Living in New Zealand, most of us are familiar with the distinctive koru motif. Born 100 years ago in the capital, Gordon Walters (1919-1995), is one of New Zealand’s most significant modernist artists. His painted abstractions and refinement of the koru became a key element in his painting.

A large group of Friends attended the preview of Gordon Walters: New Vision, a comprehensive survey exhibition featuring over 110 major works from many public and private art collections throughout New Zealand.

The exhibition chronologically outlines Walters’ five-decade painting career exploring the abstract potential of a limited range of forms.

Walters draws on the primary motif of Māori kōwhaiwhai painted scroll patterns. He uses the koru in a geometric way investigating the dynamics of positive and negative space.

By the late 1950s, Walters had evolved a distinctive style that linked Maori motifs and European abstract painting, a form he explored and refined throughout his career.

The simplicity and elegance of the koru series belies the fact that the work is meticulously created with fine, handmade precision. The exhibition vitrine shows a workbook outlining his painting process of creating stripes and circles, using pencil, ruler and compass and shows measurements he used to precisely lay out shapes.

Gouache paintings, collage and preparatory studies show the progression of the pure, geometric abstractions. Rhythm and repetition of these shapes are the fundamental principle that fuelled Walters’ inventive and elegant abstractions. In 1966 he stated that “dynamic relations are most clearly expressed by the repetition of a few simple elements.”

I particularly enjoyed the Genealogy series of paintings from the early 1960s. Featuring the enigmatic koru in stark black and white and in ordered alignment, the motifs are mesmerising. There is an optical harmony and the image seems to move before your eyes. They are paintings to be gazed at and into. The repetition of form sets up a rhythmical pattern. His paintings are invested with a distinctly South Pacific energy.

We were lucky to have Julia Waite, Curator of New Zealand Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Lucy Hammonds of Dunedin Public Art Gallery walk us through the exhibition and provide scholarly insight into Walters’ painting. A big thanks should go out to the curators for a fabulous retrospective exhibition of one of New Zealand’s most significant painters.

Susanne Lang
Member, Friends of Te Papa

Feature image, detail from: Makaro, 1969, Wellington, by Gordon Walters. Purchased 1970. © Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (1970-0021-1)