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