Although I only met Colin and Liz for the first time in 2005, the influence of their collecting had made itself felt on me long before. I’m not sure when I first saw works from their outstanding collection of contemporary art, but the moment that it registered for me was probably in 2001 when I saw several paintings by John Mawurndjul that were on display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I’d never really appreciated bark painting before that. I’d cut my teeth, as many do, on the brilliant acrylics of the desert; bark painting still seemed somehow vaguely ethnographic, the stuff of tourist tea-towel imagery of x-ray animals. To encounter the modernist sensibility of the Laverty collection was to suddenly comprehend the depth of accomplishment as well as tradition in the art of the far north.
In 2005 we decided to detour to Broome on the way to Darwin for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. We checked into our hotel where a message from Short St gallerist Emily Rohr awaited us. “Barbie on the beach at 4! Pick you up here!” When Emily arrived at our hotel that afternoon and we piled into her troopie, she said, “You know Colin and Liz, don’t you? They’ll be with us tonight.”
The evening was sheer magic, circled around a cook fire grilling sausages and the fish that Colin and the other boys had caught that afternoon, nearly being capsized when a whale breached within meters of their boat. As the night grew darker, we settled in to swap tales of mutual friends and mutual interests. We’d just attended our first auction at Sotheby’s a few weeks before, where we’d bid unsuccessfully on a lovely early painting by Lucy Yukenbari–losing out, we discover, to Colin and Liz. (You can see the painting in question near the right edge of the photo at the bottom of this post.) The next day, at Emily’s bungalow, the Lavertys reappeared, with John Olsen in tow: a truly memorable afternoon.
Thereafter, it seemed like we traveled along parallel tracks. We ran into the Lavertys in Darwin of course, and again in Sydney on our last day in Australia before heading back to the States. The following year we saw them again at the opening of Dreaming Their Way at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, where Colin spoke at the opening ceremonies. The year after that, setting out with Nana Booker for a tour of remote art centres, I discovered to my delight that Nana had arranged tea with Colin and Liz at their home one afternoon, and not only did I get my first glimpse of their astounding collection in situ, I received an unexpected and highly flattering invitation to contribute an essay to their forthcoming book, Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities: the collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty.
The years have flowed on, more meetings, more conversations, many good times. Colin was indefatigable in his efforts to see Aboriginal art recognized as contemporary art of the highest quality, a vision that is reflected in their collection, where modern masters from the desert and the north hung side by side with paintings by other Australian abstract painters like Ildiko Kovacs, Aida Tomescu, and Ken Whisson.
No matter where we met, we were always greeted with a warm smile and open arms. When I think back on conversations I’ve had with Colin over the years, I remember most of all a sly chuckle escalating into a laugh, a smile spreading over his face as he reached the conclusion of the story, or the argument, that he had been building slowly, surely, with warmth and humor.
Last week he was still engaged with preparations for the forthcoming auction of selected works from their collection by Bonham’s in Sydney on March 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. True to his beliefs, the selection of work includes the finest Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists practicing in Australia over the last two or three decades. I’m glad to know he carried on his grand mission until the very end. I wish he could have seen it through, and my heart goes out to Liz in this time of sorrow. We lost a great friend.
Today’s Australian has a brief notice of his passing and his achievements.