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1642NYTimes.com Article: Clifford Possum, a Painter of Aboriginal Masterworks, Dies

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  • ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us
    Jul 1 9:48 AM
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      Clifford Possum, a Painter of Aboriginal Masterworks, Dies

      June 30, 2002
      By JOHN SHAW

      SYDNEY, Australia, June 29 - Clifford Possum, who painted
      some of the masterpieces of Australian aboriginal art, died
      on June 21 in Alice Springs in the Australian desert, an
      ancient landscape he depicted in the mythical terms central
      to his heritage. He was about 70, art historians said.

      In accordance with tribal tradition, details of his death,
      the long illness that preceded it and his exact age were
      not disclosed by his family.

      Mr. Possum, known among the Ammatyerre people as Kumuntjayi
      Tjapaltjarri, was the first Australian aboriginal artist to
      gain international recognition. He cleared the paths to
      artistic and economic success that many indigenous painters
      have followed since the 1970's by invoking sources and
      spiritual beliefs thought to be many thousands of years

      Since 1974, Mr. Possum's paintings, mixing symbolism and
      abstraction, have been shown in solo and group exhibitions
      and sold to major galleries and collections in Australia,
      the United States, Europe and Asia.

      His work had its first public exhibition in the United
      States in 1980, in Los Angeles. His first major New York
      exhibition was in a group show at the Asia Society in 1988.

      In the United States, his work is in the collections of the
      Kelton Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., the Lowe Art
      Museum at the University of Miami, and the Pacific Asia
      Museum in Los Angeles.

      On June 24, five of his works were sold in Melbourne at
      Sotheby's Australia for more than $20,000 each; one,
      "Love-Sun Dreaming," was bought by private collectors for

      The record auction price for a Possum painting is $68,000,
      paid by an Australian public gallery last year for one of
      his earliest works, a 1972 landscape. At the time he
      painted it, some of his depictions of what is known as the
      Dreaming, a legendary time akin to creation or Genesis in
      other cultures, were selling for less than $50.

      Although works by other aboriginal artists have sold for
      much higher prices, Mr. Possum essentially made them

      Art historians here trace his birth to about 1932 in a
      desert tribal community that was making a difficult
      transition from nomadism.

      Mr. Possum, who adopted that name for nontribal use after a
      stay in the 1940's at a Christian mission where he was
      nursed for malnutrition, began painting after 15 years of
      work on a cattle ranch. Earlier, he had shown skill at
      carving snakes and lizards in wood.

      At Papunya, a remote government settlement for the desert
      people, a teacher, Geoffrey Bordon, encouraged aborigines
      to counter feelings of alienation by recording traditional
      images and themes in modern media, like acrylic paint on
      hardboard and later on canvas. This was the cradle of the
      Desert Painters movement in aboriginal art. In 1971 the
      artists formed a cooperative; Mr. Possum was chairman for
      10 years.

      Dr. Vivien Johnson, a historian of indigenous art at
      Macquarie University in Sydney, wrote that Mr. Possum
      quickly showed himself to be "an accomplished and inventive
      artist, an exponent of striking multilayered visual
      effects, meticulously rendered."

      Tim Klingender, director of the indigenous art department
      of Sotheby's Australia, said that many collectors and
      galleries rated Mr. Possum "high in the pantheon of
      aboriginal painters" for his "innovative visual language
      and complex narratives of myths."

      In June, the Australian government awarded Mr. Possum the
      Order of Australia medal for his service to the art
      movement and to the indigenous people.

      Manipulative art dealers and forgers, one of whom was
      convicted, marred his later years. He also experienced
      personal problems after moving from his desert community in
      1985 to the bustling township of Alice Springs.

      Critics and collectors rate his numerous works since the
      1980's below his achievements in the 70's, and his scarcer
      earlier canvases draw higher prices.

      Mr. Klingender estimated that several such works in private
      American collections would bring about $500,000 each if
      sold at auction now.

      Mr. Possum's survivors include two daughters, Gabriella and
      Michelle; a son, Lionel; and 11 grandchildren.


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