Born c.1940 three hundred miles northeast of Alice Springs, and instructed by her paternal grandmother in the Dreamings that inform her work, Kathleen Petyarre began painting in the mid 1980’s. Within a decade a series of important exhibitions, prestigious awards, and journalistic debate about Indigenous art praxis, had propelled her to international renown, if not entirely for all the right reasons.
While best known for her finely wrought, intimate renditions of the vast landscapes created during the epic journeys of her Dreaming ancestor, the tiny Thorny Devil Lizard, the process leading to these sumptuous paintings took years to perfect. Kathleen began her artistic career making batiks through community workshops run by adult educator Jenny Green. Informed by wider social currents of the seventies, the female group gathered a powerful artistic presence within the emerging Indigenous art movement of Central and Northern Australia. This carried over into the political arena, where Petyarre played an instrumental role in winning the 1980 land claim that returned the land around Utopia to its traditional owners. Green recalls how the demanding and finicky work of batik-making required 'the patience, dexterity and determination employed in winnowing seed and collecting other bush tuckers' (cited in Nichols 2001: 20). The women moved between their traditional and contemporary activities with ease and enthusiasm. Prompted by health concerns, Petyarre moved to acrylic painting as suggested by the new art advisor Rodney Gooch in 1986. Her fine working skills and focused attention carried over, as she began to explore her new medium.
Petyarre’s totem, the Thorny Devil Lizard, referred to as ‘that Old Woman Mountain Devil’ underlayed and informed all of her work. This tiny desert creature is believed to have created the vast desert home of the Eastern Anmatjerre people by moving each grain of sand, grain by grain, since the dawn of time. Petyarre, like her clanswomen, believed that they are its descendents, and have therefore inherited the responsibility for caring and nurturing the vast landscape that she depicted so intimately and carefully in her paintings. In her My Country series, she used thin acrylic paints that soaked into carefully prepared linen to create 'galaxies of fine dots’ that built upon each other to produce subtle variations of tone and colour underscored by areas of compelling shadow. These vibrant surfaces remained sheer, yet soft, with rhythmic linear patterns suggesting life and structure upon the earth-toned expanse, as well as underground watercourses and a spiritual presence within. Many of these highly atmospheric works re-affirm an important link to the ceremonial body painting and dancing of her traditional life through both their energetic presence, cultivated by painstaking technique, and their oblique reference to secret, ancient narratives, carefully veiled by mists of dots. 'I like to make the painting like its moving, traveling,' she said, touching upon her ancestral wanderings. Working alongside her famous aunt, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Petyarre became inspired to succeed her as 'the most feted Anmatjerre artist' and tailored her work to a cross-cultural sensibility, responding with intelligent acumen to an increasingly receptive market. Although structurally present in her cruder early works, she began concentrating on her Mountain Devil Lizard theme in earnest from the early 1990s. This image, featuring two diagonal fault lines meeting at sacred men’s and women’s ceremonial sites along a dry river bed, became her leit motif and was rendered with subtle and increasingly sophisticated nuances over the following years. Her career progressed quietly and steadily, encouraged by her agent, David Cossey of Gallerie Australis in Adelaide, until her sell out show in Melbourne in 1996. She was awarded the Visy Board Art Prize at the Barossa Vintage Festival Art Show in 1998 and the following year won the People's Choice Award in the Seppelts Contemporary Art Award, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Later that year, she won the biggest prize of all, the prestigious Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Controversy regarding the authorship of her winning entry highlighted the communal nature of art production in her culture, springing as it does from an intensely inter-related bond between small clan groups, larger tribal groups and country. Although resolved in her favour, the lengthy investigation deeply upset Petyarre and her immediate family who sensed the threat to their birthright, an identity fundamentally shaped and given meaning through their Dreaming.
Petyarre’s belief in her vocation propelled her back to the artistic stage, however, her mature works were considered by many as her best. Less specific references to the features of country have promoted their abstract quality while still conveying their pervasive sacred meaning. A solo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, as well as an accompanying catalogue published in 2001, repositioned Petyarre’s career, enabling viewers to reassess the artist’s work, free of the controversy that had flared during the three years since winning the NATSIA award. Received with plaudits, her biographer noted, 'Kathleen Petyarre draws upon the indigenous to create the international' (Nicholls 2001: 31).
Toward the end of her life, during which she spent increasing time in Alice Springs at the mercy of a continuously needy entourage, she painted perfunctory paintings for quick money. However these should never be confused with the majority of her works created in the studio her agent provided in Adelaide. In this environment Kathleen Petyarre was at her very best, making works of enormous integrity that will always attract a spiritually inquisitive and aesthetically literate audience.
Given the fact that that Kathleen Petyarre achieved a number of distinctions including winning the prestigious Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, one would expect her works to have always been highly collectable. However those collectors with important paintings created during the mid to late 1990s were not at all encouraged to offer them for sale prior to 2003. Despite a doubling of the primary market prices of her works, the secondary market went distinctly cold on this prestigious artist immediately following the controversy that raged about her in 1998. A re-assessment did not occur until after the dust settled on her retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney during 2001. All of her top ten highest results and the majority of all of her works offered have been set since 2003.
In the primary market Kathleen’s prices underwent a series of rapid rises that coincided with her awards, as would be expected of an artist whose career was professionally managed by an exclusive agent with representative galleries in the major capital cities. A 122 x 122 cm work from the Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming series for example, was listed in representative galleries at $8,500 in 1996, just prior to the Telstra Award, and $12,000 immediately after. On learning that she was to have the exhibition at the MCA the equivalent painting rose in price to $16,000 and once the show had been held, $18,500 including the GST that had been introduced in the meantime. By 2004, her works of this size were $25,000 in the primary market, with larger 150 x 150 cm works selling for $35,000 and the very occasional 180 x 180 cm size commanding $55,000- $60,000. In 2008 Kathleen showed for the first time at Metro 5 Gallery in Melbourne and for this show, she created several Mountain Devil Lizard works in a rectangular format of even greater size. These works were readily snapped up by serious collectors for $90,000-100,000.
Kathleen's secondary market results for her My Country images have generally sold for about 15% less than her average across the range of sizes available for all of her different subjects and styles. The reason lies in two quite different factors. The first is related to the difficulty of illustrating with any degree of satisfaction works that are luxuriously painted with fields of tiny dots distinguished by only subtle colour variations. The second is related to the provenance of her works post 2010, since her agent/representative, David Cossey, retired. Kathleen returned to Alice Springs and prior to her death in 2018, many 'assisted' works of a lesser quality entered the market.
At auction the majority of her works have fallen into the 122 x 122 cm range and the 91 x 91 cm range, principally because these are the sizes that best suit the majority of her imagery and which she therefore painted most often. Since her paintings first appeared at auction in 1996 a third have sold between $5,000-10,000, another third between $10,000-25,000, and a tenth in the $25,000-50,000 range, with only two works breaking beyond this upward marker since 2009.
As would be expected of an oeuvre in which the same basic structure is repeated many times over, individual works are favoured due to very subtle differences in their execution and structure and these are the prime determinants of value, regardless of size. Prior to 2009, Kathleen’s record price had been achieved for a large 183 x 183 cm work from her My Country series called My Country, Hailstorm, which was sold at Christies in August 2005 for $47,800. This would seem to be an anomaly as these ‘My Country’ images are generally far less favoured than Mountain Devil Lizard works. Her top three results had all fallen between $43,000 and $48,000 amply demonstrating that quality, not size, is what matters when it comes to a work by this artist. These three results were for works measuring 183 x 183 cm, 122 x 122 cm, and 91 x 91 cm respectively with the smallest, Atnangkere 2000, reaching a sale price of $42,800 at Sotheby’s Sydney in July 2003 against an estimate of only $6,000-8,000. Petyarre’s record sale in 2009, however, ticked the boxes on all fronts, being large in scale, with a high degree of beauty and integrity. Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming 2008, a work with Gallerie Australis provenance measuring 184 x 245 cm. fetched $96,000 at Lawson Menzies in March 2009 (Lot 139). The sale almost doubled the previous record at auction yet simply aligned her secondary market results more closely to the prices set for her finest work on the primary market.
By 2016, of the 315 works by Kathleen Petyarre that had appeared at auction only 161, or 51%, had sold, fetching an average $9,113. This average fell by $2000 between 2011 and 2015. There were a number of factors at play in this. On the one hand the secondary market proved unable to achieve the prices for which her representative galleries continued to sell her best works. On the other, provenance is all-important with this artist, as well as, to a lesser degree, the period in which the work was painted. For example, of her current top ten sales, seven came from her primary agent Gallerie Australis and two from Delmore Gallery, another very reputable source for works by Utopia artists. While Kathleen lived mostly in Adelaide until 2010 with her sister Violet and grand daughter Albie Loy she occasionally painted for Don and Janet Holt at Delmore Downs Station from the time she began painting in the late 1980s. However the works that she painted hastily and under pressure from her extended family for cash and cars while visiting Alice Springs, have seriously undermined her career. Investors, who are not familiar enough with Kathleen’s work to be able to tell the difference between a work of great quality and something knocked out quickly, are advised to carefully examine the back of canvases and note the code numbers to ensure the provenance and original source is worthy of a major investment. No single year could better demonstrate this phenomenon than 2008 during which only four works sold of 15 offered, resulting in her career success rate dropping from 53% to just 50%. Unfortunately 12 of the 15 works were inferior in quality, having come from sources other than those mentioned above.
Only 3 works have entered her top 10 results since 2006 and one of these was her current record which appeared in 2009. Her second highest record was set in 2016 when a lovely Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming painting, created in 1996 and previously owned by Amina and Franco Belgiorno- Nettis, achieved $73,200 at Bonham’s. The other was a beautiful 1998 Mountain Devil Lizard image de-accsessioned from the collection of Dutch entrepreneur Thomas Vroom. The work purchased originally from the Holt's at Delmore Downs achieved her then 5th highest result when sold by Bonham's in September 2015 for $41,480. Though Kathleen's overall career standing is 36th amongst all Aboriginal artists, 2016 was a particularly good year for her. 22 of the 31 works on offer sold and this 71% sale rate resulted in her being the 5th most successful of all artists that year.
The secondary market is only beginning to achieve spectacular results for works by Kathleen Petyarre. By the time she passed away in 2018 her finest works adorned the most important private and public collections in Australia and overseas. These will always fetch a premium when they come up for sale. However those collectors who own them have proved to be highly reluctant to let go of important works that are both individually distinctive, and so strongly resonate with the creation of the sandhill country of the artist’s homelands in the Eastern Desert.