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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“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.”

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