Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 9. 1969.
Art — Gordon Walters: an interview
Gordon Walters: an interview
When were you first aware of painting?
Gordon Walters: I have been drawing as long as I can remember. Possibly I became aware of painting when I was at secondary school, on looking through copies of "Art in New Zealand"' in the school library.
Did your parents or environment encourage, or contribute to this interest?
G.W.: My parents encouraged me to draw and to continue on to study art (drawing and painting) because this was what I liked to do. However my immediate environment offered little direction or encouragement for this study. When I was a small child my father entertained me by making hundreds of small coloured drawings for me, and I feel that this is very relevant for my subsequent interest in art.
When did you first become interested in painting seriously?
G.W.: I began to study painting in the evening classes at the Wellington Technical College School of Art, along with drawing and design, but it was not until after several years that I began to develop any clear idea of myself as a potential painter. Until this time I just enjoyed drawing and designing without any very definite idea of where it was leading me.
Was there any person, book, idea, artist or incident which stimulated you to paint?
G.W.: In the-beginning just about every art book, reproduction, artist and student whose work I saw stimulated me to paint and draw. I received encouragement and help at this stage from Roland Hipkins who taught me design at art school. I also studied painting with T. A. McCormaek whose work I much admired at this time. In 1941 my meeting and subsequent friendship with Theo Schoon was perhaps the decisive factor in my development. For the first time I had contact with an artist with ideas, trained in European art schools. From Schoon I had my first real art training and began for the first time to work methodically and to think of myself as a painter.
In 1953 when I returned to New Zealand after being overseas for several years I was in a condition to be receptive to local material. Schoon's preoccupation with Maori design at this time led me to begin my own intensive examination of the subject. I was not satisfied with the ideas of Theo Schoon on how Maori art should be applied and used. Theo Schoon is craft orientated, as his years of work on decorating gourds show. A considerable exchange of ideas and much discussion of the subject took place between us.
Do you see your work having essentially changed in character or style since you began?
G.W.: Essentials of my work have not changed much. It has been largely a matter of developing insights into painting, and a struggle to free myself from nature; that is working from nature. Essential character of my work has just become clearer as I have continued, but not without much struggle, false starts and wrong directions.
In the copy of Studio which was devoted to New Zealand painting in 1948 the writer notes, "Walters work seems to have been inspired by the hills, bush and landscape of New Zealand." Is this so?
G.W.: In my earliest work landscape provided me with subject matter. I often used landscape as a vehicle for ideas borrowed from reproductions of contemporary European painting which I was always studying. At this time I was interested in surrealist ideas particularly those of Tanguy, Arp and Masson. I saw aspects of New Zealand landscape as being decidedly surrealist. As well as this I was also beginning to be interested in abstraction by way of Arp and Klee to Mondrian.
It is interesting that while much painting done in New Zealand during the forties and fifties was concerned with depicting the rural landscape, your work was developing within the international contemporary style. Could you comment on the way your work developed at this time?
G.W.: In the late forties and early fifties I was for most of this time living overseas. Consequently, influences on my work were much wider than if I had remained in New Zealand. It was during this period that I was able to see myself for the first time as a New Zealander and begin to come to terms with the implications of this. I never much liked the idea of being a New Zealand painter, I just wanted to be a good painter and the more I saw of European and American painting the more the provincial nature of most New Zealand painting became clear to me. At the same time it was only by coming to terms with my being a New Zealander that I could go on to paint. At this time, during the early fifties, I was strongly in the grip of Abstract Expressionism, which seemed to me the best, the most important painting being made in the world and I had to come to grips with it. In New Zealand, keeping up with the art world abroad is suspect, but for me art can only be judged by the one standard, the most vital painting being produced in the world.
• Gordon Walters was bom at Wellington in 1919. He studied at the Wellington Technical College School of Art. Travelled and studied in Australia and Europe 1948 -53. His work is represented in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, the Auckland City Art Gallery and the Palmerston North Art Gallery and in private collections in Australia and New Zealand. His first one man show in Wellington will be held at the Peter McLeavey Gallery, 147 Cuba Street, from 6 May to 23 May.
"Two of New Zealand's best abstractionists have paid their respects to Maori design. The configurations standing for aerial views cities in the paintings of Robert Ellis have an evident relationship to Maori all-over patterning, and in his "City in a dark landscape", the form heavily outlined in white, in the lower left-hand corner, is a Maori wave motif, and in the present context it presumably indicates that the city is a port.
"The same motif is put to systematic use in Gordon Walters' restrained and beautifully executed contributed to Op painting. Walters is probably New Zealand's most distinguished modern painter and his use of this form discloses some of the virtuosity which the Maori brought to their exploitation of the spiral. If this intelligent deployment of one simple Maori brought to their exploitation of the spiral. If this intelligent deployment of one simple Maori motif were a sign of a sense of connectedness with the art of a tribalistic culture it could be a hope for New Zealand Painting".
— Robert Melville, Architectural Review, December, 1968.
It is noted that your work incorporates a Maori motif. Is this so?
G.W.: The koru-like form which is represented in my paintings is not a reproduction of the koru used in Maori kowhaiwhai. The motif as I use it is a horizontal stripe ending in a circle. The Maori koru is a curved rhythmical form and in this respect differs from the geometrical form used in my work. The specifically Maori or primitive influence on my use of this device is in the principle of repetition, but even here it is not used in a Maori way. The motif is used to establish rhythms that are for the most part deliberately mechanistic and relate to the present time, not to some bygone age.
Have you been influenced by primitive art?
G.W.: The various styles of primitive art have been a continuing influence on my work. I have been most interested in Polynesian art with its emphasis on the repetition of a formal element or motif. To this is added Melanesian design, in particular New Guinea art with its often sophisticated use of figure-ground ambiguity.
Would you care to comment on the history and development of the motif in your painting?
G.W.: The motif used in my painting is a variation of the motif used in New Guinea and Maori art. It is not used in any direct way, and has been modified to express different rhythms in my work.
This motif provides me with the expressive means I need for my work, at least for the present. The form is used to establish relationships and is varied in both positive and negative forms so that an ambiguity between figure and ground is created. This gives the painting its life. One cannot read both at once so the eye is kept continually on the move. However the motif is merely the starting point, the success or failure of the work depends on the use that is made of it.
Are there any developments in painting overseas which you are especially interested in?
G.W.: Recent developments in American painting with its sophisticated use of advanced technology particularly interest me. It seems to open up new and exciting possibilities for developments in art.
Have you any observations to make on the situation of a contemporary painter living in New Zealand?
G.W.: The prospects for a painter in this country are at present rather limited. A small population means small amounts of money to spend on art. It all seems to depend on money, and the example of Canada is interesting in this respect. A crash programme to develop the arts is in progress, with incredible results.
What painters at present working in this country do you think you have an affinity with?
G.W.: I feel I have little affinity with any other painter at present working here.
What painters at present working in this country do you admire?
G.W.: I admire the work of several painters, in particular I like McCahon's work and Woollaston. I admire their integrity and independent outlook. Among younger artists, Don Driver is interesting because of the way he is coming to grips with three dimensional colour structures.
What are the ingredients necessary for the developing of a strong contemporary movement here?
The need here is for a constant flow of contemporary exhibitions from overseas, backed up by informed critical writing. A more fluid exchange of art teachers, preferable young, on a short term basis from overseas would also contribute. After, say, four years, art teachers should be replaced unless they are making a real contribution.
You seem to have developed, in a way in isolation, in Wellington. Would you care to comment on Wellington, its lack of an art environment, and this influence on you?
G.W.: There are advantages when one develops in relative isolation, one either sinks out of sight or becomes stronger; this has been the problem of almost all New Zealand artists. Wellington seems to me to be the ideal place to develop toughness in. The mass of non art produced here and displayed by the establishment each year, together with the disapproval of "modern art" means that one has to be really convinced to keep going. The difficulty of seeing even good New Zealand work in Wellington its however a real disadvantage along with the lack of other painters of like ideas to talk to. I have managed this by frequent visits to Auckland, and every few years a visit to Australia, where I have been able to see interesting new work and talk to painters. Wellington is so bad in this respect it would be difficult to exaggerate its isolation from the mainstream of twentieth century art.
Have you any general comments in reference to your painting?
G.W.: My painting is abstract and it has no meaning in the literary sense. The forms are used to establish relationships and create tensions. Unfortunately, people are still in the habit of looking for meaning in abstract art, and this is what hinders any imaginative response to the formal relationships which is what the painting is about. In my work I also try to avoid any self-conscious hand-made quality, anything that distracts from what the painting is really about has no place in it for me.
The New Zealand tradition is largely one of landscape painting, and though in the beginning I began painting landscapes, I had comparatively little actual contact with the land and the countryside. Since I was born and brought up in the city the urban environment was more real to me than the countryside. Reproductions of contemporary art nourished me and with my interest growing in abstract art I felt impelled to go overseas to see what I felt was the only art I could relate to.