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Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

1925 - 2001

Jupurrula, Warrankula, Warungula, Warrangula, Warangula, Tjaparula, Jupunalla, Jonny Paruka

Born at Mintjilpirri, north west of the Kangaroo Dreaming site of Ilpili soakage Johnny Warangkula recalled his first contact with ‘white fellas’ at just 12 years of age as a frightening experience. Within three years his family moved in to Hermannsburg mission where Johnny went through initiation. After working on roads and airstrips at Hermannsburg and Haasts Bluff, and time spent at Mount Leibig, Yuendumu and Mount Wedge during the 1950s, he moved into Papunya with his first wife, shortly after its establishment. At the time of Geoff Bardon’s arrival in 1971 he was serving on the Papunya Council alongside Mick Namarari. Johnny Warangkula was quick to express interest in painting and rapidly developed a distinctive style characterized by layering and over-dotting, which Geoff Bardon often referred to as ‘tremulous illusion’ (Isaacs 2001: 71). From the outset of his career as a painter he intuitively transformed traditional desert ceremonial ground designs into inventive paintings on board and canvas conveying the myths and journeys associated with the sacred waterhole at Ilpilli, the surrounding limestone soaks, its inhabitants and the metaphysics of this country’s creation. Bardon, described their friendship, at this  time, as ‘close’ and Warangkula as a happy, expressive man who was pleased to discuss his work and explain its meanings and symbols. Bardon was just the first of many to note that Tjupurrula expressed a personal visual style that radiated power from the tightly composed and intensely vibrant surfaces of his paintings. While dots were traditionally used as decoration and outline in desert art, by the mid 1970s they were becoming the unmistakable trademark of contemporary desert painting. By 1978 large canvases were being produced by Clifford Possum, Tim Leura, Johnny Warangkula and a number of other Papunya men and Johnny’s Tingari men at Tjikarri was purchased for the Araluen Art Collection after being a finalist in the Alice Art Prize. Warangkula’s success with this, and other works of the period, was in large part due to the energetic effects he achieved in his design motifs while portraying the land as a living force. Dotting was also importantly used to disguise secret images and teachings that were only to be deciphered by the initiated. They became a thin veil, beguiling viewers toward the surface while alluding, even alluring them, to hidden depths. Warangkula was amongst the most inventive of the early Papunya artists. His 'calligraphic line and smearing brushwork' (Bardon in Isaacs 2001: 71), gave a relative solidity to the features of the land, or traced the movements of a journey, picking up on the rhythmic recall of a mythic narrative. Bands of hatching or parallel lines provided visual texture, often interspersed with animal tracks or symbolic figures woven in to tightly synchronized compositions that still resound with freshness and surprising spontaneity. Choosing to keep within the hues of traditional earth based ochres, he achieved in his early paintings a startlingly powerful statement of the earth, his country and the life within it. During his first 15 years as a painter Warangkula had been foremost amongst those who had fundamentally shaped the Papunya art movement. However by the mid 1980s his eyesight  began to fail and his painting became infrequent. By the end of the 1990s Warangkula was old and infirm. For a time he produced art-boards for just $50 each, selling them on the streets of Alice Springs or occasionally painting for Warumpi Arts established by the Papunya Community Council in competition with Papunya Tula. Yet, in what may come as a surprise to those who didn’t know him, after the sale of his Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1972 at auction for $206,000 in 1997 and its resale for double the world record price for Aboriginal art in 2000, Warangkula was utterly unperturbed by the publicity and inferences in the media that he should recoup at least some of the financial benefit. At the time he lived mostly in Papunya with his second wife Gladys Napanangka with whom he had two sons and four daughters. After this astounding record sale he began the first of hundreds of raw expressionistic paintings for local and overseas dealers keen to have anything at all by ‘name’ artists. All but a handful of these late paintings have been shunned by the secondary market which has considered them crude and unworthy of his earlier works. Apart from the patchy work post 2000, the finest of Johnny Waralgkula’s works continue to inspire. Over his thirty-year career, he was a distinctive figure, always wearing his stockman’s hat and charming his visitors with his enigmatic but sincere personality. He was oblivious to the attractions of life beyond the power and responsibilities of his Dreamings. Yet his best paintings not only reverberate with the power of ancient knowledge and forms, but they continue to captivate Western audiences through their uncanny access to our modern sensibility.

Johnny Warangkula was a powerful presence throughout the formative period of the Desert painting movement and created his most emblematic and important works early in his career. All but one of his top 30 results are for works that were painted in the 1970s and of those more than two thirds were painted in the Bardon period of 1971 to 1972. Of the 312 works offered for sale at auction only 58% have sold, evidence that his paintings were uneven in quality, especially as his career advanced. Of those paintings that have achieved between his 20th and 100th highest prices only about a dozen were painted during the 1980s or later. The artist’s poor clearance rate at auction has been largely due to the false impression amongst collectors that works produced during the 1980s and 1990s are worth more than their actual market value. There is no doubt that the large number of late career works he produced did not serve his reputation well. The sole late career work to enter the top fifty, Pangkalangku Men 2001, sold for $75,000 at Lawson~Menzies in March 2009 (Lot 142). During a year in which six works sold of ten offered, this sale was the only real anomaly. Late career works by Warangkula are considered a less sure investment relative to the solid blue-chip early works that carry Papunya or Stuart Art Centre provenance. Warangkula’s brilliant top-selling work Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1972, measuring just 75 x 80 cm doubled in value over three years, originally selling for $206,000 and then reselling in Sotheby’s June 2000 auction for $486,500 (Lot 70). Yet only nine of his works have sold for more than $100,000 and all but exceptional examples of his early boards have slightly decreased in value during the past ten years. Amongst these, Wild Tomato Dreaming 1972 sold for $41,400 at Sotheby’s June 2000 auction (Lot 109), showing a drop in $2,300 from its earlier result at Sotheby’s in 1998 (Lot 223) and Water Dreaming 1971 incurred a loss for its owner of $8,050 when re-sold at Sotheby’s in June 2000 for $17,250 (Lot 108) after originally being purchased from Sotheby’s in 1996 (Lot 8). Another slightly larger board measuring 91 x 76 cm titled Water and Tucker 1972 was re-offered by Sotheby’s in July 2005 after having failed to sell in an earlier auction. Sotheby’s halved the estimate and it still failed to sell. This is evident even amongst those works in the lower price range. A late 1970s work Kalipinypa 1978 failed to reach its lower reserve of $6,000 in Lawson~Menzies October 2003 sale after realising $6,325 at Deutscher~Menzies in June 1999 (Lot 161). The majority of Warangkula’s works are heavily weighted in the $10,000 to $25,000 price range. His highest price for a work on canvas was $342,250, which was paid for a 173 x 203 cm work Spearing of Matingpilangu 1974 at Sotheby’s in July 2003 (Lot 184). Warangkula’s works first appeared at auction in 1993 and by 2000, 48 of 60 works had sold for an 80% clearance rate. Between 2000 and 2012 however his success rate dropped to as low as 38% (2008) resulting in his overall career standing at 58%. Though 7 of 9 works on offer in 2015 sold at an average price of $21,320 he was the 18th most successful artist in a year during which one lovely early early board Water Dreaming with Bush Tucker, 1972, entered his top ten results in 10th place.  2016 told a slightly better story. In that year 9 of 11 works sold for a clearance rate of 82%. With prices averaging $16,820 he was the 13th most successful artist that year. Indicative of the dichotomoy of his career, of the 4 works on offer in 2017, the two that sold (for an average price of $48,630) were from 1971 and 1973, while the works that failed were dated in 1990 and 1998. Warangkula’s best years occur when one or two major works are on offer. In 2019, though only 8 works sold of 14 on offer (57% clearance) he finished 6th most successful artist for the year, on the back of a very good1973 work which appeared in Sotheby's first New York Aboriginal art sale. Estimated at USD100,000-150,000, Camp at Walungurru - Dingo Camp At Tinki, measuring 122 x 91 cm sold for US$162,500 ($AUD235,446) , the artists 3rd highest price ever. In fact, Sotheby’s have been the powerhouse and champions of Warangkula’s sales, having offered 123 paintings of the 312 that have appeared for sale. Lawson~Menzies is a distant second with 31 works. Overall, collectors should be aware that Johnny Warangkula’s early works painted during the period that Bardon was in Papunya between 1971 and 1972 are far and away the most highly sought after and splendid examples of his work. While he continued to produce intensely detailed, finely wrought paintings for a few more years, over time they became less intricate, more gestural and finally more and more messy and muddy in colour as his sight and dexterity became impaired. Because of the high prices his early work fetched on the secondary market during the mid to late 1990s many independent traders supplied him with rolls of canvas, only to end up with unsaleable works in all but a few exceptional cases. That Warangkula earned far more from these than he ever did from his finest works, is the ultimate irony in a career that has left a lasting legacy on both counts.  

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