Gordon Walters’ Moment

A new survey exhibition of one of New Zealand’s most significant artists, the late Gordon Walters, celebrates painting even as it underlines contemporary anxieties about cultural appropriation.

feature by Laurence Simmons

Gordon Walters is one of New Zealand’s most important abstract artists, best known for his paintings employing the koru – a motif drawn from a number of modes of traditional Māori artistic practice, in particular tā moko (tattooing) and kōwhaiwhai (rafter) painting. While Walters’ working brief was formulaic, the paintings never are. The first black and white koru were an epic inauguration of an entirely new art: contrapuntal, rhythmic, cumulatively spellbinding, something that preserved a relation with natural origin and bicultural import without describing it. Even in the classic period of the black and white koru (1965 to early 1970s), when Walters was intent on fastening his geometric minimalism, there is more going on than you might expect: a vital, unstable energy, a perpetual dissolution of figure into ground. Despite the rigour and precision there was nothing mechanical about Walters’ process. He first adjusted paper collage mock-ups to intuitively discover the ‘rightness’ of his compositions. While the koru paintings are typically remembered as black and white, Walters actually produced a number in bright dayglo colours, and then came the exceptionally beautiful later koru works with their delicate and complicated grounds of grey halftones, slate and sky blues, custardy yellow ochres, beiges and even light mauves. They have been short-changed in Walters’ critical history and were often viewed as just an (unsatisfactory) aftermath to the primary black and white purism.

Why does Walters feel of the moment? Why does his work seem so potent... Subscribe to read this article in full

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