My primary exploration is about light – light-marks in space or light-in-light, light in darkness, night-light, daylight, those kinds of things just intrigue me.

– Bill Culbert

Light, light, light, in the light

Light, light, light, in the light, ooh, yeah

Light, light, light, in the light

In the Light Led Zeppelin 1976

It’s lyrics like this that made me feel that stadium rock got all it deserved when the flash grenade of punk exploded in 1976 and reset the dial…I will confess that I’ve since become a somewhat hesitant revisionist of LZ and others but good grief…

Light has been something of an obsession in New Zealand’s shortish art history. Of course, New Zealand is not particularly special in that preoccupation but there is no doubt that there is an unrelenting bite to its quality. Whether one accepts the geographical determinism that was offered up as the driving force in so much sharply delineated painting in the 20th century or not, there is an experience of light and its capacity to throw the folds and ravines of Aotearoa into extraordinary relief, which if not unique, feels particular to New Zealand. Even New Zealander’s continue to be surprised by it – witness regular seasonal sunburn.

Bill Culbert’s practice is without question mediated by light. But rather than stay in New Zealand he spent much of his life living in France – Provence, the domain of Cézanne in particular, but more broadly the Impressionists. Whether it was the more atmospheric or poetic light that attracted Bill or that he shared McCahon’s sentiment that NZ was a “landscape with too few lovers” that drove him there. There was no doubt that his life and work would always be spread between two geographical poles, two landscapes, two differently illuminated worlds and that he seemed destined to happily straddle that distance and its accompanying contradictions.

Being with Bill’s works in recent times of course makes me hugely frustrated to have not spent more time in his company. As with the late Lawrence Carroll, an Antipodean/American painter who also chose the warm patinas of European light, we have joined forces rather too late. So, I find myself installing these unexpectedly poignant works at arm’s length with Claudia, lamenting his absence and sensing very much that the wry humour that surely accompanies any thoughtful disciple of Duchamp, would’ve been yet another enjoyable contradiction at the heart of this most intelligent and poetic artist.

– Andrew Jensen

Bill Culbert had his first solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1977 and participated in the first Auckland Triennial in 2001. In 2013 he represented New Zealand in the 55th Venice Biennale, with an installation entitled Front Door Out Back.  Permanently commissioned Culbert sculptures may be found in London, Wellington, and Auckland. Amongst his most notable collaborations were his explorations with Ralph Hotere (Te Aup?uri). With one of the most beloved, Fault, a rip of light, permanently installed on the façade of the City Gallery, Te Whare Toi, Wellington. 

He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to art, particularly sculpture, in 2008. Bill passed away at his home in Provence in 2019, three years after this wife, British artist Pip Culbert.