What’s really at stake in book-culling decision [Newsroom Essay]

This essay was originally published on Newsroom, February 10, 2020.

Festina lente. Make haste, slowly.

This was the motto of one of the Renaissance’s greatest publishers, whose most famous book the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington in fact owns a copy of.

The motto implies that we must make progress, that we must move forwards, but always with the wisdom of the past. Move forward, but with care; with attention; and with the knowledge that we today could be wrong. The motto has always seemed perfect for a library’s vision statement, summing up its central role. Yet in its decision to deaccession more than 600,000 “overseas” books, our National Library seems to have done us a disservice. “Shortsighted,” Helen Clark said of the cull. All New Zealanders should care deeply about the Library’s decision, because it strikes to the heart of how insular or open we are as a nation.

The Library is culling books from its “Overseas published collections” to “make room for New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories”. The books being “rehomed” or destroyed (whichever it is, the effect is the same for National Library users) encompass philosophy, religion, arts, science, languages and a great deal more. In public announcements, Library staff keep trying to emphasise the irrelevance of the books they’re culling, like old computer guides from the 1990s. But time and again, even the books they cherry-pick as irrelevant examples seem deeply relevant. We may not learn about how to use a computer from an old computer manual, but we might learn about the ephemerality of new technologies—something the Library itself should be thinking deeply about as it gets rid of physical books. (A line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.’”)

We should remember too that what seems niche and irrelevant now may not be in the future. I’m 25, and I have been continually surprised by the turns and detours my interests have taken, leading me deeper into books I had never thought I would be interested in—and I know this is true for many other young people. The idea that young people will read digitally and not need print books is itself a patronising attitude, failing to take into account how technologies fall in and out of favour. Many now see the beginnings of a rejection of technology in young peoples’ lives, and it would not be surprising if this translates to a return to reading physical books.

The Library’s public announcement was good PR—it turned a negative into a positive, because which New Zealander doesn’t want more books about New Zealand? But that decision to cull internationally-published books to make room for New Zealand ones belies a deeply unsettling idea at the heart of the National Library and its master, Internal Affairs. It implies a ‘little New Zealandism’ that many thought we dispensed with decades ago. It’s a form of nationalism: an unsettling one at a time of growing nationalism around the world. In essence, it’s about whether we see ourselves as an insular, navel-gazing nation, concerned only with ourselves and our own affairs; or whether we see ourselves as shaped by and part of a global community, continually learning from the world.

Where the discussion should be centred is on the role of the National Library. The institution has decided that its role is to focus exclusively on “New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories,” at the expense of the world around us. I expect Library staff might point to the impossibility of our National Library collecting deeply in international materials, or to the British Library’s own emphasis on British collections. But in the first case, the impossibility of collecting everything does not mean we should throw out those international resources we already have. And we simply cannot afford to take the same approach as the British Library, because we are a different nation with different needs. Our geographic distance still affects us daily, and it will always mean we need to go out of our way to connect ourselves to the world.

How will the culling affect New Zealanders? A few examples.

First, the growing number of migrants coming to our shores, who are already and who will become New Zealanders, need a library that contains their own cultural histories too. What might now appear niche, foreign and irrelevant is to someone else their very culture—it might just be the book that connects them to themselves and to others, providing inspiration and social connection. A decision to throw out all the books that might link to our new citizens’ origins is a cultural handicap at best.

Second, New Zealand’s historians, academics and researchers do not study only New Zealand. From New Zealand, they study the world—all corners and all cultures of it. To deaccession any book that does not relate to New Zealand is a severe restriction on the kinds of thought our researchers can do. It throws us back into the days of staid cultural nationalism, when it was thought that New Zealanders were only good for studying New Zealand; and it says to every aspiring New Zealand thinker and researcher, from the start, that all that matters here is that which is within our borders. We should be wary of the current tendency for countries to turn in on themselves.

Finally, a decision like this slowly works its way into the national psyche. Our collective sense of possibility is shaped as much by what knowledge is absent as that which is present. This can be seen clearly in our arts and literature of the 1930s and 40s, when artists and writers struggled to obtain international books. At worst, it forces young people to go overseas—ensuring New Zealand remains a kind of frontier from which intelligent and interested young Katherine Mansfields and Frances Hodgkinses feel they must quickly escape.

No book is obscure to the person who needs it. Many will know the experience of discovering a book that seems essential and necessary to one’s life or studies. You may well be the first person to have requested the book from the library in 30 years, but to you it’s essential, the most important book in the world. A library should exist for those moments, for the intangible, unmeasurable power that even one book can have on an individual life and on a nation’s culture. Right now, if such a book was published overseas, there’s a good chance it has been or is soon to be culled from our National Library. And that thought is a crushing reality to any New Zealander who believes our country must be large enough to encompass at least some of the world, and not just the world within our sandy borders. In the words of John Beaglehole, one of our great historians: “The tradition of an island need not be insularity.”

John Drawbridge: Joyous and International in Spirit

John Drawbridge New Zealand artist abstraction
John Drawbridge. New Zealand House Mural, 1963. Oil on canvas panels. New Zealand Government.

1963, London. A thirty-two year old New Zealander has just found himself at the beginning of a fast upward trajectory through the British art world. The Redfern Gallery, famous for showing the works of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth while they were still students—and, critically for New Zealand, one of Frances Hodgkins’ main London dealers—mounted an exhibition of this Wellingtonian’s works. The Rothschild family purchased a work, as did both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert. He’d been shown in a summer exhibition alongside the likes of Picasso and Matisse; The Guardian had reviewed his works well. The same year, the artist won a commission to complete a monumental mural for the newly completed New Zealand House, a work that to this day remains one of the high points of twentieth century New Zealand painting, matched only, perhaps, by McCahon’s Northland Panels. His name is spreading fast, he has other dealers courting him wanting to show his work, and he’s the envy of the group of New Zealand artists living in London at the time (Ralph Hotere, Melvin Day and Don Peebles, among others). And then, seemingly just at the point of real breakthrough that every young artist dreams of, this young abstract painter and printmaker decides to move back home to the end of the Earth, settling with his wife Tanya, a well known silversmith and sculptor, in a house in Island Bay, Wellington. 

Why? Why did he move back? It was a decision that others would wonder about for the rest of this artist’s life. John Drawbridge himself, however, remained resolute. In his decisions and in his art, Drawbridge stands as a figure comfortable with the doors he has closed. It’s a kind of wisdom—something that this artist had in no short supply, as those who knew him attest, and as his work so clearly demonstrates. 

It certainly wasn’t easy in Wellington, in those days, as Rita Angus and Gordon Walters likewise knew. When in 1967 one of his wonderful geometric, textured works called Coastline, Island Bay was chosen by the New Zealand Government to be a gift to the Canadian Parliament, Drawbridge had to suffer the ignominy of a local newspaper publishing the painting and asking readers whether it looked to them like the Island Bay coastline (the implication being, of course, that abstraction was a joke because it did not represent reality faithfully). Why he didn’t get on the next ship back to London is a mystery to me. Drawbridge stayed, however, to New Zealanders’ collective benefit. And to thank him, we—with a few critical exceptions—forgot about him in favour of those artists who were Kiwis through-and-through. Artists were encouraged to go for their “OE”, as Gordon Walters did in 1950, and as Angus and McCahon did in 1958. But the imperative was always that whatever they did, they mustn’t have too much success over there, or get too directly influenced by those tricksy modern tendencies. And if they did? Well, they’d be better off staying in London, like Frances Hodgkins did. Then we’d claim them as ours after they were dead, as if  we’d been their greatest supporters all along. (The Canadians, by the way, loved Coastline, Island Bay so much that they asked for another of Drawbridge’s works).

It’s not that Drawbridge was neglected entirely, but he was placed, after his return to Wellington, in what one of his friends from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London called the “artistic wilderness”. He was there because of a few choices he had made. First, he lived in Wellington—a fact that made him practically invisible to this country’s art market, which operates primarily in Auckland. Second, in addition to his painting, Drawbridge was a lifelong printmaker, specialising in the mezzotint method (a process that, when practised as well as Drawbridge did it, produces stunning contrasts of light and dark, and a richness in colour not possible with other methods). What in retrospect seems a complement to his painting practise was not seen so at the time: printmaking of all kinds is to the art market a distant cousin to painting itself, a method good for making a quick buck and popularising an artist’s work, but not at all “serious”. Drawbridge was always more than just a painter, and printmaking was an essential part of his practise—for it, he was outcast. And third, again in the words of Drawbridge’s friend Robert Macdonald, who wrote his obituary in The Guardian in 2005: “His (Drawbridge’s) paintings were poetic and concerned with colour and the often subtle effects of light. They were very unlike the darkly brooding effusions of his more famous contemporary, the Auckland-based painter Colin McCahon, and so did not fit neatly into curatorial ideas of what New Zealand painting should look like. They were a bit too international in spirit and perhaps a bit too joyful.”

Joyous and international in spirit—these are the defining characteristics of Drawbridge’s work, the features that were irrepressible during his devoted fifty-year career. To see his 1963 New Zealand House mural in the twenty-first century is almost to rediscover New Zealand. No more brooding, no more melancholy, no more Manuka in bloom breeding despair. No more muddy hues, faux-“primitivism” or local landscapes. Instead: light, and energy, and dynamism, and colour, and seasons, and all the loveliness of the spirit of this country that “all too often goes unnoticed”, as the writer John Mulgan so long ago opined. At far left, a bright, burning orb of light sets the stage, while at far right, the deepest blues and greys of last light dominate—between these extremes, swirling, combed forms stretch across and move around the canvas. In places the colour and light are as soft and melancholy as Fra Angelico’s are at the Convent of San Marco in Florence; in other places, like just to the right of the centre panel, the blocks of colours are so rich, intense and geometricised that one thinks of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Compositions of the mid 1910s. Seeing the painting in person for the first time at Wellington’s City Gallery I was left laughing out loud—laughing, because why could I not see this country this way before, and laughing, because how could such a monumental painter be so unregarded? I felt, seeing this mural, that I could conquer the world from Island Bay; and I still feel that way even just conjuring its combed forms and regal colours in my mind.

In the mural, which hung for many years in the foyer to New Zealand House in London before being repatriated, Drawbridge captured New Zealand. It is not a landscape, or a seascape, or a skyscape, or a cityscape, but rather all of those, at once. It is not sunrise or midday or sunset, but expresses all of those times of day—at once. There is no recognisable place. It is not New Zealand seen from the top of a hill, but New Zealand seen from thirty-six-thousand-feet above, or half a world away. “My intention is to convey a sense of the patterns of the movement of light over water and land”, Drawbridge wrote upon the painting’s completion: “There is the continuous flow of a kind of cross-section of the New Zealand landscape.” Never before, and never since, has a New Zealand artist tried to capture so incorporeal a sense of this country, and nor have they done so from the distance of London. (Not that we should be surprised. For does any country ever learn as much about itself as from its expatriates?) This is not provincial NZ art, a nice advertising project for New Zealand House. This is art of the very best kind, grand but never touching on grandiosity.

John Drawbridge Window Frank and Lyn Corner Wellington
John Drawbridge. Window, 1972. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

And there, somewhere between the borders of New Zealand and the porousness of international artistic styles, is where Drawbridge’s work most often resides. This country is never dealt with recognisably, naturalistically; instead we read it into the work through the artist’s biography, the work’s title and the constant play of ocean, earth and light. Window of 1972 is a large canvas, over two metres high, where we look out—as if through a window or door frame—on pure colour. It is a seascape, but one glimpsed perhaps through bush or forest at a time of day when the sun is just low enough to shine directly into your eyes so that all  you see are masses of colour. It is indeed a joyous work—one international in spirit, but to a New Zealander feeling rooted in a time and place.

At other times, particularly in later years, Drawbridge seemed to delve deeper than ever into art history. He engages directly and unashamedly with the art of all periods, proving—and therefore opening the door to other artists in this country—that you did not need to be in Italy, the Netherlands or Russia (for example) to engage with the best art to have been created in those places. I think of his 1984 watercolour Vermeer, Rembrandt and Malevich, where these artists’ works come together in an interior-like setting: viewed through a doorway we see Malevich’s Suprematist compositions hanging on a wall, with abstracted figures from Vermeer seated before them—and to the right, in a different space (and actually on a piece of card then pasted to the watercolour), hangs one of Drawbridge’s own prints from the year before of a detail from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. This is a secularist’s sacra  conversazione, a kind of holy conversation between artists from different times and places. Vermeer’s intense naturalism meets—and enjoys meeting—Malevich’s pure, tensile abstractions from over three hundred years later.

John Drawbridge Rembrandt Malevich Vermeer
John Drawbridge. Vermeer, Rembrandt, Malevich, 1984. Watercolour on card and paper. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

The work has a greater meaning to me: it is the first artwork I ever consciously knew. Hanging always on my parents’ living room wall, I remember looking into this interior space and wondering about the artworks and the colours and the lives of the figures depicted. Long before I knew Vermeer, Rembrandt or Malevich—long before I was consciously interested in art—John Drawbridge taught me, a child in Wellington, New Zealand, about the limitless depths and the irrelevance of geography to the great artistic conversation.

John Drawbridge was not forgotten by the London art world, with his obituary written after his death in 2005 in most major British papers; but he never again was part of it. And so why, again, did he leave England, on the cusp of the success that most artists spend their lives hoping for? He left because he was wise. Because, unmoved by the vagaries of the art market and instead prompted only by the purity and sincerity of that great artistic conversation, he knew he could more deeply undertake his work from the house in Island Bay overlooking the Cook Strait than from a flat in central London. In that task he remained irrepressible, painting, printmaking, mural-making and teaching right up until his death. His artwork stands, powerful and with so much more to be discovered, as one of the best reminders in this country of why the art market is often the worst guide of all to finding the most important and powerful art. For those with eyes of their own, able to look at art without a dealer in their ear or an auction catalogue before them, John Drawbridge has so much to give.

Don Driver: An Ounce of Ambiguity

Don Driver, Dimension No 1, 1970

When I think of New Plymouth I think of Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver. Of the three, Driver was the only one to make New Plymouth his lifelong home after moving there from Hawke’s Bay as a boy. Peryer lived there for many years later in life, but had a far more peripatetic early life. And though Len Lye never lived in New Plymouth, he chose this city, of all he could have chosen, to house his work after his death. What is it that drew these artists to New Plymouth? And what did New Plymouth give them?

When I think about Peter Peryer, Len Lye and Don Driver a slight smile forms at the corner of my mouth. I see Peryer’s Dead Steer, an image at once sombre and inexplicably funny; the beast is as dead as anything, but with its legs splayed in the air it becomes farcical. I hear the music from Len Lye’s Kaleidoscope, see the whirling, swirling patterns and imagine the comic gyrations and secretions of his Water Whirler on Wellington’s waterfront. And most of all, because he always managed to see the heart of the matter and put things together in just the right way, I see works like Driver’s Rollaway. 

Don Driver New Zealand Art Rollaway introduction
Don Driver, Rollaway, 2000

A small skull sits upon an upturned clay flowerpot, which sits upon a giant plastic sneaker with wheels at the back—all of which is seemingly held together by a length of blue rope. Absurd, morbid and hilarious at once: Rollaway is a memento mori for our postmodern souls. Put it on your mantelpiece, reflect on it daily. It’ll make reading the news a little easier, a little funnier. It’ll put things in perspective. 

Movement and stasis, life and death, sincerity and irony—Rollaway, like so many of Driver’s works, is work is brought to life through the artist’s genius assemblage of these ideas. As he said in a 1997 interview, just three years before he made Rollaway: “I want to place in an exaggerated context things normally in an everyday range of vision.”

The skull, first of all: millennia-old artistic symbol of death, used by most great painters from Rembrandt to Picasso to continually remind viewers of the ephemerality of existence. But with postmodern eyes it is difficult for us to look back at an old master memento mori without a hint of irony, without Warhol’s car crashes and his Marilyns repeated over and over at the back of the mind. Driver saw Warhol too; he knew a skull could never again be used sincerely. And so enter the absurd: a giant shoe that could only have been worn by the likes of a clown, or Ronald McDonald (but what is the orifice-like hole on its top for?) Most skulls aren’t going anywhere, but this one appears to be skating off to the horizon, horns bent back for aerodynamics like a Tour de France time triallist. It gives the impression of motion, but without moving; a little like our modern lives, with all our tweeting and flying that gets us nowhere.

Don Driver Chromatic II New Zealand Artist
Don Driver, Chromatic II, 2000

Or consider Chromatic II, a work from the same year as Rollaway, in which Driver takes a different approach to movement and stasis. Made from aluminium airplane wing struts, the work’s materials reference travel and great distances. But hung flat and still against a wall, these small parts of one of the great industrial inventions are rendered ineffective; they are reconstituted for an aesthetic function, never to move again. The work raises questions about the life of industrial inventions; the opposite, in many ways, to Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, prevented from fulfilling their functions. Add to this ideas of sonority and silence (the horizontal aluminium struts appear as keys on a keyboard—might the work’s title refer to the musical scale?—and yet hang mutely, silently, forever) and a small work becomes a site of complex ideas and dualities.

If death is Rollaway’s central idea, its message is to not take it too seriously. Don’t let life roll away from you, but don’t get too caught up in it either. Remember death, but rather than letting it weigh you down, have some fun with the prospect; laugh at it; read Milan Kundera rather than Nietzsche. It is this irreverent spirit that defines the New Plymouth artists. Peryer, Lye and Driver share an ability to deal with weighty ideas without ever losing the smile in the corner of the mouth.

Rollaway is quintessential Driver at the height of his powers. The work is a totem like the many that Driver owned and displayed in his own home. Yet Rollaway is a totem for our own times: humorous, cynical and wry, caught between sincerity and irony, speeding off somewhere but making questionable progress.

Driver seems sometimes to occupy a corner of New Zealand’s art history that we haven’t yet come to terms with. Looking at his works, whether it be Dimension No 1 or major installations like Ritual (held by Te Papa, and presaging assemblages like Rollaway) it can be easy to forget that he was contemporaneous with McCahon, Angus and Woollaston. So separate were Driver’s artistic concerns that he may as well have been living in a different country to that great trio. And ironically, far from making him provincial, it may be that New Plymouth shielded him from the dominant frame of art in New Zealand at the time, with its continuing references to regionalism and landscape, and its ongoing struggles with even tepid abstraction. When looking at Don Driver’s art, New Plymouth seems in many ways far closer to New York than to Auckland or Wellington.

Dimension No 1 is a major early work that emphasises the international world of ideas Driver was engaged with. If Rollaway is Driver towards the end of his career, most free in his associative powers of assemblage, Dimension No 1 is Driver in earlier years, finally finding a way to reconcile the young man’s disdain for tradition with the then-prevalent mode of international hard-edged abstraction. Driver’s is abstraction with a twinkle in the eye—Donald Judd if he could have taken himself a little less seriously.

And the comparison to Donald Judd is more apt than it might at first seem, at least for the first half of Driver’s career. A 1979 exhibition catalogue describes Dimension No 1 as a “Wall relief on a constructed wooden base with two diagonal corners and five horizontal ribs over which canvas is stretched taut so they show through…” In other words, it comes very close to one of Judd’s “specific objects.” These were artworks that blurred simple categories between painting and sculpture—tied up with what we now think of as Minimalism, specific objects didn’t fit artistic categories of the time. Nor did Driver’s works. In breaking through the picture plane with the horizontal struts that force parts of the canvas forward and off the wall, Judd both declared his own future directions (never to be held back by the limits of a canvas) and opened up new possibilities for art in New Zealand. 

Dimension No 1 is one of Driver’s more subdued abstractions, granted—part of a series from the years around 1970—and yet in its arrangement of colours seems to maintain an ironic mode that separates it from both the abstraction of the likes of Milan Mrkusich, and the sincere Minimalism of New York at the time. Driver’s colours are almost-neon hues; comic tonal gradations (blue on purple on orange-red, in this case); and never once conceding to living room decorum that said a painting should at least try to not clash with the curtains. Subtly introducing humour to hard-edged abstraction is no easy task, but Driver managed it—and always with an ounce of ambiguity, so that gallery-goers are still not quite sure whether to smile or scratch the chin sincerely.

Much early writing on Don Driver tried to place him in the New Zealand box in which most people thought any artist working in New Zealand inevitably belonged. The logic, which now seems so naive, was that because he lived in New Zealand, his work somehow dealt with New Zealand. We find, for instance, attempts to link his art to his immediate environment, such as: Driver’s “acid yellows, hot pinks and sharp greens… derive from what he sees and finds around him in New Plymouth”; or that in his assemblages Driver sought to represent rural New Zealand through his use of materials like sackcloth and industrial waste. Try as I might, last time I visited New Plymouth I could not manage to make out any acid yellows or hot pinks. 

On the contrary, far from seeking to represent his own city or country, Driver’s art is cosmopolitan. Not the Gordon Walters kind of cosmopolitan, slick and sleek and sexy and at home in any European capital. Instead the traveller cosmopolitan: the kind of person who travels and finds themselves wide-eyed, interested in everything. At his home Driver collected an eclectic range of objects, from fetish dolls to Buddhist statues and an enormous range of materials that many would categorise as junk. Out of all this Driver created his own vision, a view of the world far more expansive and daring than that of many of his New Zealand contemporaries. His was an “internationalist and universalist ethos mixed in with values from regionalist and non-Western art sources”, as writer John Hurrell has put it so well: “The resulting sensibility allows his work to oscillate between aesthetic delectation and black humour, serene contemplation and overt manipulation of primal fears.”

Driver’s gift to us is a kind of vision that is unique not just here, in McCahon land and Man Alone land, but which is in many cases unique anywhere. His relationship to New York was one of fruitful looking, but he does not seem to have been concerned with borrowing from or contributing to the New York art world. His 1965 trip to America (undertaken only because his funds did not stretch to Europe) no doubt influenced his work—yet it is not a part of the Hero’s Journey in the same way that McCahon’s 1958 America trip is now seen. Driver might just be difficult for us to place because of the uniqueness of his vision. He appears now to a new generation of New Zealanders as a genial man with an astoundingly generous sense of humour.

I’m reminded of the way Peter Peryer described his own artistic development. “I think there’s been an emotional maturing in my image-making,” he said in a 1994 documentary on his life and work. “In many ways I was moving from West to East in my attitudes. I think I mean that they have moved from the crucified Christ to the laughing Buddha. That is what I mean by a maturing.” And the same seems true of Don Driver. The hint of the inner laughing Buddha was always there in his work, even in his most sincere abstractions, but it took time for it to develop. In Rollaway the thoughtful good humour is clear, where the wheels at the back now appear to represent some kind of Buddhist cycle of life; and it’s clear too in Chromatic II, which seems to say we should live by music and colour. 

Essay commissioned for Webb’s Works of Art catalogue, November 2019.

Gordon Walters

Gordon Walters New Zealand abstract art koru
Gordon Walters. Untitled, 1973. Ink on paper. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters estate.

Drive along Wellington’s Oriental Bay and you’ll find, just opposite Freyberg Pool, the city’s imitation of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian yacht club, a car garage stencilled with Gordon Walters’ unmistakable interlocking inversed korus. It is fitting, really: one of Walters’ most significant works is titled simply Oriental, after this Bay. One can never be too sure how an artist feels about becoming “iconic”, but in this country Gordon Walters was likely the first artist to claim this status. The appealing simplicity of his designs lend themselves far better to reproduction than the earthy, dense pigment of a McCahon landscape—far easier to print on a tote bag or a business card or a car garage, and far easier, even, to tattoo, as has become a favourite of the young Kiwi expat. Walters’ iconic design is today something like New Zealand’s yin and yang, a feel-good, corporatised image of happy biculturalism. That, despite the reality that the koru was a motif included in far less than half of Walters’ paintings.

Of all the New Zealand artists, Gordon Walters was the most adamant that he be known simply as an “artist”, free from the confines of geography. At the same time, he often seems to be “New Zealand Artist” Number One. His koru symbol has become to New Zealand’s visual culture what Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is to the United States’: in it we find the essence of a popular and an historical culture, an icon (even in the word’s religious sense) that provides a kind of passage to a world of national meaning and associations. And yet the questions to follow the work of Gordon Walters are how such a simple form could come to mean so much to a nation, and whether that meaning was ever intended. “The form I use in my painting is not really a Māori koru—I think of it as a line ending in a circle,” explained the artist sardonically on one of many occasions. But the artist’s protestations of intent were ineffectual, once the art had entered the national consciousness; the years of hostility to the artist’s “modern” and “foreign” painting were forgotten by the public, replaced with a lusty demand for the artist’s images; and from then on, Gordon Walters was the favourite artist of every half-patriotic New Zealander.

Born less than two months after Colin McCahon in September 1919 on Te Whiti Street in Wellington (street names were always significant to this artist, becoming the titles for many of his works), Walters was brought up during the years following the birth of abstraction. Kazimir Malevich painted the Black Square in 1915, the artwork said to have first discovered pure, or “non-objective”, abstraction. From this point onwards, art could be conceived of even if it did not refer to the “objective” world of nature (of course this doesn’t mean most art viewers liked abstraction; far from it, for a long time). So Malevich was painting his Suprematist compositions, and Piet Mondrian was painting his grids—not that the young Walters would see much of this in his childhood and during his schooling at Rongotai College, beyond, if he was lucky, a few black and white magazine reproductions. It was a heady time to be born, for a future European abstractionist, yet a time seemingly like any other for a future New Zealand painter. That a painter born in Kilbirnie, Wellington, could come to create art as deep and as limitless as that of the best European abstractionists is a testament to Walters’ mind and ethic.

Gordon Walters New Zealand artist
Gordon Walters. Chrysanthemum, 1944. Oil on card. Starkwhite Gallery. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

There never seemed to be the possibility that Walters would be a naturalistic painter, recording recognisable landscapes or this country’s flora and fauna. Even his early works depicting landscapes or flowers hint at high-modern tendencies: Waikanae Landscape of 1944, a conté crayon drawing of tree stumps on an ethereal beach, suggests a future Surrealist path, while his Chrysanthemum of the same year—a colourful, exploded, deconstructed flower on a light blue background—intimates the pure abstract path Walters would later take. Chrysanthemums are, after all, often now thought of as Mondrian’s flower: the hundreds of studies of this flower that the Dutch abstractionist did in the late nineteenth century showed his processing of many European artistic styles, as if in preparation to surpass them. So it seems with Walters, and by 1947, when the artist was just twenty-eight, we find the last of his works to retain even a hint of the recognisable, natural world; his The Poet from that year is the point of departure, depicting a seated figure, but drawn with the Māori-influenced style that would later become Walters’ own unique visual identity.

Gordon Walters koru shape New Zealand
Gordon Walters. Ranui, 1956. Ink on paper. Te Papa Tongarewa. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

One discerns in Walters’ personality a scientific rigour and rationality, combined with an ethic of hard work; these go some way to understanding his lifelong focus on geometric  abstraction. Abstraction, particularly the “hard-edged” kind of Walters’, has interesting associations with the world of science, technology and machines. Walters was not particularly interested in the spontaneous, reflexive effects that a paintbrush held in his hand might produce (think of McCahon’s individualistic scrawled words). Instead, he was concerned with order and rigour: he found over time found that perfectly straight lines, and perfectly circular circles, produced far better the effects he was after, even though these removed the impulsive, human touch of putting discernibly human marks on a canvas. At first, in an early koru work like Ranui of 1956, Walters drew his lines and his circles by hand, the shaky wrist of even a master artist visible all over. But later, from around the early 1960s, even that remnant of a human touch is removed: all lines are ruler-sharp, all circles drawn seemingly with a compass. Walters’ art, from here on, possesses a clean clarity—a trait we can link back to the artist’s own mind. 

And then there were the encounters, of which a few are critical to this artist’s oeuvre. In 1941 Walters met the Dutch artist and craftsman Theodorus Johannes Schoon, better known as Theo, a figure whose influence on New Zealand’s understanding of its tradition is immense but who has been for too long ignored. Schoon’s influence on Walters is difficult to understate, though in later years the two would publicly disagree over the sway each had on the other. What we do know is that a few years after they met Schoon and Walters travelled the South Island together, exploring caves containing relatively unknown early Māori rock carvings. The experience left Walters deeply interested in non-Western art: his later visual diaries are a fascinating record of his lack of cultural bias, freely exploring connections between a Paul Klee painting and Inuit masks, for instance. Picasso, it’s true, had decades earlier been influenced by the art of non-“Western”, non-“modern” cultures; but with him it seemed if anything more a plundering than an exploration. Yet despite Walters’ committed and sensitive explorations, the charge of cultural appropriation would later dog him and his koru works. He never did find a neat way through the quagmire of cultural politics.

Two other encounters did much to shape this abstractionist’s work. In 1950 Walters left for Europe, spending a year in London with excursions to Amsterdam and Paris. Just as Colin McCahon’s 1958 trip to the United States has come to have almost mythological status, after he returned and painted the Northland Panels, so too should Walters’ European sojourn—it was here that he saw at first-hand all the different strands of Modernism, and determined which were most worthy of his attention. After the trip Walters’ work becomes more linear, more geometric, and within years the koru motif would be born. But there was another path that would present itself to Walters not long after his return to New Zealand: Theo Schoon one day brought to Walters a number of drawings made by Rolfe Hattaway, a diagnosed schizophrenic and inpatient at Auckland’s mental hospital. The drawings are remarkable, leading for Walters to many of the insights that the European Surrealists had spent decades trying to obtain—and for years afterwards Walters would work with Hattaway’s designs, pulling them into his own paintings, sometimes seemingly unconsciously. The borders of rationality were always of interest to Gordon Walters: step one way and his artworks are the product of a scientific, machine-age ethic; move slightly the other way and they are its opposite, the non-linear workings of the subconscious mind.

Walters’ artistic style and his earlier working life combined fortuitously in the late 1950s when he had the chance to produce a screenprint of one of his works. After finishing his formal artistic training at the Wellington Technical College School of Art Walters worked as a commercial artist and designer, including at the Wellington Government Printing Office. The experience left him aware of how art might reach a larger audience through mechanical reproduction, and Walters reacted to the possibility of screenprinting many of his koru works seemingly with glee. The thirteen screenprints he would go on to produce—all except two from his koru works, signalling the public demand for these New Zealand icons—are perhaps the most significant body of prints a New Zealand artist has produced (with the exception of John Drawbridge). They did much to cement Walters’ reputation and widespread awareness of his work; but they also, maybe unwittingly, demonstrated the ease with which the koru works lend themselves to reproduction. Search TradeMe for “Gordon Walters” today and one will find hundreds of listings, yet not for his work, or even, unfortunately, for books about him. Rather one finds the full range of commodities that prop up an artist’s public reputation but which also make a mockery of it. A cotton tote bag for $32.99, featuring Walters’ 1972 Untitled? A bargain! Or an umbrella, perhaps—just $54—embossed on the top with bold interlocking korus? Mostly that cynical reaction is just art-world snobbery, but unfortunately familiarity does breed a certain kind of contempt. The korus have today lost some of their visual power through sheer abundance.

Gordon Walters pure abstraction
Gordon Walters. Painting H, 1975. Oil on canvas. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

The works of Walters’ that were never produced as prints—never, because most people weren’t interested in them—are those that demonstrate the intellectual depths that this artist plumbed. New Zealand needed Walters’ koru works. What it did not need in the twentieth century, and what no one knew what to do with once Walters had brought them into existence, were works like his Painting H of 1975, now in the collection of the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth. This square canvas is divided perfectly down the middle. The left side is painted a nectarine red; the right, a muted white. Nothing else. The harmony between the colours is gorgeous, and the eye flicks back and forth between one side and the other, enjoying the simplicity and distillation of Walters’ work. Yet an art-interested public didn’t know what to do with such a painting: does it represent traditional Māori red, and the white skin of the coloniser? Perhaps the colours are an attempt at expressing the harsh clarity  of New Zealand light at sunset? No, neither of those things. There is no representation. Instead it is another exploration—a continuation of the artist’s lifelong project, “an investigation of positive/negative relationships within a deliberately limited range of forms”, as the artist described in 1966. 

Gordon Walters Oriental Pacific art
Gordon Walters. Oriental II, 1967. Oil on board. Private collection. Copyright Gordon Walters Estate.

So it is that Walters’ greatest contribution to the history of art—not the history of New Zealand art, but simply of art—is liable to be ignored. His later mise en abyme works depict (though the analogy is not perfect) a painting within a painting like the play within the play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are visually powerful and intellectually stimulating works that make a refined contribution to a consideration of self-reflexivity in abstract art. Oriental II of 1967, for instance, is a horizontal black-painted canvas with a thin, vertical white strip to the left of the canvas; but to the right of that is a smaller, thin white strip, with a white rectangle to the right of it, mirroring in inverted colours and smaller size the larger canvas composition. The painting exists as itself, but contains within it an inversion of itself; it lives and breathes through the duality. Here Walters has distilled all his lessons: the early European pure  abstractionists’; the Surrealists’ focus on the workings of the unconscious mind; Hattaway’s works, bringing the irrational to life in art; and all his explorations of the sheer variety of art forms in Asia and the Pacific. 

The title Oriental at once refers to the place of Walters’ childhood, Oriental Bay, and the possibility of art made in New Zealand connecting with the art of the wider Asia Pacific region. At a time when modernism is no longer within the sole purview of London, Paris and New York, Walters’ art is a testament to the sheer range of its possibilities. But, trapped within the borders of this country by our demand for that which most directly represents the nation, he remains unknown overseas.