Gordon Walters: An Essay

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. 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. 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. 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 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.