176 Career Overall Rank
116 2019 Market Rank
Sam Tjampitjin was an artist capable of truly remarkable paintings, yet he painted relatively generic works in equal measure, throughout a career that lasted no more than 14 years. In many ways, his highest three results exemplify the stylistic differences amongst his finest works.
When looking at the emblematic Wirtinpiyi 1991, a painting created at the beginning of his career and reproduced in several books, it is possible to see a direct line to paintings he and other Balgo men, most especially Tjumpo Tjapanangka and Helicopter Tjunurrayi, created after 2000. It is fascinating in this regard to look at pages 206-207 in Sotheby’s July 2005 Aboriginal Art catalogue where Sam Tjampitjin’s Wilkinkarra 2002 sits opposite Tjumpo Tjapanangka’s Kukurpungku 2000. These two paintings, which could almost have been painted by the same hand, are indicative of the works created by these artists after their ‘return to country’ in 2000 and seem so much more alive and prescient than those produced before them. If ever there was a strong argument for facilities like the culture centres that enable artists to journey back to the source of their inspiration, this is it. The paintings created before seem flat, stale ethnographic museum pieces, when compared to paintings that are vibrant, alive and appear to sing. Of course there is a place for both, and only time will tell which endure and remain most popular amongst collectors. In Sam Tjampitjin’s case, foremost amongst these wonderful exceptions are the truly inspired Pitjandi Ceremony at Lunda 1994 and Kora, Great Sandy Desert, WA. 1995, which was illustrated in Balgo New Directions by James Cowan (page 76). When the former was offered for the first time at Sotheby’s in 1997 (Lot 78) it set a record for the artist which stood for the following three years. $8,625 was a very high price for a 120 x 80 cm work from Balgo Hills at the time, yet, when it was re-offered nine years later in October 2006, Sotheby’s managed to attract just $9,600 (Lot 56). While this may have been a very disappointing result for the seller, the buyer, in my opinion, procured one of the bargains of the decade. It makes the artist’s record holding work look positively plain by comparison, despite its own virtuosic execution. While Landa Landa near Lake MacKay 1993 is a very good work, it can hardly be worth three times more than the better and larger 1994 painting.
There have been a number of resales and reoffers amongst Sam Tjampitjin’s records. Two untitled 1994 works passed in at Sotheby’s November 2005 sale carrying estimates of $8,000-12,000 (Lot 158) and $7,000-10,000 (Lot 244) respectively. Both sold at Lawson~Menzies in June 2006 for $6,600 (Lot 76) and $6,000 (Lot 481) respectively, against presale estimates of $6,000-8,000. And a rather small 80 x 30 cm panel having failed to sell when first offered at Shapiro Auctioneers in December 2002 (Lot 228) with an estimate of $2,000-4,000, achieved $1,400 when reoffered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 for $1,000-1,200. Another untitled work created in 1992 failed to sell on two occasions impacting heavily on the artist’s success rate. Offered at $4,000-6,000 by Sotheby’s in October 2006 (Lot 133) the 100 x 75 cm work failed to sell once more when reoffered at Joel Fine Art in June 2007 (Lot 137).
The 47 works by Sam Tjampitjin have met with very mixed results. Yet this is an artist whose best works are only ever likely to appear on rare occasions. His strongest periods were definitely during 1990 -1994, the first five years that he painted and 2000-2002 when he was profoundly affected by his return to his country. Works painted 1995 to 1999 seem generic and uninspired and works between 2002 and his death in 2004 indicate that he had become more and more infirm as he approached the end of his life. While only two paintings have sold for more than $10,000, collectors should expect anything special by this artist to soar in price over the next decade. His best works are rare gems and canny collectors should keep their eyes peeled for their appearance at sale. If they manage to acquire a piece like Pitjandi Ceremony at Lunda 1994 for under $30,000 they should be singing about it from the rooftops.
'We call it Wilkinkarra, you Kardiya (white fellas) call it Lake MacKay,' explained a young relative of Sam Tjampitjin’s as the old man looked with immense delight upon the shimmering waters of the lake, his homeland (McCulloch 2001).
Sam Tjampitjin, then in his seventies, had returned to the place of his birth for the filming of Painting Country. It was the first time he’d returned, other than a brief visit twenty years earlier, after a lifetime of separation from the home of his Dreaming and the source of his artistic inspiration. Though considerably younger than his older brother, the revered painter Sunfly Tjampitjin, Sam was one of the older generation of Balgo Artists who walked out of the bush into the Old Balgo Mission at Tjumundu in 1942. Then in his early teens, he was inducted into the Catholic Church. Unlike some of the missionaries elsewhere, the Palotine brothers showed a unique respect of Aboriginal culture at the Balgo mission, and relations between the two cultures were generally amiable. When reminiscing, Sam would recall fondly tending to goats and shearing sheep and how he enjoyed the meat from the mission rather than desert game.
In fact, it was under the aegis of the Catholic Church that the painting movement at Balgo Hills was inaugurated. During the early 1980’s with the homelands movement in full swing, a number of Pintupi and Kukatja men traveled between Balgo Hills, Kiwirrkura and Kintore visiting relatives and exchanging news of the painting movement that had been initiated at Papunya. In 1982 Sister Alice Dempsey decided to run a course at the Adult Education Centre and many years later, recalled the way in which 'they asked for the door to be opened… I just thank god I didn’t close that door on their first interest in painting. It was one of my good days I suppose' (cited in Hoy 2000; 18). Painting struck a unique cord amongst this group of older men 'it was wonderful to see them standing in groups painting. No one dictated. They all knew innately what to do' (Dempsey cited in Hoy 2000: 18). The body of work that emerged had strong iconographic relations with sacred imagery formerly restricted to Tjuringa stones, body painting and ceremonial sand drawing. Many of the men that began painting were senior ceremonial leaders and custodians of the most secret and sacred Dreamings. In their own time, between 1982 and 1987, when Warlayirti Artists was officially sanctioned, important culture men experimented with cheap acrylic paint and explored aspects of their Dreamings on small canvas boards. Avoiding sacred imagery, they developed their own culturally specific art movement based upon depictions of potent locations where major events occurred during the creation that shaped their world view.
Sam Tjampitjin’s art primarily focused on the sacred sites of men’s ceremonial business. It was distinguished by the unique way in which he adapted the sacred designs seen on men’s ceremonial objects into minimal iconography, representing maps of these sites. In works like Landa Landa near Lake MacKay 1993 he depicted a series of clay pans surrounded by sand hills where for generations men congregated to conduct Law Business. The series of concentric rectangles record the pattern left as the water slowly recedes during the arid summers. The grid like structure of the painting is characteristic of the aesthetic of Kukatja men, with a preference for formal, linear work. As an artist, Tjampitjin mercilessly stripped his compositions of all superfluous secondary imagery to create a profound contemporary equivalent to sacred objects without obvious literal reference to them.
Though Sam’s penchant for geometric compositional structure was maintained throughout his career, his palette underwent many transformations, culminating in the dazzling pastels of his post 2000 works.This shift towards lighter colours, as exemplified by the adoption of sumptuous yellows, purples and pinks, radiating from a shimmering light yellow base as in Wilkinkarra 2002, sprang directly from the experience of reconnecting with his country. As Sam traveled back to where he was born for the exhibition Painting Country, onlookers observed his painting style change before their eyes. The joy at being back in his country, and the exuberance of actually seeing places formerly internalised and rendered from memory for decades, reinvigorated his art.
Sam Tjampitjin was an incredibly gifted artist and one of Balgo’s finest male painters. While his works may not have been mythic in their cartographic complexity like those of Wimmitji or Donkeyman Lee, they conveyed, as with those of his elder brother Sunfly Tjampitjin, the inherent power located within specific sites. It is unfortunate that the vast majority of his works were small, given his unique talent. One can only imagine the masterpieces he may have painted had he been provided with larger canvases. Yet his legacy, as part of the first generation of Balgo Artists, is as profound as the deep wellsprings of his knowledge, and his standing as a senior custodian and participant in sacred Men’s Law.
Hoy, Anthony. 18 Apr 2000. Desert Vision. Sydney. Bulletin .
McCulloch, Susan. 4 Oct 2001. Dots on the landscape. Australia. The Australian.
Sprawson, E. 4 Oct 2001. Desert joy flames burst of colour. Australia. Daily Telegraph.
Great Sandy Desert , Lake Mackay, Lappi Lappi , Lanta Lanta, Tjambunbardardee, Tarako
Tingari , Soak Waters, Bushfire, Sandhills, Rockholes, Rain, Two Men (Wati Kutjara)
Synthetic Polymer Paint on Linen and Canvas