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My life-long passion for the work of Colin McCahon

Peter Simpson recalls the moments that began a life-long study of one of New Zealand's most well-known artists, Colin McCahon.

I first saw paintings by Colin McCahon in Christchurch more than half a century ago and immediately developed a deep interest in his work – its boldness, its originality, its courage, its variety, its profundity, its (sometimes) difficult beauty – an interest I have sustained to this day. 

In the 1990s my enthusiasm developed into something deeper and I began to research and write about his work. Initially I was especially preoccupied with McCahon’s use of words in general and poetry in particular – research which led to a number of exhibitions and books, including Candles in a Dark Room: James K. Baxter and Colin McCahon (Auckland Art Gallery, 1995), Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg; Painter/Poet (Hocken Library, 1999, Potton Books, 2001), and Patron and Poet: Charles Brasch and Colin McCahon (Hocken Collections, 2010). I also became involved with the McCahon House Trust, a body devoted to restoring the McCahons’ French Bay house and developing a museum and artists’ residency on site. This led to my curating Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years, 1953-1959 (Lopdell House 2006, published as a book by Auckland University Press in 2007).

However, as the McCahon centenary approached in 2019, I decided to undertake a study of his entire magnificent career from the 1930s to the 1980s, a task not attempted since Gordon Brown’s seminal, Colin McCahon: Artist (1984, 1993), now long out of print. Starting in 2017, I undertook fresh research into McCahon’s extensive correspondence to friends and family which is continuously revealing about his ideas, influences and practice. With the invaluable support of my publisher Auckland University Press and numerous individuals and institutions, I have completed what turned out to be a two-book project: Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction Vol. 1 1919-1987, to be published in October 2019, and Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. 2 1960–1987, to be published in April 2020, and including full-colour reproductions of some 450 works by McCahon, plus other illustrative material. As the author and/or editor of some twenty books, this is the highest mountain I have climbed.

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