TWO MAJOR KORU PAINTINGS BY GORDON WALTERS FROM THE COLLECTION OF IAN SCOTT
Gordon Walters Waiata, 1971 PVA and acrylic on canvas 1525 x 1125mm
Exhibited ‘Paintings’, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, 17 August – 1 September 1971. ‘Gordon Walters: A Retrospective Exhibition’, Auckland Art Gallery, 1983 (touring). ‘Gordon Walters: New Vision’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2017–18, Auckland Art Gallery 2018. Published Michael Dunn, Gordon Walters (Auckland Art Gallery, 1983), plate 55. Provenance Purchased by Ian Scott from Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, in August 1971.
Three 'Classical' Koru Paintings
A definitive completeness of the original idea and the total authority of its realisation and execution probably rank Gordon Walters’ koru paintings as one of the most important series of paintings to be made in New Zealand. They represent one of those perfect solutions that happen only rarely in art, and within the context of contemporary New Zealand art seem to loom larger and larger with the passing of time. With his discovery of the positive/negative koru pattern around the mid-1950s, Walters found the means to create one of the most aesthetically resolved pictorial structures yet invented in this country. This sophisticated organisation of spatial dynamics enabled him, during what I would call his ‘classic’ phase from 1967 (when he started using canvas and increased his size to 60” x 45” or 72” x 54”) to roughly 1971, to paint fully realised works of a great formal and lyrical beauty. Paintings such as Blue on Yellow (1967), Tamatea (1968), and Koru (1971) have a rightness of form, colour and structure which places them among the most successful examples of twentieth century New Zealand painting.
the classical phase of the koru paintings is reached. The low-valued chromatic colour scheme, coupled with an unforced sense of placement of the circle motif and a reciprocal sense of interaction between image and field give to Tamatea and other paintings of this 1967 – 71 period a spacious internal visual flow. They become paintings with pictorial values, where all the various parts come together gracefully and naturally.
In these works and others similar to them, Walters’ relationship to earlier European geometric abstraction was softened and tempered by the example of Americans like Newman and Noland, whose striped openness, broad colour areas, and thin paint surface provided Walters with an alternative to the graphic hardness and design layout of the earlier, more hard-edged and optical korus painted between 1964 and 1966, for example.
Walters’ very personal sense of colour adds to these qualities of expansiveness and harmony, especially his use of pale primary hues and greys. Koru is a fine example of this, with its light pinkish-purple colouring which seems to increase the scale of the painting, as well as defining the particular Walters’ feeling of a calm, refined and delicate balance. The colour is always sensitively adjusted in tone and subtly linked to the proportional system. It is this acute sense of each painting being so exquisitely visually sprung that assists Walters’ compositions to sit so perfectly on the wall, and together with koru symbol, allows them to interact so effectively with their Pacific environment.
This gradual transition to a ‘high’ style can be seen in a work like Tahi (1967) which introduces the more random use of the koru circle and brings in a yellow ground colour which starts to subvert the strict geometric feeling and tonal structure. Then with Blue on Yellow of the same year chromatic organisation takes over as the bands are increased in number and decreased in width and so become an element in their own right within the composition of the painting acting as a striped field which counterpoints the koru circles. The placement of the circles too becomes much more rhythmical, random and widely spaced. The gains achieved by these changes are enormous and, with a work like Tamatea of the following year,
While the korus have generally become a memorable New Zealand image (by now even popularised and plagarised on yacht sails and company logos), an image which somehow captures a particular essence of New Zealand feeling, their internal workings and spatial complexities are still difficult to analyse and understand twenty years on. This ungraspable aspect resides precisely in the visual mechanics of the koru motif itself and its special spatial relationship to the overall field of coloured bands upon which it rests, and more particularly in the upper half of the koru circle’s position in relationship to the band both above and behind it which supports and defines its shape. Because the axis of the circle is below the top
edge of the band to which it is attached, a shallow cantilevered space opens up between the circle and the band behind it and this causes a slight illusion of twisting away from visual flatness, at the point where the circle intercepts the band on the top edge, giving the circular koru motif a subtle tremor which, when repeated throughout the painting, adds a mysterious life and energy. The koru paintings have been seen generally as a positive/negative organisation of form and space and in a broad context this is correct, but upon closer examination what actually happens is much more complex and harder to identify. Usually the lighter circles, those that are negatively cut-out from the basic ground colour (which compromises the field of colour on which the ‘positive’ circles rest) could be described as ‘negative’ areas which seem to come forward. Their position is highly ambiguous because they are both visually in front of yet visually behind the ‘positive’ bands of circles. This effect is contributed to on many occasions by having more ‘negative’
lighter circles tham ‘positive’ ones. For instance in Blue on Yellow there are thirty nine blue circles but forty nine yellow ones, although to the eye the two appear balanced out and equal in number. Because the light circles appear to come forward the whole field must come forward and this in turn makes the ‘positive’ koru circles sit more intimately on the surface. It is this compressed space, resulting in the tight formal control so characteristic of the korus that produces the even density of surface so rarely seen in other New Zealand painting. Such a condensed space gives the ‘negatively’ cut-out circles greater ambiguous presence than the ‘positive’ circles and in fact helps imbue them with more ambiguity. So the result is a squeezing of space in the areas around the ‘negative’ circles and this pressuring in turn pulls all the ‘positive’ circles and bands back into the overall field. It is as if pressure is exerted on both units of the system which causes the bands themselves to coil up at the end with the tension and bulb into the koru motif. Ian Scott with Gordon Walters' Waiata. Photograph: Nan Corson, 1981.
It is within this frontal flat pressure between the bands and circles and the transference of negative to positive space that one begins to get into the real complexities of the koru system. If the circles appear to operate spatially in a number of ways then their supporting bands do as well. While all the bands and circles are usually painted on a single field of colour or white (giving logical actual painted linkage between the numerous elements) keeping the surface physically flat, in reality, the visually opposite occurs. Each band somewhere along its length changes visual priority, so that while it is still a component of a visual field (that is, either all blue or yellow bands which make up the whole surface by vertical repetition or stacking), each band is also a separate entity running horizontally, gradually switching spatial position from ‘positive’ to ‘negative’. This causes another slight visual illusion of each band bending away horizontally from its neighboring one, as if hinged, and then projecting outward in the direction of the circle’s termination. As a result a twisting occurs along the edge of each band, from the point where it defines the bottom of a ‘negative’ circle to where it moves along to form the middle starting point of the ‘positive’ circle at the other end. An interesting point in relation to this is that because the koru circles can obviously terminate only on the visual field, (the paintings imply horizontal openness and to a lesser extent vertical continuance), all the bands with circle terminations appear to be pushing laterally inwards from the visual edges, even when they cross another koru circle. This gives the koru paintings their usual effect of a slight rippling or swelling across the surface which is augmented by the round shape of the koru and the optical lightening of tone that occurs when a number of ‘negative’ circles are clustered together. I feel that the most effective koru paintings are those that allow these kinds of spatial effects to occur naturally, rather than forcing the inward pushing movement into a composed or added separate configuration. The more ‘random’ the placement of circles, the more Walters can use the whole canvas shape to full advantage. The ideal proportions of the 3-4-5 rectangle (which Walters has used more or less for all the main koru paintings) gives the paintings just the right ratio of horizontal to vertical, making room for the stacked bands and providing the secure underpinning needed to give overall balance
and control to circles and bands. This can be seen to good effect in Tamatea where the koru circles seem to gather up the field of bands in a cumulative way, emphasizing the canvas shape and giving an extra magical presence. Alternatively in Koru the random yet measured positioning of the circles creates the very large airy internal scale. This largeness is assisted by the narrower band width in relation to size and shape (Koru contains 60 one and a quarter inch bands) and this scale reduces the circles’ size in relation to the field, making possible the marvelous scansion and feeling of freedom in their placement. Koru attains a spacious openness seldom evident in New Zealand painting before or since and these qualities of expansiveness in Koru seem more potentially local qualities that the more obvious black and white tighter feeling in some of the earlier and later koru paintings. Such is the strength and success of the koru idea, the paintings appear historically inevitable and authentically coalesced in time and place. The way they permit allusive Maori and New Zealand readings to occur simultaneously with a great variety of personal and painterly feelings attests to this. These feelings can range from the abstract and austere to the lyrical and delicate, through to the bold and optical and it is the way these different readings and feelings are so accurately balanced out in a formal equivalence that gives the korus their timeless beauty and a carrying power and dimension larger than other New Zealand works of the period. With their deceptive economy of paint surface, crisp edges, and seemingly free placement of the koru motif the best paintings of the ‘high’ period seem to generate a kind of crystalline purity of light which is at once deeply felt, yet restrained and full of poetic ambiguity. The koru paintings are and will remain a pinnacle of modernist abstraction in New Zealand and achieve a level of quality that remains a benchmark of exacting standards for painting to be measured against here. This essay was originally published in Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition, 1989, edited by James Ross and Laurence Simmons, a festschrift of essays presented to Gordon Walters on his seventieth birthday.
Gordon Walters, Richard Killeen, Geoff Thornley, Milan Mrkusich, Ian Scott, and Petar Vuletic in 1974. Photograph courtesy of Auckland Star.
Gordon Walters Untitled, 1982 acrylic on canvas 620 x 1835mm
Exhibited ‘New Paintings and Works on Paper', Artis Gallery, Auckland, 9 July – 3 August 1985. ‘Gordon Walters: New Vision’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2017–18, Auckland Art Gallery 2018. Published Gordon Walters: New Vision, (Dunedin Public Art Gallery/Auckland Art Gallery, 2017), pp. 30, 191. Provenance Purchased by Ian Scott from Artis Gallery Auckland, August 1985.
A Pinnacle of Modernist Abstraction
In October 1973 Gordon Walters wrote a letter from Auckland to his dealer in Wellington Peter McLeavey. Walters enthused: ‘Ian Scott has a show this week, big paintings with one or two very good ones… Only two sold so far, the show was badly reviewed which was not what it deserved… I can’t think of any other young painter who has the rigour and assurance that Scott has.’ Almost five years later, Walters’ initial intuition seems to have paid off and in April 1978 he writes again to McLeavey: ‘I was really impressed with what I saw of Ian Scott’s work in Auckland. He has really come on well and is doing big canvasses with a lot of authority. I saw a couple which really stood out.’ The admiration between artists was mutual and reciprocal. That Ian Scott was an early supporter and buyer of Walters’ work, purchasing an acrylic on canvas Waiata in August 1971 from an early show at McLeavey’s, was another revelation for Walters who wrote to McLeavey soon after that exhibition: ‘I was surprised to find that Ian Scott had purchased the painting. I had no idea he was interested in me.’ Scott — as the reader can reconfirm in this catalogue — contributed an enthusiastic essay for the
1989 festschrift produced to celebrate Walters’ 70th birthday. It is an illuminating close reading of what he calls the ‘classical’ koru phase of Walters’ work. Walters’ koru, Scott opens and concludes his essay, represent ‘one of those perfect solutions that happen only rarely in art’ and ‘a pinnacle of modernist abstraction in New Zealand.’ These two works from Ian Scott’s collection are very fine examples of Walters’ excursion into colour. The early painting’s title Waiata — one which Walters also used for a later completely different black and white koru composition (dated 1977 and in the Dowse collection) — carries with it associations of music and rhythm that many commentators have already remarked upon. As Francis Pound records:
‘When Daniel Buren, France’s most prestigious living painter, visited New Zealand he was reminded by Walters’ bars and circles of musical staves.’1 Waiata have always played a vital part in Māori life, recording the deeds of ancestors, lamenting losses, calling to a lover or marking the birth of an important child, and Walters’ wife, Margaret Orbell, was a respected editor and translator of collections of waiata aroha. Orbell writes of waiata ‘their language is often elaborate, with specialised expressions and complex allusions. They were sung very slowly, with melodies in which endless inventive use was made of a small range of notes.’2 It was language which she might have just as well used of her husband’s painting. Walters’ Waiata (1971) employs the same ‘inventive use’ of a small range of central repetitive ‘melodies’ with ‘laments’ to the side. Untitled (1982) experiments successfully — as Walters’ did on several occasions (see, for example, Taraki of the same year) — with a landscape format, and is one of the exceptionally beautiful later koru with their delicate and complicated grounds of grey halftones, slate and sky blues, custardy yellow ochres, beiges and even light mauves. These works have been short-changed in Walters’ critical history and were often viewed as just an (unsatisfactory) aftermath to the primary black and white purism.
But spare and reserved they quietly throb with delicately modulated colour to reveal a simultaneous ability to both emanate out and draw the eye in, and are, in their way, all perfect. Walters should no longer be thought of as an ascetic painter, dogmatic in conception, and formulaic in execution. The story of his painting is not one of captivation to a process but liberation from it; he was not led by a geometer’s rule but by restless experiment. Even though he painstakingly buffed it down, paint mattered to Walters and colour provided a vital, unstable energy for him to take the koru form to another place and dimension. The itch to complicate and syncopate together with an expanding pastel palette means that the later koru are no longer motionless but alive with a faint thrum, we could even suggest that they ‘sing’. Colour was for Walters a meditative and melodic pathway. Along with the current survey show Gordon Walters: New Vision, in which both of these works are exhibited, it is time to fully acknowledge that Gordon Walters’ translation of natural form into purely abstract language, his achievement in creating an infinitely variable universe of values from the most economical set of ingredients, has drastically altered the course of modern New Zealand painting. 1
Francis Pound, The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity, 1930-1970 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009), p. 319.
2 Margaret Orbell, Waiata: Māori Songs in History (Auckland: Reed, 1991), p. 1.
These paintings are being sold by private treaty with expressions of interest now invited. Both paintings feature in Gordon Walters: New Vision and will be on exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from 7 July – 4 November 2018. Please contact Ben Plumbly for further details. firstname.lastname@example.org +64 21 222 8183 Art + Object