In 1994, John and Barbara Wilkerson, American art lovers, were visiting the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory when they caught sight of a handful of early board paintings from Papunya in the western desert. They were struck: those paintings, they felt, came “not from the hand but from the soul”. They began amassing an Aboriginal collection of their own, concentrating almost entirely on these jewels from the dawn of the desert painting movement.

In a few years, through incisive buying at auction, the Wilkersons had assembled the most concentrated group of Papunya masterpieces in private hands: a treasure trove of 50 boards and canvases, unified not just by date and place of creation but by tone and theme. Like many great collectors, they felt the need to probe the works they owned: to learn from them and share them.

Hence the exhibition Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, which will be shown during the next 12 months in three prominent US art museums; hence, too, the accompanying catalogue, edited by Roger Benjamin, an art historian at the University of Sydney and a specialist in high modernism. Show and catalogue constitute a hinge event in the brief, vivid history of the desert art movement and its journey from the reddish plains of Papunya into the world. Indeed, nothing will be quite the same again in our understanding of this art, for several linked reasons.

Rothwell then goes on to describe some of the art on display:

In seeking to seize in words the effect of the large, late canvas Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya by the Gibson Desert painter Tommy Lowry, he goes even further, sensing a solemn, booming quality in the traditional designs: “The great glowing circles,” he writes, “sound like naval cannon shots or heavy bells tolling.”

Benjamin accepts, of course, that this reading has little to do with the way desert artists may see their work, but he argues that Western art lovers can bring a great deal to their task of seeing, and “in this tradition the aesthetic can be a rich realm, a way of life unto itself”.

With this fearless proclamation of autonomy, Benjamin is claiming the right for the mainstream audience to look and interpret with responsive freedom: we are witnessing not just a new beauty but a new chapter in Aboriginal art criticism.

As Benjamin is at pains to emphasise in discussion, the desert pieces he is dealing with are elusive at their core.

“I’ve always felt that the great challenge was to explain how it is that outsiders respond so strongly to these works, which are in an unfamiliar idiom,” he says. “If a picture employs a generic visual language and it’s very non-specific and there’s nothing realist about it, it follows that many meanings can be provided: multiplicity of interpretation should be the rule in understanding these paintings.”