Gordon Walters (1919-1995) was New Zealand’s most celebrated abstract artist, receiving major critical and popular acclaim at home as well as internationally. His lifetime artistic oeuvre is surveyed in this skillfully curated retrospective exhibition, which effectively displays both the dazzling visual qualities and the thought-provoking place of Walters’ work in the context of New Zealand and international artistic culture. The exhibition spans decades of Walters’ studies and exploratory works, his carefully designed and ingeniously varied geometric abstractions, and the many large and small works that deploy his signature negative-positive scroll pattern, his famous “koru” motif inspired by and Polynesian designs.
By all accounts, the koru works occupy a crucial place in Walters’ career, due to a famous exhibition in 1966 in Auckland’s New Vision Gallery, Gordon Walters: Paintings 1965. This current exhibition opens—literally, in the first room—with the works of this earlier exhibition, such as Te Whiti (1964)–
Black on White (1965), and Painting No. 1 (1965)–
acknowledging their pivotal role in Walters’ developing artistic vision.
However, the “new vision” claimed by the curators in their title refers not only to this earlier exhibition, but also to an intention to critically re-envision Walters’ artistic oeuvre as a whole. Accordingly, while paying homage to the 1965 exhiibition, the curators also challenge the almost mythological status that the original, koru-based paintings took on, which obscured the long and diverse artistic paths that led up to this breakthrough and the continuing richness of Walters’ artistic modes in successive decades after the New Vision moment.
Using a metaphor resonant with Walters’ combinatoric artistic methods, but also with recent cultural theory, the curators take a “genealogical” approach to Walters’ work–
–revealing divergent sources behind unitary appearances (like the koru motif) and exposing unities underlying apparently different phenomena (the hidden connections between Walters’ work across media and modes). Of particular interest is the exhibition’s extensive display of Walters’ long period of study and gestation in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he executed a large number of rapidly produced gouaches and collages to master a wide range of abstract forms, patterns, and color values.
Additionally, a large amount of the exhibition’s space is dedicated to Walters’ works of the 1970s-90s, in which subsequent exploration of the koru motif co-exists with several other fundamental patterns of space, shape, and color, such as rectangular, diagonal, or curved and scroll forms other than the koru—for example the delicately unstable Maho (1973)–
or the interleaved rectangles and angles of Construction with Red Ochre (1985).
For its artistic tendency and quality, Walters’ work deserves to be viewed in an international context including 20th-century abstract painters from Hans Arp, Piet Mondrian, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Josef Albers, and Joaquín Torres-García to Victor Vaserely, Max Bill, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Bridget Riley, and Ellsworth Kelly. Yet for all its explicit and tacit dialogue with this modernist and late modernist tradition, Walters work is also important for its place at the crossroads of a number of key criticisms of the legacy of 20th-century modernism globally. These include, first, a wide range of controversies, still anything but resolved, about the value and character of abstract painting as such. From the advent of postmodernism in the 1980s and the subsequent emergence of global contemporary art, artists and critics have explored tensions between so-called “universal” idioms propagated by European and American modernist painters —such as abstract geometrical forms and grids—and diverse local, often highly specific cultural contexts, contents, and symbolic forms. More recently, curators and art historians, too, have also championed the idea of “alternative” and “peripheral” modernisms, produced in locations or by artists at the margins of the metropolitan centers of cultural prestige and power. Lastly, there has been a vigorous, decades-long debate about the politics and ethics of Western modernism’s “primitivist” borrowings from indigenous, colonized, and marginalized cultures, a problematic thread running from Gauguin’s and Nolde’s South Sea idylls through the neo-primitivist works of A.R. Penck and Keith Haring.
As a pakeha New Zealander (that is, of settler-colonialist descent) modern artist inspired by Maori and other Pacific Island visual culture, Walters was uniquely poised to evoke, if not explicitly address, a number of critical issues. These still-open questions, however, are in various ways foregrounded in the curators’ selection and presentation of Walters’ works, and the contributors to the accompanying exhibition catalogue explores them in depth and breadth.