Aboriginal Art returns to NYC (Starring Steve Martin)

Published October 14, 2023
Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, 'Rainbow and Water Story' (1972), from the John & Barbara Wilkerson Collection

When Andy Warhol said: “the best museum is Bloomingdale’s,” he was anticipating a day when art was seen as just another commodity, like a kettle or a toaster. Last month the famous showroom windows at Bloomingdale’s on 59thSt. Manhattan, displayed kettles, toasters and expresso machines covered in the distinctive patterns of Western Desert painting. It was part of a promotion by Australian company, Breville, called An Aboriginal Culinary Journey. The project, which required three years of research and development, features a limited edition set of appliances, with one hundred percent of profits going to Aboriginal charities. The company believes it’s good business, at the very least it’s good karma.

Ten minutes’ drive away at Uovo, a state-of-the-art storage facility on Long Island, an exhibition called 60 Over 50, brought together two of America’s most important collections of Australian Indigenous art. The 60 paintings on display belonged to actor, Steve Martin, and his wife, Anne Stringfield, and John and Barbara Wilkerson, known as prolific buyers of American Folk Art.

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, ‘Untitled’ (2013) from the Steve Martin & Anne Stringfield collection

It has been a little over 50 years since the men of the Papunya Tula community began to paint their traditional stories on boards. A selection of those early boards, created between 1971-74, by wellknown artists such as Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namarari Tjapatjarri, are now part of the Wilkerson collection. The couple got hooked on Aboriginal art when they visited Australia in 1994 to see their son who was studying at Sydney University. The immediate plan was to acquire examples of work by each member of the original “mob” that gathered in Papunya. The Wilkersons may not have got the full set, but they assembled a group of works that would be the envy of any Australian museum.

Steve Martin’s taste is more contemporary, although he jokes this is only because the Wilkersons got all the early stuff. His part of the display included major works by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Naata Nungurrayi, and George Tjungurrayi, as well as paintings by legendary artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford.

60 Over 50 was a museum quality exhibition held in the city that has long been recognised as the centre of the global art market. It coincided with three art fairs, including Frieze NYC, which listed as a satellite event a forum with Martin, the Wilkersons, Sydney collector, Danny Goldberg and curator, Bruce Johnson McLean, from the National Gallery of Australia. On the day, it was standing room only.

Breville’s “Piruwa” kettle

During Frieze week, an auction of Aboriginal art organised by Tim Klingender for Sotheby’s NYC, produced new auction records for no fewer than thirteen artists, including Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, whose Water and Bush Tucker Story(1972), sold for US$ 762,000 (AUD $1,153,843) to a European collector.

From tiger-striped toasters in Bloomingdale’s to booming sales at Sotheby’s, Aboriginal art is riding a wave of popularity in the USA that promises (threatens?) to change the way this work is bought and sold, both internationally and in Australia. The growing enthusiasm of overseas collectors provides an opportunity for Australia to remind the rest of the world that we are making art which that stands comparison with anything that might be seen in the United States or Europe. At present, Aboriginal art is the only work the rest of the planet wants to see, but it’s the spearhead that potentially creates new openings.

Steve Martin is dazzled by John Wilkerson’s aura

One of the unique aspects of Indigenous art, by definition, is that its power and authenticity are based on a deep connection between artists and the place where they live. Painters from the Western Desert or Arnhem Land are not about to move to Manhattan to capitalise on their newfound popularity because the entire basis of their work lies in an ongoing relationship with “country”. If private and public collectors want to see Aboriginal art at the source they will need to travel to Australia, and that opens a path for a broader appreciation of local art. Or so we might hope.

Aside from the inevitable ‘tyranny of distance’, one of Australian art’s major barriers to global acceptance has been its relative cheapness. In world terms, our artists and dealers are paupers, our major artworks are bargains. In the United States, artists fresh from college regularly achieve much higher prices than Australian artists in their 70s and 80s. Guy Warren, now 102 years old, has never sold a picture for more than AUD $35,000.

There is an ingrained belief, even among leading local collectors, that Australian art is, or should be, inexpensive. The well-heeled art buyer who travels to the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami, Paris or Hong Kong, and drops a million dollars with an Uber dealer, will return home and beat down the price of a $10,000 painting in Sydney or Mebourne.

Johnny Warrangkula Tjupurrula, ‘Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa’,(1972), from the John & Barbara Wilkerson Collection

The sudden spike in sales for Aboriginal art may spell the beginning of the end for these low provincial price points, dragging us into the international marketplace – if dealers and collectors allow it to happen. Many of Australia’s leading commercial galleries are perfectly happy to sell locally, avoiding the expense and bother of the art fair circuit. This is partly to do with the age of dealers who have no desire to take on the world when they’re doing nicely at home. But the art industry in general is like every other business in which comfortable stasis leads to gradual decay, or in this case, ever greater marginalisation.

A new generation, led by galleries such as Sullivan + Strumpf, Station, This is No Fantasy and Chalk Horse, are showing a little more adventure. The dealer who is best placed to take advantage of the rise of Indigenous art is Melbourne’s D’Lan Davidson, who has just opened a discreet New York showroom where he is selling quality works on the secondary market to clients that come along by appointment. Being the very opposite of a shopfront, this arrangement indicates the level of interest among those collectors looking for high value items.

Davidson is also Steve Martin’s agent in Australia, a jealously guarded connection that has provided a stepping-stone into the New York market. Over the past five years he has helped his prestigious client, whose personal experience of Australia has never got beyond Sydney and Melbourne, to access works of outstanding quality. A lifelong collector, Martin now has more than a hundred Aboriginal paintings, to put alongside pictures by Georges Seurat, Edward Hopper, Giorgio Morandi, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and other famous moderns.

Naata Nungurrayi, ‘Untitled’ (2010), from the Steve Martin & Anne Stringfield collection

If we try and understand the recent surge in interest in Aboriginal art that has attracted collectors such as Martin, it owes a debt to the way public museums have begun to focus on Indigenous culture in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

The current spate of activity represents a second coming for Aboriginal art in New York. The first time this work stepped out of the desert and into the metropolis was 1988, when the exhibition, Dreamings, curated by anthropologist, Peter Sutton, was shown at the Asia Society, and later in Chicago. Professor Fred Myers, arguably America’s leading expert on Aboriginal life, has identified this as the moment “when Aboriginal art emphatically became ‘fine art’.”

Following the Dreamings exhibition, the New York gallerist, John Weber, held a commercial show of paintings by Papunya Tula artists. For Weber, known as a dealer in abstract and minimalist work, the attraction of Desert painting was aesthetic rather than anthropological. There was a brief flurry of excitement, as it looked as if Aboriginal art had ‘cracked’ the international market, but that opening soon closed. There was still too much ingrained resistance to the idea that paintings made by untrained artists in remote desert communities could be considered significant contemporary art.

The art world at that time was an élite club that protected its privileges. This became even more obvious in 1994, when Melbourne Aboriginal art dealer, the late Gabrielle Pizzi, was rejected from the Cologne art fair, after exhibiting in previous years with great success, because the selection committee said was it not their policy to show “folk art”. Today nobody – least of all the Germans – would question the contemporary art credentials of leading bark painters such as John Mawurndjul and James Iyuma. Thirty years on, the grass roots nature of this work that disqualified it in the eyes of the Cologne committee, is now its major selling point.

Anne Stringfield & her husband

If politics and social justice issues have exerted an influence on the acceptance of Aboriginal art, so too has old-fashioned star power, and in this, Steve Martin has played a crucial role. We know him as a screen comedian, but he’s also a talented writer and musician, and a perfectionist who doesn’t do anything by half-measures.

The story of Martin’s discovery of Aboriginal art has been told many times. It begins in 2015, when he sees a picture reproduced in the New York Times, by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri (one of the artists in the Breville project) showing at the commercial gallery, Salon 94, in the Bowery. Martin gets on his bike and peddles to the exhibition. He is dazzled by Warrlimpirrnga’s painting and buys it, beginning a whole new art romance that would soon become compulsive.

“You have to understand, I didn’t even know it was Aboriginal,” he confesses. “I just saw the image in the paper, and because Warlimpirrnga’s standing right next to it, I know it’s from a foreign land. I really liked the Op Art part of it. I literally asked: ‘Are these for sale?’ and found they were nominal in contemporary art terms. Even today I’d bet our whole expenditure on this art is equivalent to one Mark Bradford.”

“We lived with the work for about three weeks, without considering that it came from a particular culture. It was just a painting we liked. Then on Twitter, I began to look at the images of Aboriginal art that people were posting, and I thought: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this!’. Because a lot of these paintings were very inexpensive, I began buying on-line and making all the classic mistakes. Then I started reading up on them.”

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, ‘Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object’ (1972), from the John & Barbara Wilkerson Collection

As a collector, Martin is no mere trophy hunter. While many of the world’s biggest buyers of contemporary art allow curators and consultants to choose the works they acquire, Martin only buys what he personally loves. His growing fascination with Aboriginal art saw him invite artist Yakultji Napangati and her daughter to lunch at his apartment, where she could see her own work on the wall. Always scrupulous about doing his homework, Martin has read as widely as he could, learning the how, why and where of this art, marvelling at the nature of a late-blooming movement whose roots lie in prehistory. Like a good philosopher, as his knowledge increased, the more he realised that he knew nothing at all. Could there be a greater lure for the true collector?

For every non-Aboriginal, the most fundamental concept behind the work is also the most difficult to grasp. There is no western equivalent for the Tjurrkurpa – formerly known as the Dreaming – which defines an indivdual’s relation to the community and the cosmos. The Tjukurrpa is both lore and religion, an eternal now, that recognises no distinction between past, present and future.

“When I first got into it,” he recalls, “I bought every book I could find, and I studied them. I’m trying to get it, I’m trying to get it. Then, at a certain point you think, ‘OK I got this’. Two years later, you think ‘I don’t have this at all – and I should quit thinking about it. It’s too vast.’ It’s like you or me trying to figure out how a hedge fund works! I realised I really should root my understanding in how this work fits into the larger world of art.”

He began to seek familiar points of connection, learning to look at paintings as landscapes viewed from the air, with familiar signs denoting journeys, hills, waterholes and meeting places. “I’ve simplified it for myself,” he says. “I see these works as ‘abstract narrative pictures’. For instance, if De Kooning is not painting a woman he’s painting an abstraction, but these works have a subject and a story, they only look abstract.”

Having “lived his life in irony”, Martin says he loves the complete lack of irony in the desert paintings. He also enjoys the idea that the best artists don’t get started until late in life. “In contemporary art everyone has to be young,” he says, “but a young Aboriginal artist is 50.”

Through friends and contacts, Martin was eventually put in touch with Davidson, who has been his guide through the maze of the Aboriginal art world, finding key works and helping focus his purchases. The ‘Emily’ room in 60 Over 50 included 11 paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the majority of them from Martin’s collection.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
‘Alhalkere – Old Man Emu with Babies’, (1989), from the Steve Martin & Anne Stringfield collection

Martin wonders why Emily “broke through” ahead of other artists because he believes her work is difficult. He knows that the roots of the yam or bush potato feature in most of her paintings, but also that they are often hidden behind huge bunches of dots. “Some are more obscure, some less,” he says. “The narrative is cloaked. There’s a degree of consistency, with all the roots and the yam lines, but it varies as to how much she reveals. For me the quality of the picture is determined by that balance. There’s one painting here that’s completely grey!.”

Before the show at Uovo, a selection from Martin’s collection had been shown last year at the National Arts Club in NYC. Then, following an approach from Carolyn Fletcher, partner of then-consul, Nick Greiner, another group of works was hung at the Australian Consul’s New York residence. Here, they were paired with the early Papunya boards from the Wilkerson collection, a combination that initially aroused Martin’s scepticism.

He felt more relaxed when he saw the hang and met the Wilkersons. “They had these early pictures which were just explosive,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t get into that, because there was literally nothing left! When John and Barbara and I saw everything together on the walls at the residence we thought ‘This is fantastic! Where can we do this more publically?’”

Martin’s collection had already begun to attract attention in May 2019, when art dealer, Larry Gagosian, held Desert Painters of Australia in his Madison Avenue gallery.  It was a non-selling show of Martin’s paintings along with works from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.

Charlie Tarawa (Tjaruru) Tjungurrayi, ‘The Trial’ (1972), from the John & Barbara Wilkerson Collection

Another version of the show, Desert Painters of Australia II, featured at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills outlet from July to September that year. By this stage, Gagosian was on a roll. There would be another show in Hong Kong, Desert Painters of Australia: Two Generations, in September – November, 2020, followed by Emily: Desert Painter of Australia, in his Paris gallery in. January – March, 2022. The two last shows were organised in association with D’Lan Davdson.

It may seem strange that a wheeler-dealer like Gagosian should host two non-commercial exhibitions of Martin’s collection, but Martin says there was no pressure to sell. He has known Gagosian since the dealer was selling posters in Westwood, California, and has watched him evolve to the point where he now has 19 galleries spread across the United States, Europe and Asia, and is generally considered the most powerful and successful art dealer in the world.

The way the contemporary art world is constituted means Gagosian is very powerful indeed. Long gone are the days in which critics, curators, museum directors or collectors were considered especially influential. Today, the real power resides with the leading dealers, who sell works by big name artists to billionaire clients and museums that line up to buy whatever is on offer. The dealers nurture rising stars, publish lavish catalogues, make generous donations to public galleries, and largely determine which artists will rise to the top in a highly competitive field. Galleries such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, and White Cube have so many outlets around the world they resemble multinational corporations.

And so, when Larry Gagosian decides, magnimously, to show the Aboriginal paintings collected by his old buddy, Steve Martin, it is more noteworthy than any museum exhibition. It’s an announcement that Aboriginal art may be the Next Big Thing.

George Tjungurrayi, ‘Untitled – Kirrimalunya] (2007), from the Steve Martin & Anne Stringfield collection

“I had the feeling he just wanted to do it,” says Martin. “It may be some kind of long-term investment, but I don’t know. He told me it was the only show that got good reviews on both the east coast and the west. Usually if it gets good reviews on the east coast, they’ll give it a hiding out west.”

One may speculate about Gagosian’s motives, but it seems likely he saw the potential in a mature art movement that already has a history and a collector base but is wildly undervalued by international standards. It also fits neatly into the surge of interest in Indigenous art sweeping through leading museums. Finally, if Steve Martin ever did choose to sell any of his pictures, he would feel obliged to go with Gagosian. But Martin is only one collector, there are many others who might be attracted by Gagosian’s obvious interest in Aboriginal art and see him as the best option to sell major works internationally. It’s also a good deal for Davidson, who is now well placed to be the middleman between Australian collectors and a leading international dealer.

If Aboriginal art “emphatically” became fine art in 1988, it has taken overseas dealers and collectors a long time to accustom themselves to that idea. It was said, even in 1988, that this work had to lose a lot of the ethnographic ‘baggage’ before it could be accepted as contemporary art. Nowadays, with institutions embracing non-western artforms, the origins of the art pose less of a problem, but the presentation remains just as crucial.

Martin is excited by the changing priorities in international art which have led to the rediscovery of many African-American and female artists. He cites the case of Norman Lewis (1909-79), a black painter associated with the Abstract Expressionists, whose work is suddenly turning up in all the museums. He was equally impressed with Renaissance artist, Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625), when he stumbled upon a retrospective at the Prado.

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, ‘Rockholes and Country Near the Olgas’ (2007), from the Steve Martin & Anne Stringfield collection

While recognising that Aboriginal art is set to benefit from this change of institutional focus, Martin believes that “little moments” such as the Gagosian shows and the exhibition at Uovo, play a disproportionate role in the way potential collectors perceive this work. He says: “I think it’s very important for America and Europe that these works are presented in a mainstream style. They have to be recognised as contemporary paintings that stand up well against a lot of the other things we see. They need to be shown in whatever context we accept as “Art”, without emphasising their foreignness. Aboriginal people may not see this as necessary, but it’s very important if these paintings are going to seep into the canon.”

That path to acceptance means that Aboriginal paintings are being seen in museums and in commercial galleries such as Gagosian and Studio 94; in displays of private collections such as those of Martin and the Wilkersons, and on toasters and coffee machines at Bloomingdale’s. It’s a distinctly different moment from 1988 when Indigenous art struggled to shake off its tribal associations with dealers and collectors. At last, this work is finding its place within the ecology of international art. The greater challenge is to leverage the success of Aboriginal painting into a more viable market for Australian art in general, a move that would change prices and perceptions at home. It would be another chapter in a familiar story, in which Australians only seem to value their own art and artists when the rest of the world starts buying.

(Frieze discussion, with JMcD intro.)




Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Good Weekend, 14  October, 2023