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Maxie Tjampitjinpa

Maxie Tjampitjinpa

1947 - 1997

Maxi, Jampijinpa, Tjampitjimpa

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.  

Maxie Tjampitjinpa painted for Papunya Tula from 1981 until his death in 1997, yet, increasingly during the last five years of his life, he created works for Warumpi Arts and a number of independent dealers. They included Chris Simon, from whom the artist’s record holding work was originally sourced.  Maxie’s growing ‘independence’ was due entirely to the fact that, suffering from the renal failure that eventually took his life, he underwent regular dialysis in Alice Springs. Having moved into town, he was no longer serviced by Papunya Tula, that would only supply art materials to artists living ‘out bush’. This is evidenced by the fact that only seven of the Papunya Tula works that have been offered for sale at auction were produced during the five years between 1993 and the year of his death. Interestingly no paintings created prior to 1987 have appeared for sale, other than a couple created for community contractors.  When Bush Fire Dreaming sold for $16,730 at Bonham’s and Goodman in March 2006, it transcended a record that had stood for almost a decade during a period in which the Aboriginal art market had experienced a boom. The 180 x 180 cm work had carried an estimated of just $4,000-8,000 (Lot 1294). The previous record had been set for a whopping 256 x 184 cm canvas at Christie's in August 1998 (Lot 1106). Entitled Bushfire 1996, it had achieved only $13,800 against a presale estimate of $12,000-15,000, despite it’s Utopia Art Sydney provenance. Another work sold in 1998 occupies his seventh highest result and two more sold in 1998 and 1999 remain in his top 20. The best result achieved for a work with Papunya Tula provenance has been the $9,600 paid for Untitled 1996 a 183 x 122 cm painting that had been estimated at $8,000-12,000 by Sotheby's in July 2004 (Lot 302). The image depicted a bushfire at the site of Warlurkulanga, north-west of Papunya adjacent to sand dunes. While Sotheby’s have in fact been the most successful of all auction houses with works by this artist, having sold 13 for a total of $35,389, it is Lawson~Menzies with just eight sales to their credit that have generated $40,920. Works by Maxie Tjampitjinpa have suffered mixed results when offered for sale. They first appeared as early as 1989 when only one of the three offered sold for just $500. By far and away his best year at sale was 2004 when nine of 13 works sold for $55,200 or an average of $6,133 and five of his current top ten results were established. Nevertheless, only four works are recorded as having sold for more than $10,000 and only nine have sold for between $5,000 and $10,000. His most spectacular failures at auction have been for the beautifully rendered and unusual Spirit Women's Dreaming 1989, estimated at $12,000-15,000 by Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 (Lot 7) and the Papunya Tula provenanced 121.5 x 121.5 cm Fire Dreaming 1991 offered by Deutscher~Menzies in June 1999 (Lot 19) with an estimate of $15,000-20,000. Maxie Tjampitjinpa’s works are singularly distinctive, but his fortunes at auction have definitely been mixed as indicated by his low clearance rate. His career should be seen in the light of his special place in the development of the emerging Papunya men’s style of the 1990’s. Paintings by Maxie Tjampitjinpa should be judged more on their aesthetic value than their source provenance. They are still eminently affordable and are more than worthy of any fine contemporary collection. Having fallen out of favour in recent years, the work is overdue for a reassessment, as Maxie was an extremely talented artist with barely any unworthy works on the market – even his less accomplished works are still things of great beauty.

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