Gordon Walters: a glossary

Gordon Walters: a glossary

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Across five decades, Walters developed a dynamic visual language which consisted of a vocabulary of elegant geometric forms. Art historian Francis Pound put language to Walters’ abstraction, describing and naming a number of the forms. Pound listed these in the 2004 publication Walters En Abyme: transparencies, stripes, interlocks, ziggurats, notched rectangles, mini-retrospectives (which gathered into one work motifs previously used in others), sprocket-edged forms, spirals, tessellations, tapa-like triangulations, crosses (which Walters called Constructions), disintegration and rearrangement of a given form within the one work, quartered rectangles, horizontal or vertical rectangles bisected horizontally, and the composition en abyme.

This glossary details some of Walters’ most important and enduring forms, all of which can be identified in this exhibition.

Clear Divisions

By the mid-1970s, Walters had resolved his language to the point of ultimate refinement. Painting H, 1975 is an extreme form of abstraction made from a perfect division of the canvas.


This kind of composition, built using rectangles and squares, was first explored by Walters in the early 1950s. Here, the narrow forms lock together in a network that is interrupted by a reddish coloured band which intersects on the horizontal.

En Abyme

Mise en abyme exists in art and writing and has been described as ‘a means by which a work turns back on itself, appears to be a kind of reflection’. Walters explored this particular visual relationship throughout the later phase of his career, although the first en abyme painting was produced in the early 1950s. The main source of inspiration for the en abyme paintings was Rolfe Hattaway, who produced a sketch on paper in 1949 of a rectangular shape repeated inside itself.


This grid painting draws inspiration from a Polynesian lashing pattern which Walters saw in a diagram in a Bishop Museum publication.

Open Figure

The open figure is based on the figurative drawing found in Māori rock art in Te Waipounamu (the South Island). 1st Study for Then, 1955 was the earliest articulation of this shape, which would hold Walters’ interest across his long career.

Open Peninsula

The open peninsula shape derives from map-like drawings by Rolfe Hattaway. Although Walters more frequently used black to clearly define his motifs, the open peninsula appears in a range of colours. Like Walters’ koru-inspired form, it can be read in the positive and negative.


In whakairo (carving), the rauponga consists of a series of pākati (a pattern of fine dog’s-tooth notches) sitting within a series of parallel grooved lines or haehae. Walters’ abstraction in response to the rauponga pattern first appeared in the 1950s. He would continue to experiment with this form until late in his career, and he frequently used rauponga as a title or descriptor for a specific series of compositions.


Walters’ use of spiral forms reflects his interest in Māori art and tā moko (facial tattooing). The strong optical effects in the spiral paintings led audiences to regard Walters as an Op artist and to liken his work to that of British painter Bridget Riley.


Walters’ interest in overlapping transparent forms dates to the early 1950s and can be seen in a number of gouache paintings based on Rolfe Hattaway’s drawings. Walters’ Transparencies were often worked out as collages, with the artist literally moving around layers of paper to explore the potential held in overlaying forms or planes.
Image credit: 
Marti Friedlander
Gordon Walters in his studio 1978
Marti Friedlander Archive
EH McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Courtesy Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust