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Gordon Walters’ rhythmical black-and-white koru images are immediately recognisable, whether from the New Zealand Film Commission’s logo, the Walters Prize (New Zealand’s richest art prize) or the paintings themselves.
But it is who this man was and how he came to create those images that has been investigated in a major new exhibition, "Gordon Walters: New Vision", by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.
"You may see simple compositions, so simple you think ‘a 5-year-old could do that’, but I think seeing all that work and labour that goes into that very refined work at the end is worth pointing out," says curator Julia Waite, of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.
"They were handmade; he was using a ruler and compass to make the bar and ball — there wasn’t any masking tape involved."
The retrospective has been two years in the making and comes complete with a "substantial" book, Gordon Walters: New Vision, co-published by the galleries and featuring essays by nine curators and scholars and supported by the Walters estate.
The exhibition features about 150 works from public and private galleries and private collections. Auckland Art Gallery has the biggest public art collection of his work.
"It’s material you don’t get to see from an artist who was so super precise, clean and edited," Dunedin Public Art Gallery curator Lucy Hammonds said.
The sometimes polarising artist, who grew up in Wellington, had a strong connection to the South Island through his fascination with Maori rock art.
He was introduced to rock art by Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist and photographer, when Schoon visited him while in South Canterbury and North Otago recording Maori rock art. This encouraged Walters, who died in Christchurch in 1995, to introduce ideas and motifs from indigenous art into his own work.
"Walters’ experience of Maori rock drawings was really important to him. It was a guiding force in the way he started to think about particular things in his work, especially abstraction.
"What he saw, going to those places, was so inspiring. He was reaching for the simplest way to create power visually."
So the curators of the exhibition, Hammonds, Laurence Simmons (University of Auckland) and Waite, set out to establish how he arrived at that point.
The exhibition begins with some of his most well-known works from his pivotal first major exhibition in 1966, where he showed 12 "radically abstract geometric" paintings inspired by Maori art at the New Vision Gallery in Auckland.
"In 1966 he was a really mature artist in his 40s. He decided the time was right, the work was in a mature state. So a number of the works you see here are the first koru paintings people saw in ’66," Waite said.
"So he started testing out some ideas of how he could look at abstraction," Hammonds said.
Waite says it is not a "false start" for the artist but signals a mind looking away from conventional, mainstream practices in New Zealand.
"You can start to see the beginnings of a visual language which will evolve."
About the same time he met Schoon, with whom he developed an intense friendship, and began his relationship with Maori art.
He headed to Europe after the war to experience first-hand the artists he had read about.
"I think he started to clarify what his own art practice could be ... and what it meant to be a geometric abstractionist," Hammonds said.
After time in Australia, he returned to New Zealand, where he took up a job as a graphic designer for Government Print in Wellington.
During this period he worked prolifically but in isolation, never showing the small notebook pages in gouache, a painting medium he was very committed to.
Some of the works from this time are in the exhibition, showing how Walters returned to different ideas, testing them out.
"He was bringing together this net of sources he’d been looking at."
It was here the different indigenous and ethnographic material Walters was looking at began to come through and the curators hoped to show how he was finding his sources.
"What it meant to go into an environment and see something in its place versus researching in the Alexander Turnbull Library ethnographic manuscripts or the Dominion Museum."
So his source book from his travels in Europe will be shown alongside these works.
Also exhibited are some of his works done at a similar time to the koru works, including three small works. The larger works of those have never been found.
"Walters was a great editor. Part of the reason why he was so highly regarded was he’d run a very critical eye over his own work and he’d just have a bonfire and get rid of the ones that weren’t working," Waite says.
The curators have used the Wenita Gallery to take a closer look at an example of how Walters kept developing an idea over the years.
"The linear form of stripes developed over times from the 1950s right through to the ’80s and ’90s. He kept coming back with new material and new ways of expressing that particular formula."
They have also dedicated the space to introducing people to rock art drawings and sites and their importance, with the help of the Ngai Tahu Rock Art Trust.
Another gallery has been dedicated to Walters’ large black and white genealogy paintings, "the high point of the koru", made in the 1970s, and other similar works showing the rhythm and repetition of his work.
"He was quite extreme in the way he worked. To just limit yourself to these few basic geometric elements and go ‘right, I’m going to push these to their absolute limits’," Waite said.
The exhibition ends with a display of his later and less well-known works, which shows how Walter was starting to pare back his work.
"It’s far more fundamental and reductive."
In the talks and lectures Walters gave at the time, he explained the works had their origins in his 1950s work and his sketchbook drawings.
"He was still finding these ideas, extending them and expanding them out," Hammonds said.
• "Gordon Walters New Vision", Dunedin Public Art Gallery, today until April 2018. Curators tour: Lucy Hammonds (Dunedin Public Art Gallery), Laurence Simmons (University of Auckland) and Julia Waite (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) for a guided tour today at 11am.
• Tomorrow at 3pm Luke Smythe, art history lecturer and contributor to the exhibition catalogue will discuss Walters’ interest in European art and design.