Warlimpirrnga was the eldest amongst a small group of Pintupi people who walked into the newly established community of Kiwirrkura in 1984. Before, they had maintained an isolated and traditional existence at the insistence of their elders, in country west of Lake Mackay in the Great Sandy Desert. With the death of these crucial leaders, the nine, who were hailed in the media as a ‘lost tribe’ and had never encountered white people at close proximity, sought out relatives who had already 'come in'. This was often the manner in which the more far-flung desert nomads slowly turned to the settled lifestyle, impelled also by drought and the encroaching European control of their traditional lands. When another brother Pierti, who had traveled with them, returned to the desert almost immediately, they were taken under the watchful guidance of Dr. George Tjapaltjarri, a ‘medicine man’ of high regard who could continue their instruction through the ‘law’.
After observing Dr. George and other artists at work for several years, Warlimpirrnga asked for painting materials and Daphne Williams, the co-ordinator of Papunya Tula Artists, was impressed with his efforts. Eleven of his paintings that were exhibited at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne in 1988 were bought and donated to the National Gallery of Victoria by collectors Nellie and Ron Castan. Works such as these, collected early in his painting career were unpretentious and favoured a strongly traditional tone.
From the outset Warlimpirrnga painted stories related to the travels and sites created by the Tingari ancestors. Employing a classical geometric painting style as his starting point, he slowly developed his imagery and adopted the op-art-like intensity of resounding shapes and lines that became favoured by a number of senior Papunya male artists during the late 1980’s and beyond. His meticulously applied designs and methodical background dotting resulted in works that exhibited a distinct rhythmic quality. This was reflected and strengthened in the fluidity of his line work while subtle variations in the under-painted colour imparted the feeling of the changing light as it lowers its angle and strikes the sand ridges and dunes in the desert. The zig zag designs and meandering lines echoed the parallel fluting incised on traditional shields, storyboards and ceremonial objects made by men in the Central and Western Desert. As Warlimpirrnga’s art practice progressed, these lines became curved and closely repeated, imparting a sense of kinetic energy that suffused the whole canvas.
His primary subjects are the Snake and Kangaroo Dreamings of his country and initiation stories connected to the sites of Marawa and Kanapilya, close to his birthplace. For time immemorium, men and boys would gather there for ceremonies, re-living the legends of their Tingari ancestors. Meandering lines sometimes re-trace painted body designs or signify the kunai snakes that also crossed the land with the ancestors and drank from the same sacred waterholes. Sometimes, the men and boys would burn the spinifex grass country to catch kangaroos.
After painting for some time, Warlimpirrnga began teaching his brothers Walala and Thomas Tjapaltjarri to paint and by 1996 Walala had taken to accompanying his brother on trips to Alice Springs. All three brothers as well as Dr. George Tjapaltjarri began painting for Gallery Gondwana during the late 1990’s.This was due in large part to the personal relationship they shared with Gallery Gondwana Manager Brice Ponsford, who had worked for Papunya Tula in Kiwirrkura when they first arrived in the community a decade earlier. By 1999 Dr. George painted less and less frequently as his eyesight began to fail, and Walala, preferring his independence, lived in Alice Springs and Katherine where he painted for a number of independent dealers. Warlimpirrnga, however, tired of life too far from his family and homeland and returned to paint principally for the art centre other than on his infrequent travels during which he painted for others. Amongst the female members of the group that left the desert with him, Yukultji, Yalti and Takarria Napangati all became painters working with Papunya Tula.
In 2000, Warlimpirringa visited Sydney for the opening of the Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius exhibition. During this visit he made a ground painting at the Art Gallery of NSW along with four other men from Kiwirrkura. Since that time, Warlimpirringa remained most at home in his community where he lives with his wife and children, except for occasional visits to Alice Springs or the southern cities when his art career demands it.
Having walked in from the Great Sandy Desert in 1984 Warlimpirrnga spent a number of years observing other artists at work prior to creating his first painting in 1987. Since then, he has worked exclusively for Papunya Tula, except for a sustained period during the mid to late 1990s and during infrequent visits to Alice Springs where he has developed relationships with several reputable dealers. It is unsurprising therefore that all of his top ten results have been for works created for Papunya Tula.
2016 was easily Warlimpirrnga’s highest grossing year at auction with total sales of $322,747 until 2018, on the back of the sale of an Untitled Papunya Tula work which easily eclipsed his previous record price which had been set as long ago as 2006. Every one of his ten highest results have been set since then.
With two works entering his top ten results during 2016 and a new record price of $286,471 set during that year, Warlimpirrnga was definitely singled out as an artist whose prices were definitely on an upward trajectory. His results in 2015 had proved to be the game changer. American uber collector Dennis Scholl included his work in the touring exhibition No Boundaries and followed this up with a solo exhibition for the artist at the prestigious New York Bowrey Gallery Salon 94 in October. The exhibition elicited articles in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, Observer, Architectural Digest and a host of Australian local and national newspapers. That same month Bonham's set a new second highest record when they offered an untitled work featuring designs associated with the Lake Site of Wilkinkarra that had been painted for Papunya Tula in 2005. The work, deaccessioned from the Thomas Vroom Collection, sold for $31,720. In 2018 no less than 3 works entered his top ten records at 2nd, 3rd and 4th places. Though only ten works sold of sixteen offered the total for these three paintings alone was $324,630 making him the 4th most successful artist of the year - his best year ever.
Until 2015, Warlimpirrnga was considered but one of a number of Papunya artists who had developed a relatively generic op-art like style. While his finest works feature meticulously applied designs that exhibit a distinct rhythmic quality, many earlier works lack distinction. So many Pintupi men have adopted the zig zag designs and parallel lines that mimic the fluting incised on their traditional ceremonial objects and weapons that it was hard to see why this particular artist should rise to especially great distinction. In my own mind, others across the tri-state border amongst the Western Pitjantjatjarra seem to have been far more adventurous with a fresh and bold new approach to painting. Papunya men’s paintings, by comparison, seem accomplished but formulaic. Yet once again, this simply demonstrates the power of the branded super-collector and the Papunya Tula brand.
Having expressed this opinion, it is nonetheless true that Warlimpirrnga’s best works are highly accomplished and will always be worth adding to any fine collection. My advice would be to seek out works distinguished by the fluidity of the line work and subtlety of colour variation. It seems to me that these will ultimately prove the most engaging and satisfying.