’s work—its blurring of lines between self and other, yours and ours, good and bad. Schoon took, took from, and exploited others in the pushing of his agenda for the creation of an Antipodean modernism synthesising Māori and European art. Yet he also gave many things back, to other artists and to culture. 

Schoon was a catalyst and a node for modernist practice in Aotearoa. His art gathers its force from these moments of contact and rupture with other artists and cultural forms. While any artist can be understood within their network of artistic relationships and social connections, this exhibition argues that it is a particularly good way to approach Schoon and his work. It accounts for the ways his work atomised and pushed outside itself and into other things—including contemporary consciousness. This is where his importance to art in Aotearoa (then and now) can most strongly be felt. 

This exhibition is itself in dialogue with a number of recent shows that reassess the modernist project in Aotearoa and/or the contribution of its key artists. In following close on the heels of Gordon Walters: New Vision, it continues what has been a four-decade long push-and-pull, call-and-response relationship between these two artists’ works, which started in Schoon’s Wellington studio in 1942, and has been played out in art history, the art market, and now in retrospective exhibitions. Each very different exhibition takes its cue from the approach of its subject. Schoon adroitly summed up these differences in his assertion that ‘Gordon has been more a studio artist, while I have been the wanderer, the cat sniffing around in a strange warehouse.’[viii] New Vision takes a classic monographic approach, and is focused on revealing Walters’s development of a formalist abstraction based around a few core elements. It is an exhibition of the ‘studio artist’: spare, stripped back, marking internal progression, and focused on individual achievement. Schoon’s role as instigator of many of the ideas that propelled the changes in Walters’s work is acknowledged, but, by necessity, downplayed. While he is granted a larger role than just a footnote in Walters’s development, as has often been the case, Schoon’s presence is largely restricted to a series of references on wall labels.

Schoon once wrote to Walters about the refusal of reviewers to acknowledge the influence of Rolfe Hattaway on his own work: ‘The really interesting things never get into print do they?’[ix] They also rarely get into exhibitions. In focusing on artistic relationships and networks rather than individual artistic progression, Split Level View Finder seeks to pull what is often treated as supplementary—background information on a wall label or archival materials in a vitrine—into the exhibition. This is an attempt to get those ‘really interesting things’ into the show. Schoon’s work makes more sense and a bigger contribution when it is allowed to be in dialogue with other artists and forms. Such an approach allows ideas and debates to come to the fore, read through, around, and as propelling the individual art works. The complex politics running throughout the exhibition can be grappled with, rather than buried beneath assertions of artistic progress or genius. It is a productive way to explore the work of that cat sniffing around the strange warehouse—the art and culture of Aotearoa that Schoon prowled through and left an indelible mark on.

The chapters in this catalogue follow and flesh out the sections of the exhibition. The first is a discussion of Schoon’s project to copy and preserve the rock drawings of Te Wai Pounamu, and its ongoing impact on art and cultural exchange in Aotearoa. The second chapter considers Schoon’s encounter with Rolfe Hattaway in Avondale Hospital, the nature of this relationship, and the work that he and Walters made as a result of it. The relationship between Schoon and Walters, a central element of this exhibition, is the focus of the third chapter which explores the nature of their shared working process as it played out over or through Māori art—especially the koru form that both artists claimed for their own work and collaboration. 

Schoon’s interaction with Māori art is another current that runs through the exhibition. It is addressed in the fourth chapter, which uses Schoon’s participation in the First Māori Festival of the Arts at Tūrangawaewae marae in 1963 to consider the relationship between his work and the burgeoning modernism of Māori artists at this time—all attended by trickier questions around what he took from and claimed to offer back to Māori and Māori art. The fifth chapter tracks a long-term relationship established between Schoon, Rita Angus, and sexologist John Money based around shared interests in Eastern culture, nature mysticism, and the psychological powers of art. The final chapter zeroes in on Schoon’s 1965 exhibition at New Vision Gallery. It is the one section of the exhibition that shows Schoon’s work by itself—summing up everything he had achieved by this stage of his career, and hinting at everything to come. Schoon’s work may be presented on its own terms here, but those discussions and forms he was engaged with are ever present.

The catalogue also brings in other voices and perspectives. Nathan Pohio addresses Schoon from his perspective as a Ngāi Tahu artist and curator. Andrew Paul Wood explores the international connections and contexts for Schoon’s work. These two essays, one looking from the inside out, the other from the outside in, also address the broader questions this exhibition grapples with—where and how can we locate Schoon’s work? Where does it belong? And to whom?

With Damian Skinner, ‘Introduction’, Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2019), 7-17.

Full Text

[i]  ‘Theo Schoon Transcripts: Tapes 1–3, Rotorua 1982’. Martin Rumsby collection, Auckland.

[ii] Theo Schoon, letter to Francesca Mayer, no.16, 1. CA000505, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

[iii] Theo Schoon, letter to Gordon Walters, undated, 4. CA000044/001/0001, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

[iv] Theo Schoon, letter to Michael Dunn, 17 October 1970.

[v] ‘Theo Schoon Transcripts: Tapes 1–3, Rotorua 1982’. Martin Rumsby collection, Auckland.

[vi] Michael Parekōwhai Talks about His Current Exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa’, Artforum, Summer 2018: 266.

[vii] Anthony Byrt, ‘How Influential Artist Michael Parekōwhai Is Transforming Te Papa’, Metro, March 2018: 47.

[viii] Theo Schoon, letter to Michael Dunn, 10 October 1983.

[ix] Theo Schoon, letter to Gordon Walters, undated [1982], 2. CA000044/001/0001, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.