Kudditji Kngwarreye was born about 1928 at Alhalkere at Utopia Station, located about 270 kms north east of Alice Springs. In his younger life, he worked throughout the Central Desert, travelling widely as a stockman, and working in mineral and gold mines.
A custodian for ceremonial sites located in his country at Utopia Station, many of his paintings refer to sites at Boundary Bore, where men's initiation ceremonies are performed. He began painting his precisely dotted Emu Dreaming paintings, featuring ranks of coloured roundels and other 'hieroglyphs' on a chequered or dotted background, in 1986.
Kudditji was the younger brother of renowned artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. He painted only sparingly until his sister’s death in 1996 after which he experimented with a number of gestural styles involving looser brushstrokes and schematic composition. However the demand for his earlier, male iconographic style saw Kudditji to return to it, and it was not until 2003 that he began to exhibit the saturated patchwork colour paintings with which he is principally associated today.
His current renown rests almost exclusively upon colour field works that are invariably entitled My Country. In these, fields of colourful textured stippling are structured into a geometric architecture of squares and oblongs. Like the works of his famous sister they have been compared in style with that of several of the greatest international contemporary artists such as Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston in particular. (When Kudditji’s work appeared for auction at the Deutcher~Hackett 2007 sale this comparison was employed by one commentator to note the record setting sale for a post WWII work of Rothko’s-White Center, Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose, at Sotheby’s in New York) (SMH May 19 2007).
Though parallels between the abstract expressionists and Indigenous artists like Kudditji may seem to labour the point of the latter’s contemporary credibility, the underlying sentiment is valid. It does demand equal respect. Yet there are far more intimate parallels to be drawn between his style and that of Emily. Certainly both were masters of colour. However, the geometric composition of Kudditji’s work has a more formal feel, than either the energetic linear, or ‘dump dump’ bush strokes of his sister. In this regard Kudditji rarely strays from a strictly Aboriginal male aesthetic into the wild abandon of female gestural work. There is a clear ‘intention’ as he lays down the quilted structures, no matter how loose and haptic the grid may be.
These works still resonate strongly with his earliest ones. They still fall within the distinctive Anmatyerre male convention of depicting men’s ceremonial sites and, in Kudditji’s case, Emu Dreamings. While his earlier works were far more conventional they were well received and Kudditji made his living as an artist, after haven given up life as a stockman. A move away from this style at first proved unprofitable, which prompted a return to his tried and trusted style. However, in time, the successful outcome of years of experimentation saw him gain national attention and, later, international renown.
Emily, Kudditji and other Utopia painters like Gloria Petyarre, Minnie Pwerle, Barbara Weir and others, who paint quickly with gestural or stippled brushwork have one important thing in common. They needed to paint a lot of work over an extended period in order to develop a truly unique and successful style. This is interesting in the current context where ‘art centre provenanced’ works are considered by many to have supreme provenance. Artists such as these could never have emerged from official art centres with their financial restraints and requirement to cater to the needs of large numbers of individuals. It has only been through unfettered freedom of expression, and profligate creativity, that their careers have flourished to the point where they are amongst the most successful of all Aboriginal artists.
In Kudditji Kngwarreye’s case his works have been included in countless group shows and no less than 10 solo exhibitions since 2000. Far from diminishing his career, the fact that hardly a retailer in the country would not be able to find a canvas or two somewhere in the stockroom to show a prospective client has only served to enhance his reputation and standing.
Kudditji Kngwarreye was one of the most prolific artists in the primary market since 2005. Independent, and living in Alice Springs, he painted for a number of wholesalers and his works were distributed to a large number of galleries and retailers throughout the country. He began painting in the late 1980s (in the same year as his sister Emily Kngwarreye) and continued throughout the 1990s creating images of the his Emu Dreaming in a typically male Utopia style without particular distinction.
Though far better known for the loose gestural and highly colour charged paintings that he has created since 2003, it was one of his traditional Emu Dreaming images that set his record price in at Sotheby’s in October 2009. The work, being de-accessioned from Trevor Chappell’s Austcorp Property Group collection had been estimated at just $500-1000. Measuring 206 x 120 cm. it sold for a whopping $19,200.
The only other work in this style that has entered his highest 10 results measured 152 x 106 cm. It was created in 1999 and sold at Paris auction house ArtCuriel for $6,255 in November 2009. Another older style 133 x 82cm work, though far more accomplished than that which set his current record, sold for just $1,320 including buyers premium at Leonard Joel in October 2010 (Lot 312). This was certainly an opportunity missed. Not one canny investor appeared aware of the record setting price achieved for an inferior work during the previous year.
Two artistically unsuccessful canvases created in a transitional style , reminiscent of his sister’s ‘line’ paintings, sold for just $1,500 and $1,800 when offered at Leonard Joel during 2008. Though historically interesting, works in this style gave way colour field paintings, for which he is now largely renowned.
Though seven works have sold for more than $9000, Kudditji’s auction results are dominated by sales for less than $3000 (48) and unsold works (47). Overall his success rate has been only 57%. This is not surprising given the vast quality of his paintings were offered for sale in the primary market during the final years of his life. Kudditji died in 2016 and it is likely that there will be a market readjustment as a result of this.
Dealers and opportunistic ‘investors’ have largely failed in their attempts to firmly establish Kudditji amongst the most collectable artists since 2005. Though his sales during 2009 saw him listed as the 23rd most successful artist in that year, and 2010 saw him listed as 96th, he actually fell by the end of 2011 from 130th to 131st of the entire movement overall. A better year in 2016 saw him finish the year at 42nd and this lifted his career standing to 113th. This can be attributed to the fact that 11 of 15 sold that year for a success rate of 73%.
The jury is out on Kudditji Kngwarreye. Clearly, he is an example of an artist whose stocks are on the rise. His secondary market results are yet to reflect the hype that surrounded his work in the primary market post 2012. Those who paid top dollar for his best works in primary galleries during the past 5 years will be disinclined to trade them in until his patchwork blankets of colour have had time to appreciate.
Utopia artists largely paint outside of the art centre system. And though the current market tends to favour ‘officially’ sanctioned works, a flood of paintings on the primary market never hurt Emily, Gloria Petyarre or Minnie Pwerle. Only time will tell whether paintings by this old man will rate amongst those of his more illustrious female relatives.