Gordon Frederick Walters was born in Wellington on 24 September 1919, the son of Ethel Constance Mexted and her husband, Henry Frederick Walters, a tailor’s presser. Gordon grew up in Wellington, where he attended Miramar South School and Rongotai College. Between 1935 and 1939 he trained and worked as a commercial artist, and studied part time at the art department of Wellington Technical College under F. V. Ellis, Roland Hipkins and T. A. McCormack. He read widely and was able to look at examples of non-western and Oceanic art in the Dominion Museum. Influential books included Roger Fry’s Vision and design and Herbert Read’s Art now.
Having been turned down for military service in the Second World War on health grounds, Walters did illustrations and layout for the Ministry of Supply. He also exhibited some representational works at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. He married Pamela Alexander in Wellington on 28 May 1941. That same year he met Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist and photographer. Schoon encouraged his growing interest in the abstraction of painters Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Jean Arp and Piet Mondrian, known to Walters in reproductions.
Walters was divorced from his first wife in 1945. In 1946 he visited Sydney and Melbourne. In July–August of that year he paid a visit to Schoon, who was in South Canterbury recording Māori rock art near the Ōpihi River. This encouraged Walters to introduce ideas and motifs from indigenous art into his own work. He saw connections with the art of contemporary practitioners in Europe, especially that of Klee.
In 1947 Walters exhibited his new works, including ‘The poet’, at the French Maid Coffee House in Wellington, a gathering place for artists and writers. Later in the year he returned to Sydney where he stayed for over a year, studying in the public library and making contacts with painters such as Charles Blackman. After a sojourn in Wellington in 1949 he decided to travel to Europe. He left for London in March 1950 for a profitable year studying abstract painting and reading catalogues on contemporary art. In Paris he was influenced by paintings by Victor Vasarely and Auguste Herbin. Walters also saw paintings by Mondrian in Holland, as well as work by Klee and Giorgio Morandi. In 1951 he returned to Australia and based himself in Melbourne. There he was to paint his first non-figurative works in a style influenced by European geometric abstraction.
In 1953 Walters returned to New Zealand. He renewed his acquaintance with Theo Schoon in Auckland, but moved to Wellington again after having obtained work at the Government Printing Office. During the productive years of 1953–56, he made regular trips to Auckland to keep in touch with Schoon as well as young artists such as Dennis Knight Turner. He was now using motifs derived from rock art and the drawings of a schizophrenic whose work was introduced to him by Schoon. These paintings, many of them gouaches on paper, were executed with little sign of gesture or manufacture in hard-edged forms where visual counterpoint between foreground and background enlivened the imagery. He began to focus on a few formal elements composed in a variety of ways to generate a series of related but distinctive images. There was little or no public interest in these gouaches and he chose not to exhibit them.
By 1956 Walters was experimenting with the koru motif, a curving bulb-like form on a stem found in moko (tattoo) and kōwhaiwhai (rafter painting). He looked at the paintings of Giuseppe Capogrossi and Vasarely to provide guidelines for making a series of compositions limited to a few formal elements. By 1958–59 he had evolved his own version of the koru as a geometric motif in which positive and negative elements mirror one another in a taut dynamic relationship.
Walters married Margaret Rose Orbell, a scholar of Māori language and culture, at Wellington on 14 May 1963; they were to have a daughter and a son. By 1964 he was making large paintings in PVA (polyvinyl acetate) and acrylic media, the first of which was entitled ‘Te Whiti’. This work in dramatic black and white contrast was executed on hardboard in a style of uncompromising hard-edged abstraction never seen before in New Zealand. It was the first of a series of paintings restricted to the koru motif and a few geometric forms such as the triangle and circle. He first exhibited this series at the New Vision Gallery, Auckland, in 1966. So completely had he transformed his sources that art critics did not detect his use of Māori motifs; instead, his imagery was linked to Pop art. This association reinforced the perceptual aspects of his art in which after-images and flickering effects occur while viewing the paintings.
By using Māori titles, Walters acknowledged the inspiration he received from the koru and related motifs such as rauponga. He created a new kind of painting in which Māori motifs and European abstract painting were drawn together. He was criticised in the 1980s for appropriating these motifs, but Walters himself saw it as a positive response to being an artist with bicultural roots, and Margaret Orbell undoubtedly contributed to his awareness of Māori and Oceanic art.
By 1966 Walters was able to paint full time. He refined his technique and shifted from hardboard to canvas. In a period of considerable activity, he introduced new colour combinations, including primaries such as blue and yellow and very soft pastels with reduced tonal contrast. His important relationship with the Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey began in 1969.
After living for a period in Auckland in the early 1970s the family moved to Christchurch. Walters continued to exhibit works from the koru series throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1983 a major retrospective of his work was held at the Auckland City Art Gallery and toured to venues throughout New Zealand. This helped establish his status as an important figure in the New Zealand modernist movement along with Milan Mrkusich and Colin McCahon.
Gordon Walters died in Christchurch on 5 November 1995, survived by his wife and children. In his later years he had moved away from bicultural references to focus on austere, reductive abstract paintings in which the neutral forms of the rectangle were predominant. In such works he responded to contemporary American abstraction, but also expressed his long-held interest in art as a universal means of expression from which any barriers to meaning should be expunged.