Farewell, Milan Mrkusich — 15.06.18

Great New Zealand abstract artist and Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award recipient, Milan Mrkusich has died.

Milan was one of the pioneers of modern abstract art in New Zealand. He overcame strong opposition and indifference to modernism to produce over fifty years of significant work. 

Awarded an Icon in 2003, at the time, Milan spoke of New Zealand and said "There's one thing about a young country, the people are susceptible to new things, they don't have a prejudice. I think my work, and the work of other abstract artists, was accepted by a very wide audience in the 70's, 80's and 90's, and it should be all go from now on!"

It certainly has been all go, with many generations of audiences and artists engaged with abstraction as a normal part of our experience with the arts. 

Sir Eion & Lady Jan Edgar, Patrons to the Icons  said “We were honoured to have Milan’s acceptance of the Icon Award as one of the founding ten recipients. Milan’s important work as a New Zealand abstract painter has influenced many in the art world and his contribution to New Zealand is enormous”.  

The Arts Foundation would also like to send our condolences to those that worked with and loved Milan, especially his dedicated son Lewis.

Milan was born in Dargaville in 1925 to Dalmatian immigrant parents. In 1942, Milan took up an apprenticeship in Writing and Pictorial Arts with Neuline Studios, while also attending night courses at Seddon Technical and taking life-drawing classes. Over this period, Milan spent two years painting full time, laying the groundwork of his geometric Expressionist painting style. 

Milan became a partner in the architectural design firm Brenner Associates in 1949, working as a colour consultant, architectural designer and on exhibition and display designs. After Brenners closed in 1958, he obtained various architectural commissions, including many stained-glass windows and mosaics.

Using geometric forms, such as those discussed in C. G. Jung's Man and his Symbols, and influenced by developments in international abstract art, Milan's paintings in the sixties were based partly on the squared circle ormandala motif which Jung says respresents "enlightenment, or human perfection".  He painted Emblems in 1963 and, two years later, the renowned Elements and Four Elements.

In 1968 he embarked on a style, which held him captivated till 1976. Initially explored in the Monochromes, the Meta Greys and the Dark Paintings, this style saw the elimination of forms and elements, resulting in what Susan Sontag has referred to as "silent art".

In 1972, Milan was recognised with his first retrospective exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Milan Mrkusich, Paintings 1946-1972. Following this, he continued to explore the use of monochromes, which expanded into Zone and Area works in the late 70s and into the 80s. This style continued in 1982 and 1983 with his interpretation of Constructivism, the Segmented Arcs. in 1982, Milan participated in the 48th Carnegie International in Pittsburg, Pennyslvania, USA. There was a second retrospective show at Auckland Art Gallery in 1985; Milan Mrkusich - a decade further on 1974 - 1983. After this a new direction surfaced resulting in the Journey paintings. Six further categories of new work followed dealing primarily with different approaches to the use of colour - colour as a symbol and colour as a material fact made un-material by the viewer.

Milan's work is probably best known by Wellingtonians and overseas visitors, being most publically displayed in the capital through the large plates of coloured enamel windows on the Te Papa building. This was a commission Milan won in 1994 amidst fierce competition.

Since receiving his Icon Award, Milan has had a number of showings of new works with the Hamish McKay Gallery in Wellington and Sue CrockfordGallery in Auckland, as well as major works being included insignificant shows in foremost public galleries.  In early 2010 the City Gallery, Wellington exhibited Trans-Form: The Abstract Art of Milan Mrkusich.

Milan was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in 1997 for his services to painting. He lived and worked in Auckland in the house he designed and built when at BrennerAssociates in the early 1950s.

Milan died yesterday. There will be a private family funeral for him.