PVA on canvas
1510 x 1120mm
Gordon Walters was born in Wellington. At the secondary school he attended Rongotai College art was no part of the curriculum. In 1935 he began training as a commercial artist while studying part-time at the Art Department, Wellington Technical College and taught there part-time in 1945. It is important to note that Walters period of study coincided with the war years so he was deprived of any direct contact with European art. What he did know came from reproductions and a few books on contemporary art. Walters’ interest in non-western art grew from the study of the ethnographic collections of the Dominion Museum.
In the war years he worked as an illustrator for the Ministry of Supply. His 1941 meeting and friendship with the Dutch Indonesian-born artist Theo Schoon was of crucial importance. In 1946 Schoon introduced him to prehistoric rock art in South Canterbury and North Otago. In the same year he went to Australia for some months and this was the first of many trips made there in order to enlarge his artistic horizons. These two experiences triggered works in which Walters rejected the spatial conventions of his art training in favour of primitivist paintings influenced both by Surrealism and the work of Swiss painter Paul Klee and the Spanish artist Joan Miró.
Needless to say these did not elicit a ready public response, forcing the artist to work on in almost complete isolation after the failure of his first exhibition at Wellington Public Library in 1949. In fact it was not until 1966 that Walters was able to paint full-time. He left for Europe in 1950 spending most of his time in London but viewing exhibtions of work by Vasarely, Herbin and other abstractionists in Paris. In Holland he saw paintings by Piet Mondrian, work by Bauhaus members and a major exhibition of contemporary American painting. On returning to New Zealand in 1953 he settled in Wellington and worked in the Government Printing Office.
In 1956 he began his first studies using the koru motif which, combined with hard-edge modern abstraction, was to provide the basis of much of his life’s work. His first solo exhibition in seventeen years took place at Auckland’s New Vision Gallery in 1966. The Maori theme re-emerged in a new way in Walters’ life when in 1963 he married the Maori scholar Margaret Orbell editor of Te Ao Hou the Maori culture and arts magazine for which Gordon Walters worked as designer and graphic artist. In 1971 Walters moved to Auckland where in 1972 he was Visiting Lecturer in Painting at the Elam School of Fine Arts numbering among his students Stephen Bambury, Richard Killeen, Geoff Thornley and Ian Scott.
During this year Walters, his students and the art dealer Petar Vuletic all became involved in intense discussions about abstract art. On his wife’s 1976 appointment as Lecturer in Maori at the University of Canterbury the artist moved to Christchurch. In 1979 Walters travelled to the USA. He was the subject of a major retrospective at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1983. This toured the country in reduced form and made the public aware of Walters’ enormous importance to the development of modernism in New Zealand. In 1989 Walters celebrated his 70th birthday and the occasion was marked by the publication of a festschrift of essays entitled Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition.
In the wake of the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1992 Headlands exhibition of New Zealand art Walters found himself the central figure in a sometimes acrimonious debate over his apparent appropriation of Maori imagery in his koru pantings. In 1994, the Auckland City Art Gallery’s Parallel Lines: Gordon Walters in Context exhibited many of his works alongside those of European and American artists whose work had influenced him. This work, Tahi, was one of the first contemporary paintings acquired by the then Fletcher Collection. It was purchased following a recommendation by designer Peter Bromhead who was responsible for a refurbishment of Fletcher House. The medium PVA requires some explanation. It is a water based paint which was particularly favoured in the late 1960s and 1970s by artists and art teachers for its relative inexpensiveness and convenience. In fact, Tahi‘s yellow colour has deepened over the years, a fact which did not displease the artist when he visited the Fletcher Challenge Art Collection in 1995.
Representation and Reaction: Modernism and the New Zealand Landscape Tradition 1956–1977, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui, 31 August to 27 October 2002 (toured)