The emergence in the 1950s of Gordon Walters
as one of our most important pioneers of
abstract art, along with the likes of Don Peebles
and Milan Mrkusich, signalled an important
cultural transition in New Zealand.
As critic Francis Pound has argued, it was a
shift away from the literary influences of the
nationalist landscape painters towards the flat
planes of architecture and design, from the rustic
countryside to urban modernism.
After attending Rongotai College, Wellington,
where there were no art courses offered, Walters
became a trainee commercial artist in 1935 and
continued studying at Wellington Technical
College, taking a keen interest in ethnic art. It was
here in 1941 that he became closely acquainted
with Indonesian-born Dutch émigré artist Theo
Schoon, who raised his awareness of international art and would later introduce him to Mäori rock
art in South Canterbury. Walters was particularly
attracted to the European surrealists, including
Paul Klee and Joan Mirò, and their inspiration in
the subconscious and “primitive” forms.
Walters made several trips to Australia before
he left New Zealand in 1950 for London, also
visiting Paris and Amsterdam, and encountering
first-hand the abstract works of Piet Mondrian,
Jackson Pollock and Victor Vasarely, the latter a
particular influence on his early non-figurative
works, executed once back in Melbourne in 1952.
In 1953 he found himself in Auckland for a
period before returning to Wellington to work for
the Government Printing Office. While working,
through the mid-1950s, Walters would produce
hundreds of small works on paper, not having any
audience to develop larger pieces for.
He would regularly travel to Auckland to visit
friends, including Schoon, who had been working
in a psychiatric hospital where he had been
encouraging and collecting the drawings of
patient Rolfe Hattaway. It is in Hattaway’s
drawings, experiments with simple linear forms,
that we can clearly find the forms on which
Untitled, 1955 is based, as well as many similar
studies and similar works by Schoon also – a
shared influence explored fully in the 1997
Lopdell House exhibition: Hattaway, Schoon,
Walters: Madness and Modernism.
Untitled is one of only a few works from this
period to be painted on canvas, including another
that resides at Te Papa. Using a common method
amongst designers and architects, Walters cut
out the shapes to position them into an arrangement on canvas. This repetition of forms
using a reduced colour palette anticipates the
formal relationships of his later work, but in this
case is more intuitively placed. Lastly, the
wandering line is established by dropping a string
on the canvas, a technique used in several works,
which recalls the chance experiments of the
surrealists, as well as their interest in the psyche.
Schoon also seeded Walters’ interest in Mäori
moko and kowhaiwhai designs, leading to
Walters’ first kowhaiwhai patterns in 1957,
followed by his first experiments with his
trademark koru design in 1958, largely working
on paper with pencil, gouache and brush. Since he
was nervous about their reception in conservative
New Zealand, it wasn’t until 1966 that Walters
publicly exhibited his now-famous koru works,
which by then were fully formed; first one in a
Christchurch competition and then a solo show at
the newly established New Vision Gallery.
From the latter exhibition Auckland Art Gallery
would purchase Painting no. 1, 1965 and The
University of Auckland would purchase Painting
no. 2, 1966. Both institutions continue to be
enthusiastic supporters of the artist’s work.
Walters took up an appointment as visiting
lecturer in painting at Elam School of Fine Arts
after moving to Auckland in 1971 and became
involved in the scene associated with the Petar/
James Gallery, which was a focus of a 2003
exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery, and where
Untitled, 1955 was purchased in 1977.