In the mid-1960s, Gordon Walters emerged as a unique presence in the modern movement in New Zealand. His works engaging with international modernism in a series of geometric, abstract paintings that positioned the traditional, organic koru form of Māori art within the aesthetics of European and American abstraction.
Walters had attended the Wellington Technical School of Art, New Zealand (1935-1944), becoming interested in European modernism through reproductions of works by Yves Tanguy and his association with Dutch refugee, Theo Schoon, who introduced Walters to Māori rock art.
Travelling to Europe in 1950, he was exposed to works by Mondrian, as well as the pure abstraction of Victor Vasarely. In the mid fifties he had researched Māori rafter painting and decorative design by visiting museums with fellow artist Theo Schoon and analyzing the forms. Walters modified the fern motif found in Maori meeting houses and traditional Polynesian tattoos, by geometricizing it and alternating positive and negative versions in the manner of the Italian painter Giuseppe Caprogrossi (1900 -1972) but with a horizontal axis. From the mid-1950s his painting utilized this koru form, , responding to its potential for simultaneously defining positive and negative space on the surface of the picture plane.
Using black and white (softened sometimes to grey and cream) Walters’ canvases created a pulsing musicality. When the korus were vertically stacked, an optical shimmer akin to that found in the works of Bridget Riley, occurred. Or when sparely organized, a subtle lyricism was created. Walters also often experimented with muted colour and dramatically enlarged korus, always settling on final composition and scale by adjusting preparatory collages.
In the mid nineteen-eighties Walters abandoned korus and began using austere rectanglar planar compositions that investigated tensions and spatial suggestiveness resulting from transparency, colour, tone and proportion. These were a result of his long interest in the French abstract artist Herbin, the American abstract artist McLaughlin and forms found in Māori cave art.
This much revered figure of New Zealand modernism is represented in all New Zealand’s major collections as well as public collections in Australia. In 1983 the Auckland Art Gallery presented a retrospective.
The time is ripe to galvanise New Zealand's public to more fully support its visual arts. With New Zealand-born artists like Simon Denny, Michael Stevenson and Francis Upritchard continuing to gain international acclaim, and a Turner Prize nominee in Luke Willis Thompson, the international art world is beginning to take notice of this small...