‘I’ve never seen anything like it before’: Steve Martin on becoming one of Australia’s top Indigenous art collectors

Steve Martin has been back in the headlines lately, thanks to his starring role in the hit Hulu comedy Only murders in the building. But he also has a star this fall at the National Arts Club in New York, which presents a small but striking exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art from the actor’s personal collection.

Titled “Selections from the Western Australian Desert: From the Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield,” the exhibition features six works from over 50 contemporary paintings by Indigenous Australian artists that Martin has purchased with his wife since 2015.

The couple’s passion for this still rather obscure field of contemporary art began at Salon 94 on the Upper East Side, which at the time featured Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s first American solo exhibition. Martin read about the show in the New York Times, and was immediately intrigued. “I got on my bike, got off and bought one,” he told Artnet News.

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Rockholes and country near the Olgas (2008). Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield.

Martin, of course, had been collecting for years, starting with a seascape by James Gale Tyler that he bought at an antique store for $500 at age 21 and still owns; today, he estimated, its value has dropped to $300. (Martin’s next acquisition, an Ed Ruscha impression of the Hollywood sign, has probably fared better over the years.)

The love affair with Indigenous Australian art, however, was somewhat slow for Martin and Stringfield.

“We got hooked, we loved it, but we didn’t really think about it for a few years. But there is a whole culture around these paintings, and little by little, by osmosis, I started to learn more and more”, he says. “The history of indigenous painting dates back only to about 1970 – before that it was sand painting, wall painting, sculpture, and it was the first time that these images could be fixed in a way permed.”

The creation of durable, wearable works that could be sold transformed the Aboriginal art community and brought something new to the art world, a movement that became known as desert painting.

“I think it’s such a compelling story,” Martin said. He also enjoyed collecting in an area where there were not many established scholarships.

“It’s fun to have something to study, to try to understand, to apply your critical eye without any outside pressure,” he added. “There is not much promotion on [these] artists. You just have to find out for yourself.

Slowly but surely Martin began to buy more and more indigenous art, even traveling with Stringfield to Australia. (Although they didn’t travel to the Outback, they did visit a center where working artists create their paintings.)

Carlene West, <em>Tjitjitji</em>.  Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield.” width=”703″ height=”1024″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/09/Fcd43O5X0AEJ_VS-703×1024.jpeg 703w, https ://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/09/Fcd43O5X0AEJ_VS-206×300.jpeg 206w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/09/Fcd43O5X0AEJ_VS-34×50. jpeg 34w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/09/Fcd43O5X0AEJ_VS.jpeg 941w” sizes=”(max-width: 703px) 100vw, 703px”/></p>
<p id=Carlene West, Tjitjitji. Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield.

They also met Indigenous artist Yukultji Napangati when he visited New York a few years ago and invited her to dinner.

“She made my daughter part of the family, which was quite an honor, and I played the banjo,” Martin said. “Yukultji is quite a historic figure. She was one of the Pintupi Nine and came from the Outback at the age of 13 – had never seen a white man, had never seen a car – and went on to become a remarkable painter.

As Martin and Stringfield’s collections in Native art grew, so did their desire to show them to the world. To start, Martin hosted a little show at the Uovo warehouse in Queens for friends and family.

The word is out. This was followed by a release at Gagosian – nothing for sale, of course – which was shown in New York and Los Angeles, and an exhibition at the Australian Lawyers Residence in New York. (It showed Martin’s collection paired with works owned by John Wilkerson, whose collection focuses on smaller, earlier works on board, before Indigenous artists had access to the canvases.)

These days, Martin and Stringfield are ending their active collection.

“Our collection of indigenous art is quite dense – there is not much left to acquire. Right now we’re just having fun moving works around,” Martin said. “I like to spin things. Every time you move an image, it’s like you get a new one. You see it again.

And of course, he loves seeing his collection on the walls of the National Arts Club, which currently features works by Tjapaltjarri, Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Timo Hogan, Carlene West and Doreen Reid Nakamarra.

“It’s an unpredictable mix of images. There are a few later ones – Timo Hogan is very contemporary,” Martin said, adding that “in the Australian Indigenous art world, a 50-year-old is considered a young painter.” Hogan is 49 years old.

“I wish people could see the National Arts Club show because it’s very, very unusual,” he added. “And I hope they have the same experience as me – I had never seen anything like this before.”

“Selections From Australia’s Western Desert From the Collection of Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield” is on view at the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, New York, New York, from September 12 to October 27, 2022.

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