Gordon Walters

untitled

1966/1973
gouache and graphite on paper
330mm x 230mm

signed Gordon Walters, dated 66-73 and inscribed 66/Revised 78.7.73 in graphite upper edge

Provenance

Acquired from Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland.

Essay

Wellington-born abstract painter Gordon Walters (1919-1995) is best known for his starkly geometric, hard-edged work based around an adaption of Māori koru and pit...

Read full text
Estimate $50,000 - $60,000
Achieved $55,000

Gordon Walters

untitled

1966/1973

gouache and graphite on paper

signed Gordon Walters, dated 66-73 and inscribed 66/Revised 78.7.73 in graphite upper edge

330mm x 230mm

Auction N˚1

Estimate $50,000 - $60,000

Achieved $55,000

Modernism and Kowhaiwhai

by Andrew Paul Wood

Wellington-born abstract painter Gordon Walters (1919-1995) is best known for his starkly geometric, hard-edged work based around an adaption of Māori koru and pitau motifs. These, in turn, originate in the furled fronds of native ferns and are a striking feature of Māori kowhaiwhai (painted rafters of the meeting house), where they represent the life force of nature and tribal genealogy. It is easily the most recognisable image in New Zealand art and has heavily influenced all aspects of New Zealand corporate, government and NGO logo design.

Walters consistently explored the rhythmic, spatial and optical possibilities of this motif from the end of the 1950s onward. As a young boy, Walters spent hours studying the Polynesian collection of what was then Wellington’s Dominion Museum. The inspiration for his unique style probably originated in his friendship with the Indo-Dutch émigré artist Theo Schoon in the 1940s. Schoon was obsessed with the notion of reinvigorating what he saw as the stagnating traditional Māori arts by infusing them with the design principles of the German Bauhaus school. There is nothing to suggest that Walters had any such radical project in mind when he went to Europe in 1950. There, he was drawn to the work of geometric modernists Capogrossi, Mondrian, Vasarely and Auguste Herbin.

The way that these European artists used repeated formal motifs in their work led Walters, on his return to New Zealand in 1953, to go about creating his own signature motif, derived from the strong graphic qualities and formal economy of Māori visual culture. Since the 1980s, with the resurgence of a Māori voice across all aspects of New Zealand public life, this usage of the koru and pitau has been criticised from some corners as cultural appropriation, most notably by art historian Rangihīroa Panoho during the landmark Headlands exhibition that toured Australia and New Zealand in 1992. Walters himself saw no cultural associations in the forms he used. While acknowledging their origins, he affirmed that there was no “descriptive value” in them and that he used them exclusively to explore the dynamic tensions of positive and negative space.