“For if the work of Brett Whiteley endures, it will depend more on the weight of his creativity than on his life, since his many experiences could never obscure the fundamental place of art at the beginning and end of his story.”
So writes Ashleigh Wilson, this newspaper’s arts editor, at the end of his magnificent biography Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, to be published by Text on August 1. It’s a lovely line, one that characterises the intelligence, elegance and thoughtfulness Wilson brings to the short life of this remarkable, troubled and troublesome man. On reading that conclusion, I flipped back 200 pages to reread a quote from Whiteley I’d underlined: “I paint fairly quickly then look at them for a long long time to see if they are any good. But occasionally after a lot of thought I make some tiny alterations which I think makes them (very good!). If it is no good I destroy it.”
Whiteley, who was addicted to art, his wife Wendy, other women, sex, alcohol and heroin, died of a drug overdose in a motel room on the NSW south coast on June 15, 1992, aged 53. Wilson describes the sad scene with moving simplicity. He is clear-eyed about Whiteley’s problems while alive, and his selfish behaviour. This book is not a hagiography, but nor is it an inquisition. Wilson brings impressive journalistic dispassion to an absorbing record of a passionate life. Though he makes insightful comments about Whiteley’s art, he by and large leaves judgment to the critics. For an ordinary reader such as myself it is a thrilling, pageturning exploration of an artist, and also of an extraordinary generation of Australians. I relish the use of letters between Whiteley and other artists, including Lloyd Rees, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, and writers such as Robert Hughes and Clive James. The final correspondence with Rees is beautiful to read. His tempestuous back-and-forth with Patrick White is less beautiful, but fascinating.
Whiteley took on the world and the chapter titled The American Dream will be extracted in Review next week. It is in part a roll call of how Brett and Wendy met in New York in the late 1960s when, naturally, they camped at the Chelsea Hotel: Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin (who babysat their daughter Arkie one night), Jimi Hendrix and, my favourite, “a well-dressed singer from Canada named Leonard Cohen”. Whiteley later befriended Bob Dylan.
In a direct sense, the title refers to the brutal self-portrait that won Whiteley the 1978 Archibald Prize. Indirectly, its meaning is clear in this consideration of a complex life. The book is imaginatively and evocatively designed by a man who is an artist in his own right, WH Chong. Whiteley’s art is spread throughout, along with photos. I love the one of hippie-ish Brett and Wendy kissing in New York. Yet the first image we see, as the book opens with Whiteley’s childhood, is of a helmet-wearing boy sitting in the billycart his father helped him build. He was going too fast, even then. On July 1, The Times Literary Supplement had a non-literary cover: a photo of a blobfish, used to point to a review of books about ugliness. I liked the review, but even prettier was the letter published the following week, from one Robert Laurie:
“The Blobfish on your cover is not as ugly in life as your illustration implies. Living deep off the Australian and Tasmanian coast with a weight of 2000-3900 feet of water on top of it is actually a fairly ‘normal’-looking fish. Only after being brought to the surface and decompressed does the unfortunate fish take on its now iconic appearance.”
I appreciate the reference to the Tasmanian coast being distinct from the Australian one, and the fact that Mr Laurie is from Glasgow. But most of all I like the remaining, final line of his letter, which is our quote of the week: “None of us looks our best after death.”