Review: Sasha Grishinon Brett Whiteley

Art, Life and the Other Thing: Brett Whiteley Biography

By the age of twenty, many of the stars in the life of Brett Whiteley had come into alignment.  He had abandoned his day job at a commercial art agency and had taken a punt on making it as an artist; he had met his muse and the love of his life, Wendy Julius; he had been awarded the lucrative and highly competitive Italian Government Travelling Scholarship that was to take him to Europe and one of his works was acquired by a public collection.

Within a couple of years, Whiteley was living in London married to Wendy and one of his paintings had been acquired by the Tate.  It was a historic occasion for the Tate as they had never before acquired the work of such a young living artist.  His art was in high demand with solo exhibitions in prestigious galleries in London, New York and Australia; he was friends with some of the most acclaimed artists of his day, including Francis Bacon and William Scott, and he was a welcome visitor in British high society. Although popularity, fame and notoriety never left his side, his life was to unravel in a spectacular manner and at the age of 53 Whiteley died in a lonely motel room through a self-administered dose of heroin.

Whiteley’s tortured life and celebrity status have been a magnet for biographers and accounts of his life outnumber books devoted to his art.  The major published biographies include, Sandra McGrath (1979, revised 1992), Margot Hilton and Graeme Blundell (1996), Frannie Hopkirk (1996) and Barry Dickins (2002).  Books on his art are in short supply and include Barry Pearce’s valuable but limited catalogue for the retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1995), Kathie Sutherland’s descriptive catalogue of his early work (2010) and Lou Klepac’s brief but spirited account of his drawings (2014).  There is also a myriad of ephemeral publications in the form of dealers’ catalogues, media profiles and polemics and art critiques in newspapers, magazines and the electronic media.

Ashleigh Wilson’s new biography of Whiteley is certainly the most detailed account to date and I think that it is also the first Whiteley biography to be written by a person who has never actually met the artist.  It is an essential and invaluable resource for any Whiteley scholar and presents a well-documented linear chronology of the artist’s life from the cradle to the grave.  We are provided with a detailed account of the Whiteley family, his schooling, early social life and his developing interest in art.  William Dobell, Lloyd Rees and Russell Drysdale emerge as his early gods, while Michael Johnson and Dick Watkins became his friends and peers.  Wilson adopts a very low profile in his narrative and allows his rich array of primary sources, both oral and written, to tell the Whiteley story.  There is a density in the factual documentation that, on occasion, obscures the clarity of his account.

Late in 1956, Brett and Wendy met, he was seventeen and she was fifteen, and their love story spans many of the 400 pages of the book.  Although domestic disputes occurred frequently, their bond remained strong until the final years of Whiteley’s life.  The book can be read as a love story concerning the lives of Australia’s most famous glamour couple in the arts.  The intricacies of their domestic arrangements, their conflicts and doubts are detailed in an exacting manner.

A blessing in Wilson’s account is the specificity of detail as the author documents exact addresses where the Whiteleys lived, the precise dates and the location of the studios; the rent paid; sales of art work and their prices; exact details of travel and who met whom, when and on what occasion.  Wilson transcribes from Whiteley’s notes accounts of what the artist saw on his numerous travels and the impression this made on him.  These lists are invaluable for the scholar, but could become a little tedious to the casual reader.  The narrative also sparkles with occasional anecdotes, for example, when the Whiteleys stayed in their Chelsea Hotel penthouse in New York, on one occasion Janis Joplin babysat their daughter Arkie, while her parents went out for a night on the town.  The Whiteleys were never far from the action and met many of the prominent artists, writers, poets and musicians in each place they visited.

A parallel narrative to the rise of Whiteley as an artist is the detailed account of his sexual promiscuity and his growing dependence on alcohol and drugs.  This ‘other thing’ implied in the book’s title, unfolds for the reader like a train wreck caught in slow motion with drug busts and encounters with customs colouring further an already colourful biography.  An early dependence on pot and LSD, later grew into an addiction to heroin.  It was apparently the poet Michael Driscoll, who was Brett’s friend and Wendy’s lover, who introduced the couple to heroin in 1973, during a prolonged and stressful ménage à trois that extended over a number of years.  The struggle with heroin, by both Brett and Wendy is documented in considerable detail, and includes the names of their dealers who were always on hand to the supply the drugs, their endless attempts at rehabilitation, accounts of meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and later recriminations on who first started using again.  Wilson on a number of occasions notes that in periods of heavy drug use the Whiteleys withdrew into themselves and into the house at Lavender Bay that they initially rented and subsequently bought on their return from Fiji, where they were caught in possession of opium.

Finally, in the late 1980s, Wendy spent the best part of two years in clinics in England getting herself clean, while, in the meantime, Brett shacked up with Janice Spencer, a model and a recovering addict.  Eventually, Wendy initiated divorce proceedings.  Early in the history of Whiteley’s addiction, in 1975, the artist and diarist Donald Friend perceptively observed:

The other painter of great talent, Brett Whiteley, I’m afraid has had it – taken to heroin now, with the stupid conceit it’s something he can control.  His paintings are like wonderful glimpses of the world seen through holes in the death-wish.  The tendency toward self-destruction has been an important part of his make-up as an artist for a long time – ten or twelve years at least, since first he was a Wonder Boy.

If in the early 1970s Whiteley’s addiction was known to a small circle of insiders, subsequently it became public knowledge and fanned the flames of the artist’s notoriety.  In his interviews he spoke of his struggle with addiction and repeatedly claimed that this was all in the past and now he was free of all of that baggage.  In reality he continued using.  Whiteley seemed to be able to survive heroin and to continue painting, exhibiting and functioning in society.  In 1978, the year of his greatest public success in Australia, he was awarded the Archibald Prize for portraiture, the Wynne Prize for landscape painting, as well as the Sulman Prize for genre painting, the only artist to win the trifecta of prizes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, all in the same year.  His Archibald painting was a sprawling triptych titled Art, life and the other thing and in an explicit and somewhat confessional manner presents his struggle with narcotics where, in the guise of a tortured baboon, the animal is approached by a ghostly hand bearing a syringe.  It is a painting that is at the same time sensationalist and intimate and one that invites a number of possible levels of interpretation.  The painting also inspired the title of Wilson’s biography.

Wilson avoids making pronouncements concerning the quality of Whiteley’s art or advancing an interpretation of his growth and development as an artist.  The focus of the book is on the artist’s life and ‘the other thing’, the art is a little to one side and is noted in quite small reproductions.  We are provided with an ample amount of material concerning Whiteley and his commercial art dealers, as well as his general strategies for marketing his work.  Whiteley was determined to make the openings of his exhibitions into social events, like art happenings, and obliging dealers, especially Stuart Purves of the Australian Galleries, went out of their way to make these events spectacular.  In August 1979 Purves at Whiteley’s request hired out a special three-storey office building, rather than using his own gallery space, which the artist and his mates converted into a space unlike any other.  Wilson observes:

It was all about Brett.  The invitation had … Brett photographed shirtless in front of an Olgas picture … his work took over the first two levels of the building, with an erotic picture displayed upstairs, behind a door to what was known as the Screw Room.  ‘One painting has to be looked at sideways to be really appreciated’, Anne Purves told a visitor.

In Wilson’s book, the commentary on Whiteley’s art is left to the art critics who are quoted consistently and at some length throughout.  Major art critics in England, including John Russell, and Robert Hughes in Europe and America, generally came out strongly in support of Whiteley, as did many of the Australian art critics.  When the Sydney art critic John McDonald struck a negative note, Whiteley retorted that McDonald was a ‘visual cretin’ and ‘more prejudiced than a right-wing South African’.  In one of his more dismissive aphorisms, Whiteley noted, ‘Critics are the dildoes [sic] of art.’  Despite the usual declarations that artists make concerning a lack of interest in what critics say about their work, Whiteley was more thin-skinned than many and was determined to retain a high profile with clients and the art establishment.  His work appealed not only to the traditional, cultured art collectors, but also to an emerging class of entrepreneurs, developers and professional people with large sums of disposable income but with limited knowledge of art.  These people frequently collected with their ears, rather than their eyes – in other words, bought names instead of accomplished art works.  Whiteley was the Australian artist with the highest public profile and the biggest name and attracted an endless queue of collectors that were prepared to part with ever-increasing sums of money to own a piece of his genius.  Even after the artist’s death, poor quality fakes were produced of Whiteley’s work that were readily snapped up by collectors who simply desired to own a large Whiteley.  The appetite for Whiteley appeared insatiable.

Whiteley was attuned to the popular culture of his day, especially musicians, such as Bob Dylan and John Illsley and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits (he was friends with all of them), and his art and pronouncements on life reflected this zeitgeist.  He frequently spoke or scribbled on his paintings enigmatic aphorisms that find parallels in popular lyrics in Dylan.  In his notebooks, on one occasion, Whiteley recorded an interview with himself. ‘Q. What is your basic philosophy of art?  A. To keep changing.’  On another occasion he scribbled: ‘Life is brief, but my Thursday afternoon seems incredibly long!’

Wilson traces in Whiteley a narcissistic streak going back to childhood and notes how he carefully nurtured a particular appearance.  His halo of golden hair, making him look like one of the angels from Piero della Francesca’s Baptism or Harpo Marx as contemporaries frequently remarked, was in later years more the product of careful grooming than a natural look.  His onetime close friend, the writer Patrick White, expressed his displeasure at Whiteley’s social climbing.  He wrote,

However, one sees that this kind of dishonesty is behind everything you do – whether running after politicians, Capon, John Laws, Sandra McGrath, or the trendy social world in general.  If you do go along to a Royal event, for the experience, you don’t go along twice in the light of what is happening in Australia today.  In our last conversation you sounded upset because you hadn’t been ‘honoured’, as though it isn’t more distinguished to be without honours when half the Australian knights and establishment ‘personages’ are crooks.  At your best you are a genius, but at your worst it shows up too plainly that you are as bad as they.

A year after Patrick White died, Whiteley was awarded an Order of Australia.

The problem for any biographer writing on Whiteley is the mass of primary source material that exists on the artist.  Whiteley was a prolific letter writer and polemicist who spent over thirty years in the centre of the Australian art world and, to a lesser extent, the art worlds of London and New York.  He constantly gave interviews, had an opinion on most things and was eager to remain in the public eye.  Whiteley was charming, personable, highly opinionated and hospitable and befriended hundreds of people.  Wilson interviewed many subjects and was apparently swamped with more information than he could accommodate in his biography and observes, ‘more than once I encouraged people to write memoirs of their own, since a biography like this can only reach so far’.

Wilson’s achievement is considerable.  He has produced a biography of Whiteley where the chronology and the factual foundations are accurate and we can ask ‘where was Whiteley on a particular day’ and with a degree of confidence our question will be answered by consulting this book.  The book is also excellent in creating a micro-context for determining who Whiteley was mixing with at a particular date, what these people thought of Whiteley and, on a few occasions, what Whiteley privately thought of them.  What this book does not tackle, nor does it set out to tackle, is the question of the significance of Whiteley as an artist and his position in Australian art.

Whiteley was arguably one of the finest draughtsmen of his generation of Sydney artists.  He had the gift for the sensuous line that could suggest emotion and expression, rather than simply articulate form.  Lloyd Rees, Donald Friend and Francis Lymburner were some of his older contemporaries who were also outstanding graphic artists.  Whiteley’s line was different to these artists, he matched his sensuousness of touch with a great boldness, daring and confidence that could be expressed on a considerable scale.  This graphic genius naturally translated into printmaking and Whiteley created some of his most memorable prints of the 1960s and 1970s, including the brilliant screenprints that he made with Chris Prater in London that were published by Marlborough Fine Art in the 1960s; the etchings from the 1970s printed by Max Miller that seem to be breathed on the sheet, rich in all of their sensuous nuances; and the great lithographic nudes of the Towards sculpture series printed by the Curwen Studio.  Although Whiteley, on occasion, spoke dismissively of his prints, which seemed to him to accumulate like parking fines in the glove box, these remain magnificent achievements.

Whiteley’s tonal landscapes, including the Sigean paintings painted on his honeymoon, the brilliant, yet macabre Christie series, as well as the sensuous bathroom series painted in London, still stand up well at a distance of half a century.  Bonnard, Bacon and Scott may have informed some of his mark making, but Whiteley quickly owned his own pictorial language and these paintings stand up well in any international company.  He was a young artist in a hurry who worked quickly, boldly and with a preparedness to absorb new challenges.  Although Whiteley was prolific – exceptionally prolific – and may be excused for insufficiently editing his work before it left the studio, he was also madly ambitious.

Instead of creating a production line for evergreen favourites that he knew would find a ready market, a course adopted by numerous artists, Whiteley was determined to shock his audiences through art that would serve as a source of revelation.  The vast assemblages, The American Dream (1968), Alchemy (1972-73) and the gigantic Australia painting that he had in mind and did not complete before his death, were absurdly ambitious in scale, medium and intent.  They may not have been completely successful, but they were like nothing else in Australian art.  It is pointless to suggest influences such as Robert Rauschenberg or Andy Warhol, as Whiteley absorbed and transformed much of the visual culture, popular music and street art that he had encountered.  The notion that Whiteley, on his return to Australia late in 1969 after the trauma of New York and an unsettling experience in Fiji, became exclusively preoccupied with producing work that could be easily sold to feed his drug habit cannot be substantiated.

Whiteley may have produced more bad paintings than most major artists to sell to silly collectors (although the competition here is tough as this was a common trait for many high profile artists both in Australia and abroad), but he never ceased to challenge himself. Throughout his oeuvre unusual and outstanding works appear just at the time when many people had written him off as a serious artist.  It is also true that Whiteley’s method of work was hit and miss in its approach and that in the 1960s there was an amazing ratio of hits to misses, while later the hits became rarer and rarer.

Like one of Whiteley’s great heroes, Vincent van Gogh, Whiteley is an artist whose achievement as an artist is obscured by his colourful biography.  In Australian art we have a similar problem with an appreciation of the work of Ian Fairweather, where writers are more obsessed with his adventures and lifestyle than with his art.  After almost a quarter of a century since Whiteley’s death, perhaps the moment has arrived to step back from the voice of the persona, to forget the drugs, media stunts and social misdemeanours, and to focus on his art.  After all, the only reason we are interested in Whiteley is his artistic legacy, not the tragedy of his existence.

Ashleigh Wilson’s Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing is a benchmark publication in Whiteley studies.  Many earlier factual errors have been quietly corrected and much new material has been introduced into the public domain for the first time.  Building on this valuable study it is timely for us to move our focus away from the man and firmly onto his art.