An Aboriginal Artist’s Dizzying New York Moment

 Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri with two of his untitled paintings at Salon 94

For at least the last century, it has always been a momentous occasion: An artist from the hinterlands arrives in New York for the first time, hoping for what the writer Willie Morris called “the tender security of fulfillment.” But for the painter Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, things were a little different.




First, Mr. Tjapaltjarri, who is believed to be in his late 50s, has had an international following for several years, and currently has pieces in a show traveling the United States. Second, Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s hinterlands are a lot more hinter than most. Until he was in his 20s, he and his family, part of the Pintupi Aboriginal group, lived in a part of the Western Australia desert so remote that even after other Pintupi were forcibly relocated into settlements in the 1950s and 1960s, his family remained out of view, hunting lizards and wearing no clothes except for human-hair belts, as its ancestors had for tens of thousands of years. When they were encountered by chance in 1984 and persuaded to move to a Pintupi community, they instantly became famous, known in newspaper accounts as the Pintupi Nine and described as the last “lost tribe.”


Since that time, Mr. Tjapaltjarri has taken up painting on canvas with two brothers, adapting ceremonial designs that Pintupi men used on rocks, spears and their bodies. While he has traveled several times within Australia, he took his first trip to another country last week, arriving in New York for the first solo exhibition of his work in the United States. The show runs through Oct. 24 at the Salon 94 gallery on the Bowery, near the New Museum.

Dressed in jeans, a checked shirt, Everlast tennis shoes and a black cowboy hat that would have been right at home at Gilley’s nightclub in Houston in the ’70s, Mr. Tjapaltjarri said through an interpreter that he was enjoying the attention his paintings were receiving but that the city itself was a little intimidating. He liked the subway, but the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center not so much. He laughed and patted his considerable paunch to show where the butterflies were.


It’s not a customary feeling for Mr. Tjapaltjarri (his full name is pronounced war-lehm-peer-ing-ah jah-pal-jah-ree), who was the eldest male in his family in the desert and, as a healer and keeper of ancestral stories at the heart of the Pintupi people, is still a commanding presence inKiwirrkurra, the community where he lives in the Gibson Desert. The paintings that have made him a sought-after figure in the Desert Painting movement, which arose in the 1970s and sowed international interest in Aboriginal art, are in one sense transcriptions of the stories. They seem abstract, made from thousands of dots — a signature of much Desert Painting. The dots form tight parallel lines that, when viewed close up, oscillate like those of a Bridget Riley Op Art painting, except more so, a visual equivalent of standing near a speaker that drowns out all the sound around it.


The lines and switchbacks, painted on linen canvas while it is flat on the ground, correspond to mythical stories about the Pintupi and the formation of the desert world in which they live. Some of the stories, which are told in song, can be painted for public consumption, but others are too sacred or powerful to be revealed to outsiders. “My land, my country,” said Mr. Tjapaltjarri, the only English words he uttered during an interview, pointing at a painting with a circle made out of dots. He said it represented a group of ancestral women who appear only at night in the desert around Lake Mackay, a vast saltwater flat that is the primary focus of his paintings.


The way that the lines and curves tell the stories remains mostly a mystery. “I’ve been asking that question for 40 years, and I’ve never really gotten the same answer twice — it’s very inside knowledge,” said Fred R. Myers, an anthropologist at New York University who has studied the Pintupi and their art since the early 1970s and as a doctoral student helped bring attention to the Papunya Tula Artists cooperative, which is owned and directed by Aboriginal people from the Western Desert. “The paintings operate more like mnemonic devices than like representations of a narrative.”


Mr. Myers was translating for Mr. Tjapaltjarri one recent afternoon in the gallery along with the artist’s nephew, Matthew West, who had accompanied his uncle from Australia. The professor said that while Mr. Tjapaltjarri was proud of his reception in the wider art world, “he is highly respected in his homeland for his knowledge and experience, and his paintings of his stories are really very much tied to that respect.”


Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who owns Salon 94, said she first saw Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s work in the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2012, and that while she had seen works of Desert Painting before, she was particularly struck by his. “I also loved the fact that this abstraction had another kind of abstraction behind it — at least abstraction to us, because we’ll never be able to understand these stories in the way they do,” she said. “And I thought that they looked so contemporary at a time when abstraction is being practiced by so many New York artists.” (His works are selling at the gallery for $25,000 to $80,000.)


Mr. Tjapaltjarri was stifling yawns by the end of the interview, not because he was bored but because four days in New York had put him through the wringer. And he was getting on a plane in the morning for the next stop on his American tour, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, where several of his works went on display on Thursday in a traveling exhibition of abstract Aboriginal painting.


“I’m not homesick yet,” he said, smiling from behind his long gray beard and asking to have his picture taken with a reporter before everyone parted ways. “I’m having fun.”