Actor Steve Martin on the Joys—and the Difficulties—of Collecting Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art

Actor and comedian Steve Martin has long had a passion for collecting art—he even ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list several times in the 1990s. More recently, he has shifted his collecting focuses to works made beginning in the 1970s by contemporary Indigenous Australian artists. With his wife Anne Stringfield, he’s bought works by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Timo Hogan, Carlene West, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, and Doreen Reid Nakamarra, among many others.

Some of the works he owns have been displayed in non-selling shows at Gagosian locations in New York and Beverly Hills, California. Most recently, six pieces from his collection were on view at the National Arts Club in New York for an exhibition that closed on October 27.

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To learn more about the exhibition and his collecting, ARTnews joined Martin, National Arts Club executive director Ben Hartley, and the show’s curator, Robert Yahner, for a walkthrough. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ARTnews: How did the show come together?

Steve Martin: Well, first, let me just say that Robert and Ben did a great job with this. It couldn’t have looked better. It’s an unusual gathering because it’s later work. This work hasn’t really been seen. But how far back do you want to go?

As far back as you want to go.

Martin: My wife and I lent some pictures to the Australian Consul General’s residence [in New York], in combination with pictures from the Wilkerson Collection, which are earlier pictures. When I say earlier, it means 1970s because the whole movement really didn’t start until the 1970s. And then, is it true that you saw it there?

Ben Hartley: I saw it there, and I thought, God, this would be amazing if we could bring some of the works here. And because our fall theme is around “Think Global: New Visions, New ideas.” And the fact that this was contemporary work that followed a very old tradition is something that was very appealing.

Martin: Yeah, I thought it’d be good, especially a small show like this, which is concise. And you’re not trying to make too big a statement.

Robert Yahner: Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of this show that it is so minimal.

Installation view of a painting on an abstract painting that is mostly orange with two white lines at center. It is installed in a fancy parlor room with wood-panel double doors at right.
Doreen Reid Nakamara, Untitled, 2007, installation view, at National Arts Club, New York.

When did you first become interested in Western Australian art?

Martin: It was about seven years ago. It all started with one picture by this artist, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. I just really liked it, bought it, and hung it in our house for several years. I really didn’t know that there was a whole big funnel going back this way of its history. Then, through other venues, I slowly started seeing that there was a whole movement, and I started saying “Wow!” Like I said, I hadn’t really seen anything like this before. And they were available, which is an aspect of the art world now that is the opposite—most things are unavailable. And I loved them. I thought they were great.

What’s the experience been like living with these works?

Martin: My mind goes to the Rothko Chapel. There are these things that loom in the room and create an environment that’s calming. There’s a lot to look at, as in any good painting. They make you feel you’re in a special place.

So, the collection started with one picture. How did one picture lead to the next and then the next?

Martin: A lot of it was on the internet—that rabbit hole: “Look at this, look at this, look at this.” But there is a learning curve. I met the right people who helped me. I never really had helped before if I liked it, I could research it [myself]. This was harder to research, and it’s more complicated to understand. There’s an Indigenous element that is very specific—dreaming contexts—that is almost inaccessible [to outsiders]. And it goes back thousands and thousands of years. Some of the knowledge is arcane and private. It actually became an industry for a group of people who were suffering, and they started having an income.

And the collecting just took off. I just find them—you can’t pin them down. What I think makes good paintings is that you can’t quite pin them down. Sometimes I just rent a room, hang them up, and look at them, just to see the pictures. You don’t see them when you buy them. You buy them from an image, because they’re in Australia. When you get them, they look great, but you need to see them on the wall, in context.

We met one artist, Yukultji Napangati, and we had one of her paintings hanging. She was very involved with her own painting. She would touch it. It was almost like she was reliving it—not so much the experience of painting it but the experience of what the picture is talking about. I see these as narrative abstractions. These works have tales, locations, travels, incidents in them. And the incidents are often mythical or real.

An abstract painting with a black background with a large blob of white almost resembling a lake on top. There are colors used throughout the white like yellow and red to give it depth.
Carlene West, Tjitjiti, 2015.

How did you go about choosing these six works on view in the exhibition?

Yahner: Steve invited us to his home, and I was just overwhelmed by what was hanging on the walls. But then he started handing us printouts of what’s in the collection—

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Martin: That’s a new feature for me. [Laughs.] I’ve never organized anything, but I thought: This needs to be organized.

Yahner: I brought all the printouts back here and started looking through them. These big black-and-white canvases by Timo Hogan and Carlene West—it’s just so exciting when you see something new.

Martin: And because these haven’t really been shown, it’s an aspect of art that is still a little bit underground. For example, the story of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati is fantastic. They’re both members of the Pintupi Nine, nine people of a family group who were living out in the [Australian] desert who hadn’t come in [from the desert]. A relation drove out to see if they want to come in. They were suffering. There was no water. There was no food, it was a drought. And they decided to come in, and within 10 years, both Warlimpirrnga and Yukultji were major artists.

An abstract painting that is mostly of alternating white and black lines that create several spiral designs
Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Maruwa WT, n.d.

This work by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Rockholes and Country Near the Olgas (2008), is so beautiful and so very different from the other works on view here.

Martin: The hang here really brings out the color. I thought of it as a monochromatic picture. When we were talking about black and white, I said, “Well, this is almost black and white,” but it’s not at all. Look at the underpainting—it’s such a colorful underpainting. What’s he thinking? The sort of sandy lower right—I don’t even know if you think of it that way—and the black shapes, and reds. And he was 88 when he did this. When I was younger, I traveled from, say, California to New Mexico, and you’d always thought of the desert as monochromatic. But when you’re going through it, it becomes like this. It becomes so colorful and alive. You can’t believe the range of color.

How do you think these works are in dialogue with each other?

Martin: Some of these pictures are still new to us, so I’m still learning about them. But the National Arts Club has done research, and some of the information is new to me. That Timo Hogan was inspired by Carlene West. Carlene was painting one way, with tight dots. But then she started to develop dementia, and the [brushstrokes] began to loosen up. And this is just an explosion from thought to canvas. I just have these two by Carlene. They’re rare, especially this this late period.

An abstract painting with a black background that is visible at top and on the sides. Rising from the bottom to the center is a swath of white that resembles four hills.
Timo Hogan, Lake Baker, 2020, installation view, at National Arts Club, New York.

About how many works are a part of this collection? And are you still actively collecting?

Martin: We have about a hundred. Once you have a hundred, it’s hard to improve it. The good pictures become rarer—and I’m not trying to get 200. In fact, I’ve really enjoyed lending out the pictures because we have so many now, and we can only hang so many.

You just can’t get excited and go buy these. You have to understand the provenance issues because they’re not fakes. But there are pictures. They consider poorly provenance because they’re made outside the community. Usually, even though they’re by the artists, there’s an inferior quality to them. And for the support of the community, you have to make sure that they come from the community art gallery. This is just as much about ethics as it is about quality.

Was that a huge learning curve?

Martin: It was. You just want the line to go back to the right place.

And would you say this is your passion now?

Martin: Yes. This is really a collection. The other things are just some pictures we have. I love just getting these pictures seen.

Why is that important to you?

Martin: Well, why are any pictures seen? I like the idea of surprise, especially for the audience going, Oh!


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