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Gordon Walters by Frances Pound, foreword by Leonard Bell


Gordon Walters, by art historian and curator Francis Pound, is a

monumental book, 460 pages long, all about the work of a New Zealand modernist artist who he greatly admired. It was a very long time in the making, 23 years in all, and had still not been completed before Francis Pound died. His longtime friend and fellow art historian Leonard Bell was commissioned to edit it and added a very perceptive and scholarly foreword and afterword, which made it ready for publication.


Auckland University Press is to be congratulated on such a handsome book. The many coloured reproductions of Gordon Walter’s artworks on quality paper make it an immense pleasure to browse through, and it will be treasured and enjoyed by all those who love modernist art.


At the outset Francis Pound states that his book is a book about one artist and his art, and the primary focus is on the art itself. It is not a biography. He feels that this is what Walters himself would have wanted as he was a man of few words, and a very private, enigmatic person.


Throughout his book, Pound pays very close and sustained attention to the formal, technical material, and aesthetic properties of Walter’s artworks, describing these in great detail. This has made it an essential textbook for students of the history of New Zealand Art. But anyone who is seriously interested in modernism would also greatly enjoy reading this lengthy in-depth study as Pound’s writing style is engaging and accessible.


Leonard Bell, in his foreword, writes that ‘Gordon Walters’ art was informed by his knowledge and understanding of an extensive variety of other artworks, past and contemporary: European, American, Māori and Oceanic. His art was sustained by imaginative and distinctive interweavings of elements derived from diverse societies and cultures.


Francis Pound traces these influences meticulously and demonstrates how Walters did not slavishly copy their styles but transformed them into his own kind of modernism as he gradually freed himself from the  New Zealand tradition of landscape painting and consciously moved towards abstraction.


In the first part of his book, Francis Pound focuses on Gordon Walters’ early works, his drawings, collages, and paintings. It is not until halfway through that we find the chapters on Walter’s koru paintings for which he is best known and remembered.


Francis Pound recounts how the koru series had its origin in six small gouaches which Walters then strove to perfect over a considerable time. He writes:

‘Something extraordinary happens. Suddenly, in a group of six little ink and gouache studies on paper in late 1956, and in a small related oil on canvas in the same year, Walters breaks out with almost everyone of the protocols that will govern the koru series- if we may use the word ‘series’ for a body of work that was to occupy nearly four decades. ‘


These gouaches were created during the seventeen years Walters stopped exhibiting his works because of the public hostility to abstract art which aroused a level of hatred barely imaginable today! Walters also gave another reason for withholding them. He wanted to perfect his koru series before showing them.


This constant striving for perfection was a hallmark of Walters’ artistic practice, and the reason behind Walters’ highly unusual habit of destroying a great many of his artworks, not just works in progress but also completed paintings, if he considered them less than perfect. As Francis Pound comments “Across every work Walters produced lay the shadow of its potential destruction.”


His first exhibition of a group of his koru paintings in 1966 at Kees Hos’s New Vision gallery in Auckland marks the time Walters ‘arrived” as a fully-fledged abstract artist. Although it would take until the mid-1980’s before he became a widely recognized and acclaimed modernist artist.


Less than half of Walters’ total output of paintings consists of his koru works, and Francis Pound also examines many of these works. I was intrigued and surprised to discover Walters’ transparency series, which is a striking departure from his long preoccupation with flatness. They hark back to gouaches Walters created in the 50’s which he abandoned with the advent of the koru series but took up again in the 1980’s. In this series Walters introduced planes that appear to continue under other planes, creating an illusion of transparent overlap.


Another surprise was that Francis Pound, towards the end of his life, assisted by his close friend artist Richard Killeen, adopted modern technology using Adobe Illustrator on an Apple Macintosh to create an exquisite small book of fourteen images, which were a culmination of his non-koru geometric work of the 1970s to 1990s.


Reading this book has greatly enhanced my understanding and appreciation of Gordon Walter’s artworks. In his afterword, Bell writes that Francis wanted to put Walter’s work before the reader in all its variety and complexity. In this, he has admirably succeeded! It is an extraordinary achievement.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Auckland University Press


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