Maxie Tjampitjinpa grew up in Hassts Bluff and attended the school in Papunya during the late 1960’s, prior to the establishment of the Western Desert art movement. By the time Geoff Bardon began teaching at the school, Maxie had been to High School at Nightcliff in Darwin and was working in the Territory capital. On returning to Papunya in his early 20’s he worked as a tractor driver and Police tracker before starting to paint in 1980, just when many of the early painters were moving west in order to return to their homelands near the newly established community of Kintore. As one of the second generation Papunya Tula artists, Maxie began painting during a period when Desert art was moving towards a more individual form of expressiveness as artists moved beyond the limited iconographic lexicon formulated by the older artists in consultation with Geoff Bardon and Peter Fannin. He was instructed by Old Mick Wallankarri Tjakamarra, a man highly revered for his traditional knowledge and one of the senior custodians of the Honey Ant Dreaming centrally located at Papunya.
Being Warlpiri, and having observed from afar the unfolding of the painting movement, Maxie was acutely aware of the polemic that had developed around the early paintings by the Pintupi elders and the dissenting attitude of his own Warlpiri elders to the use of ceremonial symbols and secret knowledge. When, he started to paint during the 1980’s, he was in his early 30’s and became one of the youngest to paint for Papunya Tula Artists. His own contemporaries were more acquainted with their mythological heritage through art and story rather than through the rigors of journey and ceremony, and thus brought a different emphasis to their practice. Maxie was a forerunner in moving away from recognizable design elements and symbols strictly tied to specific place and narrative, as he leaned more towards the qualities of atmosphere and movement. He invented and perfected the flicked dotting technique that became the mark of his own personal style thereby influencing many other Desert artists.
From the outset, Maxie displayed a bold approach, both in his incorporation of basic, though increasingly pared-back, geometrical motifs and in his use of paint to create different effects. His manner of working was always precise and deliberate. A rapid stippling effect across the canvas could convey aspects of the land and its plant and animal life that lay submerged within the fixed iconography. The swarming of flying ants, the haze of heat or dust, and the movement of fire and drifting smoke, were all subjects that inspired Maxie’s prolific output. His love of painting was evident in the patient building of layer upon layer of vibrant contrasting colours to provide a sense of depth and complexity. In 1984 he won the National Territory Art Award amongst some controversy concerning the acceptance of Aboriginal acrylic painting as a bona fide contemporary art form as opposed to folk art. However the judge, Nancy Underhill, and other art professionals were adamant as to its high quality and creative genius.
During the 1990’s Maxie relinquished the solid forms that provided focus to his works in favour of mesmerizing, shimmering surfaces. His bush fire series, first exhibited in Sydney in 1992, depicted the ancestral bushfire that raged across Warlpiri country leaving the earth blackened and waiting for rain and renewal. He, began to spend more time in Alice Springs where ‘boom conditions’ in the Aboriginal art market attracted a plethora of artists, dealers and buyers. He no longer worked for Papunya Tula preferring to paint for Warumpi Arts, set up by the Papunya Community Council, as well as for a number of independent dealers that were supportive of his art practice. While his works were shown in galleries throughout Australia, it was the period prior to any solo exhibitions by prominent Indigneous artists. As he gained renown and became a rising star, his art was included in important group exhibitions, and toured Europe in 1995 with the Robert Holmes a Court collection.
Maxie Tjampitjinpa’s prodigious contribution to the burgeoning Aboriginal Art world was cut short by his early and untimely death from renal failure in 1997. He is remembered for his unique contribution as an innovative influence on Desert painting during the period when women were making a greater impression in the market and a number of male artists had embraced the modernist abstracted aesthetic that would propel Aboriginal art into the new millennium.