Gordon Walters: New vision edited by Lucy Hammonds, Laurence Simmons and Julia Waite (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki & Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2017), 244 pp., $79
The title of Gordon Walters: New vision presents its own wero. Building from Walters’ innovating position within New Zealand art, the title points to the writers’ collective aim of presenting new ways of engaging with and thinking about his work. Hence their challenge to realise novel propositions for geometric abstraction, for ambitious local art practices, for cross-cultural appropriation and/or for histories of modernism. This is in the context of an artist who enjoys a sound if moderate bibliography, with notable contributions from Michael Dunn and, in particular, the late Francis Pound. This handsome addition to that record accompanies a touring retrospective exhibition curated by three of the book’s essayists: Lucy Hammonds, Laurence Simmons and Julia Waite.
The title is explicitly drawn from Kees and Tina Hos’ New Vision Gallery, Auckland, where in March 1966 Walters presented an exhibition of twelve geometric abstract paintings. This was the first showing of mostly two-coloured paintings with oscillating figure/ground relationships featuring the interplay of a bar/stop motif, frequently realised in fast-moving compositions. That motif, derived from the pītau in toi Māori, later acquired the collective appellation ‘koru’ for the paintings and prints Walters undertook for a little over two decades. Walters’ popular renown relies on these works, but they are far from his sole or indeed most important contribution to New Zealand art.
The particular exhibition from which the book and exhibition take their cue fell in the middle of Walters’ exhibiting career, which started in 1939 and continued through to his death in 1995. Nevertheless, his first New Vision show came about after a seventeen-year exhibiting break and marked a definitive change of focus to that of a full-time practising and exhibiting artist. To this end, ‘new vision’ is pertinent to both a personal as well as a public view of his practice and is not solely grounded in the presentation of hard-edged pītau-inspired abstractions. The new vision signals an optimism for himself, for his mode of working and for his engagement with society and culture. While not a complete change of creative direction (previous works and related methodologies reveal his interests in abstraction, locality, strong graphic method and visual cultural expressions outside of Euro-American fine art), the paintings shown in 1966 evince a refinement and concentration of practice in the reduction of forms.
By focusing on this pivotal exhibition, the book also derives a clear central theme, which is Walters’ synthesising of local and international art forms and ideas. Following on from Hammonds’ biographical note, seven essays weave in and out of this dynamic position. What is helpful about the modes of address is that there seems to be a deliberate avoidance for the most part of two obvious pitfalls of such a point of focus. One is to render the local practice a simplistic peripheral transcription of a broader international trend or trends. (This approach tends to argue one of two conclusions: that the local is akin to a provincial take on the authoritative external position, or that it is concerned with deliberately nationalistic intent.) The other potential pitfall is to discount the local as important in and of itself and to present particularities as better understood within a universalist position. (Thus, specifics of local address are stripped from overarching concerns deemed more important, but this frequently only serves to mask ideological intent.)
Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson’s essay offers an example of working through these issues. For the most part, they favour an internationalist position, arguing Walters is better understood as a Post-War School of Paris artist than a New Zealand artist. Focusing on his time in Australia and Europe between 1946 and 1953 and its influence on his practice, they both challenge received wisdom about which European artists influenced him and introduce additional possibilities, notably French painters Edgard Pillet and Jean Dewasne. Their intent is to advance the significance of this time overseas in order to suggest a nationalist bind many commentators found themselves in when writing about Walters: writers, they argue, placed too much emphasis on the New Zealand years. It’s an assertion that is largely sketched in the essay rather than fully realised.
In an achronic afterword, Butler and Donaldson look to other practitioners of the Global South in order to suggest a similar morphing of Parisian abstraction into nationalising projects. Referring to Brazilian and Cuban concretists, they reproduce two paintings, a gouache by Ivan Serpa and an oil by Luis Martinez Pedro. Both works contain motifs that echo Walters’ later pītau-inspired one – indeed, Serpa’s is remarkably similar in proportion and disposition. They suggest this might reflect ‘convergent evolution’ or ‘stimulus diffusion’, biological and anthropological ways of thinking about similar outcomes arising in different conditions. A simple counter is art historical: what Erwin Panofsky would have called pseudomorphosis. This describes two forms analogous or even identical to one another yet entirely unrelated from a genetic point of view. The principal reason the suggestion is not particularly convincing morphologically is that the authors rely on simple scopic affinity in linking Serpes’ ‘fern’ to Walters’ ‘koru’, side-stepping the fact that Walters’ motif derives from his interest in kōwhaiwhai and toi Māori in general. To an extent they may be being provocative in concluding their essay this way; but it does turn at that moment from an internationalist to a universalist proposition.
It draws attention to another predominant feature of the 1966 exhibition: Walters’ relationship to cross-cultural appropriation. Although Hammonds overstates the tone of responses to Walters’ work as ‘vitriolic in relevant debate in the late 1980s and 1990s, it did emerge as a significant issue of post-colonial art historical discourse and became a prime example of the tensions inherent in appropriative practices in New Zealand in and around the sesquicentennial. It is interesting to observe that the contemporaneous critique of Walters’ practice was limited. In 1986 in Antic, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku made some pertinent and trenchant passing remarks in a wide-ranging interview with Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts. In 1992 Rangihiroa Panoho mounted a more sustained critique, positioning Walters’ geometric modernism in distinction to Theo Schoon’s practice in the catalogue to Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art at the MCA, Sydney – tendentious but a small part of a larger essay. What both questioned was an approach to toi Māori that treated forms as isolated visual motifs rather than as part of a broader cultural whole. The resulting rebuttal was rather disproportionate in scale.
Twenty years on, two essays here make a significant contribution to understanding the nature of the discussion then and its continued relevance now. Deidre Brown’s measured essay on the pītau-inspired works and the broader appropriation debate, not unlike Te Awekotuku or Panoho, signals concern for an estrangement of pītau from its cultural loci. It differentiates this practice from contemporaneous Māori artists such as Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting (and Arnold Manaaki Wilson), who maintained connection to continuous indigenous traditions. Brown is careful to locate Walters’ appropriative practice in its contemporary social context, a complicated environment of Māori social and political aspiration despite institutionalised discrimination (Walters provided designs for the influential Te Ao Hou magazine) – and, one could add, innovative pedagogical opportunities such as the Tovey Scheme of creative arts learning for primary school-aged children.
Brown also points to a double-edged nationalist outcome in derivations from Walters’ work. Her examples of other designers’ use of various motifs for brand identities usefully remind us of numerous similar logos that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s, notably the rebranding of government departments and agencies that sought to strike a sense of institutional biculturalism. Further, drawing on submissions to and the decision of the Waitangi Tribunal in the Wai-262 or Mātauranga Maori claim, she notes a legal overlay to the debate that distinguishes taonga from taonga-derived forms and essentially positions pītau in the public domain. To an extent that completes a series of estrangements, whereby pītau is rendered a visual motif, one unsupported in the public arena by whakapapa or kōrero. Importantly she strikes a more optimistic note by suggesting that this approach is anachronistic in contemporary art practices.
The second essay regarding appropriation is Peter Brunt’s rigorous analysis of Walters’ relationship to Pacific art. Brunt’s essay is the most significant scholarly contribution in this volume, advancing a careful argument concerned with the ongoing colonialist underpinning of modernist primitivism and cultural discourse. The decontextualisation of indigenous cultural expression in museums at home and abroad operates simultaneously with the pursuit of a nationalist vision: a vision that relies precisely on indigenous antipodean cultural expression in order to effect differentiation from the colonial centre. Local forms of appropriation draw on and potentially escalate this tension.
Brunt’s focus on the Pacific offers a corrective to the nationalist dimensions of Walters’ appropriation of toi Māori and to its positioning in a generalised climate of bicultural discussions. Or if not a corrective, it points to a necessary broadening of the range of influences. From the Sepik to the Marquesas, Walters’ interest in Pacific arts reflects a modernist enlightenment approach that relies on the gathering up of cultural treasures in museums. This is contemporaneous with work of curators such as W.G. Archer, Robert Melville and René d’Harnoncourt, who reoriented displays of indigenous cultural material from artefact to art (an approach evident in Archer and Melville’s 40,000 Years of Modern Art, the inaugural exhibition at the ICA in London in 1948, and in successive exhibitions curated by René d’Harnoncourt at MoMA from the late 1930s, including his collaboration with Ralph Linton and Paul Wingert on Arts of the South Seas in 1946.)
An effect of such recasting is to envelop a wider range of practices from diverse cultures within a formal visual language that accords with modernist vision. Explicit in the ICA show and implicit in d’Harnoncourt’s endeavour is the pursuit of a universalism inherent in reframing ancient and/or indigenous arts as modern. That reached a problematic apotheosis in Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinities of the tribal and the modern, curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe at MoMA in 1984. To speak of affinities now is to reignite the debates that surrounded both that exhibition and cross-cultural appropriation generally.
Writing on Walters’ scrapbook, Waite points to the interior position of recognition and inspiration an artist may find in the personal accumulation of images, and in the construction of affinities and networks that have or acquire private meaning. More specifically, affinities in art are more often than not dependent on a singular claim of visual similarity. This acts as a scopic regime that necessarily separates visual forms from particular meaning or cultural specificity – the very problem that vexes the appropriation discussion and, I think, the same that complicates the local/international dynamic. The underlying methodology of collating disparate points of visual interest reminds me very much of André Malraux’s contention in 1947 that photography makes possible a personally imaginative ‘museum without walls’.
It is to this book’s advantage that it doesn’t seek to settle such matters so much as offer some propositions. Rather than remain unmoored, adrift on an ocean of affinities as it were, it contains a very helpful section in Simmons’ nuanced essay. His discussion of Polymorphic Modernism is, in many ways, a key to the whole publication. Drawn from literary analysis and Bonnie Kime Scott’s essay ‘The Gender of Modernism’, Simmons describes it as a ‘mobile, interactive, sexually charged alternative path for modernism’. It allows for multiple local modernisms, for an expansion of the range of voices available and a capacity to experience these differently. For Simmons it suggests that different artistic examples are not just thought about but thought with; it draws attention to the methodology of practice, not just the subject of compositions.
To return to the genealogy of Gordon Walters: New vision’s title. Kees and Tina Hos opened their contemporary art gallery in the room above their craft gallery in His Majesty’s Arcade in 1965. Walters’ show was an early part of a new vision they shared. Like Malraux, d’Harnoncourt, Archer and Melville, the couple were optimistic in their endeavour, drawing specific inspiration from New Bauhaus leader Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s like-titled book of 1929. I don’t seek to literalise that connection given that Moholy-Nagy’s new vision relates to photography and the book to pedagogy (although Waite touches on microscopic photography and Bauhaus weaving in Walters’ scrapbook, which might suggest tentative links). Nevertheless the provocations Moholy-Nagy presents about art and art making find resonance here – both in this book and this locality. How does one see afresh? How does one create? And, importantly, what are the opportunities and consequences of both seeing and making differently?
PETER SHAND is associate professor of fine arts at the University of Auckland and head of Elam. His curatorial and writing interests are concerned mostly with contemporary art and fashion and the inter-relation of creative practices and law.