The artist Gordon Walters died last month. In conversations throughout the preceding year, Keith Stewart talked to him about the freedom he found in tight limits, and the balance between control and feeling in his paintings.
FOLLOWING A STRAIGHT LINE
Gordon Walters has always made his art under his own jurisdiction, uncluttered by the influence of any criticism but his own, yet his paintings are a powerful response to fundamental elements of New Zealand, unmatched by few, if any, other 20th-century artists. His lucid simplicity, proportion and clarity have given art here a special vitality that seems to suit us, but in spite of his years of neglect by the wider community – even by most of the art world – he does not see his art as isolated.
“Art doesn’t come of out nothing,” he says. “And everything that I have done has come from people who have gone before. Not that I copy what they have done. It’s not that, because I transform things into my own sort of image. But to say that these things are completely original is not right.”
Indeed, there have been accusations of appropriation of Maori forms from academics who argue for an institutional form of isolation for culture. Walters, however, does not accept that responding to influences as he has done is anything other than the normal process of making art. He doesn’t deny the immense influence Maori culture has had on his own work, in particular the traditional forms of Maori art, or that he went looking for it – not that it was hard to find.
“Driving around the country I got to know, to almost sense, the Maori environment, and knew when I saw these places that there would be a meeting house around, and there was,” he says of his many journeys through rural New Zealand. “There is a peculiar quality those places have got, and this was very much the case in South Canterbury, which is all farming country, but where you get those limestone outcrops, cabbage trees, and a really unique little micro-atmosphere – you knew it was a Maori place. I love that feeling, that quality. It brings home to you strongly what the country used to be like.”
However, the process of turning those experiences and his strong feeling for the Maori presence in the land into an equally powerful element in his art was not instant. In spite of Walters’ awareness of the influence of African, Central American and Pacific art on European artists, he could not make the visual contact himself.
His awareness was no glib response in search of novelty. “At first Maori stuff seemed remote to me, very opaque, and I couldn’t get into it, couldn’t see how you could use it. But that was my limitation at that particular time. I tried to make use of Maori design, tried to take elements from it, but I couldn’t do anything with it. I couldn’t see properly at the time, and couldn’t see how I could ever use it.
“In the end one of the things that led me to use the Maori stuff was that I deconstructed things. I would take a particular Maori arrangement, say just a small koru thing, a bulb like that, and another piece coming back on the same thing, and I would keep the movement, take the bulbs, the circles off, so the thing would be deconstructed,” he explains, pointing to one of his now famous paintings. “I found that opened up possibilities.”
Possibilities that introduced a particular New Zealand feeling into paintings that were already heavily influenced by his voracious appetite for contemporary European art. His discovery of the kowhaiwhai pattern’s potential coincided perfectly with his awareness of the modem Europeans.
“The two areas came together. The modem European art that I was fascinated with, that I had travelled away to see, and the Maori stuff that had been there for all of my life and that I was working with regularly, came together. The timing was crucial. It is with those sorts of things. They just sort of worked themselves together and then there it was. I knew I had it immediately.
“When I went into work I would often sit down at my desk and just start drawing, just doodling around on a notebook or a piece of paper. And I was just drawing these kowhaiwhai patterns, trying them out in different ways, and there it was. The positive and the negative in one thing and at that point I knew I had something good, and at that point I started to go all out to develop it. But it took me a long time, a bloody long time.”
And it didn’t result in a rush of images. Gordon Walters’ career has been a steady, meticulously worked and crafted flow of paintings, rather than a gushing frenzy of paint and canvas.
“I didn’t develop that as far as I could,” he points out. “Because I already had enough. The thing is to know when you have enough, and I like those limitations because it enables me to go deeply into a thing. It is the struggle to get that thing working that somehow causes something to flow from you into the work. It’s an intangible sort of thing but it keeps on working.
“You can’t really plan that consciously, it has to be felt. It may only be a simple thing, but that is what is nice about it. I love those restrictions.”
And he continues to love them, worrying away at the “one picture” he says he is painting all the time, expanding our horizons, our view, by limiting his own material. It is a process that has produced some of the purest art possible, and he speaks of it with a candour and refreshing simplicity that almost matches the clarity of his paintings.
“I control things with my feeling, only my feeling,” he says, introducing the artist’s own view of making works that have been called excessively cerebral. “I move those things around, working with small studies. I have an idea. I put it down very roughly. If it doesn’t look right, I cut it up. I stop working with my mind and freely move things around until something stops me, and I feel that there is something there, so I work with that. I keep moving it around.
“There is this point where I stop working with my mind, where I am very relaxed, where something else takes over. But you have to be very alert or you miss something.
“I feel that my works are static, basically. The movement in the thing is resolved, is brought into a kind of tension, a balanced tension. Your eye has got to move around them. There are lots of things I could do with them that I haven’t done, but that’s from choice.”
But not too much choice. Walters returns to the theme of restriction, reducing options. “The forms in the thing are limited, and my use of the forms is limited. You have to put limits on what you do to operate freely. This is the contradiction. The works are very strict – you’ve got those horizontal bars, those circles. That is very limited, and you think how the hell can you make art out of that? But out of that incredible strictness you get tremendous freedom at the same time.”
So how does he feel about his enormous contribution, a career that has flourished in recent years as the price of his paintings spirals upward and critics refer to his greatness. A legend in his own lifetime?
“At the time you are doing it, you don’t think about the relationship of what you are doing to the community or anything like that. You are too involved in what you are doing, in making the actual work,” he declares matter-of-factly. A lifetime of making art in a country where artists are well down the status chart has ensured no glittering prizes, and more than his share of smacks in the face. The respect may be nice, but it doesn’t change the art. Or the approach.
“When I look back, my life looks like a whole lot of incidents which have jogged me on a step further. My earliest attempt quickly reached an impasse because I didn’t have the skill I wanted, and it was a terribly slow and lonely business to slowly make concrete what I felt, and to respond to what I had seen,” he says.
But he has done it, no compromise. To paint or not to paint is the only decision. From there on the choices are limited and are not reliant for success on anything as transient as popular acclaim. “I don’t know what makes me paint. I think it’s a very selfish thing in a way,” he reflects. “The reason I did so many of those koru paintings is that it took me a long time to get it to my satisfaction. It looks so easy now, so simple. It looks as if I have taken something and just put it down, but I haven’t.
“I am very aware of the business of making art just because it sells, but I don’t do that. You can’t do that. You have to have your sights set on things, and that’s right and proper. It’s not like being careerist, it’s just that you have to cut out anything in your life that is going to in any way delay your real aim.“Art takes the whole man, it takes everything. You can’t fudge it.”