Dur­ing his stay at a sto­ried New York ho­tel in 1968-69, Brett White­ley was de­ter­mined to spark a rev­o­lu­tion with a mas­sive work of art, writes Ashleigh Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

The se­cret of the Ho­tel Chelsea was out. New York­ers could walk down 23rd Street, in the block be­tween Sev­enth and Eighth avenues, look up at the red-brick build­ing and imag­ine the artists and writ­ers and po­ets and Vil­lage bo­hemi­ans in­side: Andy Warhol shoot­ing a scene from Chelsea Girls, Bob Dy­lan shap­ing rhymes for Blonde on Blonde, Allen Gins­berg on the roof, Arthur Miller shad­ow­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe on the page, Harry Smith giv­ing an­thro­po­log­i­cal tips to Arthur C. Clarke, Ja­nis Jo­plin slam­ming South­ern Com­fort, Dy­lan Thomas ar­gu­ing with Caitlin, Bren­dan Be­han stum­bling through the hall­ways.

By late 1967, as Hair opened at New York’s Public Theater and Haight-Ash­bury res­i­dents staged a mock fu­neral on the other side of the coun­try, colour­ful sto­ries about the Chelsea were making the pa­pers. If a bench­mark of anti­estab­lish­ment cred­i­bil­ity was to ex­ist be­low the radar, then times were chang­ing in Lower Man­hat­tan. Even so, few of these sto­ries had reached Eltham, a quiet ham­let in outer Mel­bourne. It was there that Richard Crich­ton was liv­ing with his wife, Florence, and their three small chil­dren. When Crich­ton ap­plied for a Hark­ness Fellowship, the de­ci­sion-mak­ers faced a choice. Should they give it to this promis­ing Vic­to­rian artist who had barely left home, or to Brett White­ley, who had al­ready en­joyed suc­cess?

Mar­garet Carnegie, a Mel­bourne col­lec­tor, asked if it was pos­si­ble for both to re­ceive the schol­ar­ship — and the idea pre­vailed. Al­bert Tucker was al­ready in New York when Crich­ton ar­rived in Septem­ber with his wife and chil­dren. Tucker was stay­ing at the Chelsea, and he urged his friends to join him.

For Crich­ton, New York was a rev­e­la­tion. The ho­tel, too. Down the hall lived Ge­orge Kleinsinger, com­poser of Tubby the Tuba, a man whose jun­gle of an apart­ment con­tained ex­otic birds, fish, an iguana, a skunk, a mon­key and a python. The Crich­tons from Eltham of­ten found them­selves in the creaky lift with Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Miller or some singer whose face they vaguely recog­nised.

A week in, there was a knock on the door. The odd-look­ing char­ac­ter spoke with a fa­mil­iar ac­cent. He was dressed in white, and had a puff of hair above his head. He in­tro­duced him­self, in­quired about the ho­tel and asked about Crich­ton’s work. “You making plenty of bread?” he asked, and Crich­ton, con­fused, replied that Florence had made some in Aus­tralia but here they just bought theirs at a shop. As they talked, peo­ple rushed past, car­ry­ing fur­ni­ture. The pen­t­house up­stairs was va­cant, and the tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. For Brett, New York was a liv­ing sculp­ture, an in­sect to ap­proach with a stick and study. He was going to spend four days whirling around in a cab, think­ing deeply about ev­ery­thing from the Bow­ery to big busi­ness, from the Amer­i­can Dream to Nor­man Mailer, Viet­nam and hip­pie teenagers. And then he was going to cre­ate a sin­gle canvas that would cap­ture the “im­me­di­ate mouth-open power, ex­al­ta­tion, fear, won­der” of the city: “The Hope. The vi­o­lence. The la­tent good­will. The un­re­al­ity of it all too.”

Brett, Wendy and Arkie made them­selves at home in the Ho­tel Chelsea. The ho­tel was a de­lib­er­ate choice, even if it was chance that led them to the pen­t­house. (They were so con­fi­dent they would end up there that they had sent their be­long­ings from Lon­don di­rectly to the Chelsea.) Un­like the Crich­tons, the White­leys were well aware of its rep­u­ta­tion. They knew the names of guests, they knew who had been there be­fore and they were look­ing for­ward to be­com­ing a part of its story.

Room 1028 was split over two lev­els: the lower floor was where Brett and Wendy slept and Brett worked, while Arkie had her bed nes­tled un­der the stairs. The stairs led up to a small kitchen, which opened out on to a gar­den on the roof. They bought two ducks from Long Is­land and in­stalled them in the gar­den. Now al­most three, Arkie was en­rolled in a Montes­sori kin­der­garten nearby.

Brett was afraid of America yet drawn to its ex­tremes. He started work­ing, try­ing to make sense of the city. In his notebook he drew a pic­ture of two bod­ies on top of each other, one black and the other white, tor­sos en­twined in a sin­gle shape. He drew these bod­ies in dif­fer­ent set­tings: on a plac­ard, be­neath the words make love not war; and as a new Amer­i­can flag.

One of his first pic­tures was a por­trait of Bob Dy­lan. “Dy­lan is the out­sider,” he said. “He’s the most on per­son in America.”

Back in Lon­don, Brett’s lat­est pic­tures went on dis­play at the Marl­bor­ough. Brett’s Christie pic­tures had at­tracted some dis­ap­proval, but the re­ac­tion this time was harsher. In The Sun­day Times, Ed­ward Lu­cie-Smith wrote: “Once a Wun­derkind, he now seems to be hav­ing the Wun­derkind’s grow­ing pains.”

By the time these re­views had fil­tered through to Man­hat­tan, Brett was hard at work on a new show. It was sched­uled for the Marl­bor­ough-Ger­son, a gallery on East 57th Street. Brett’s pic­tures were grow­ing in size and break­ing free from the two-di­men­sional space as he added ob­jects like hair, fi­bre­glass and wood.

Brett and Wendy spent long nights at the Elec­tric Cir­cus, lis­ten­ing to music and danc­ing, and also at Max’s Kansas City, where they met Andy Warhol and talked to res­i­dents from the Chelsea. Brett met James Rosen­quist at a party in an East Vil­lage loft — the painter was a lit­tle drunk, and backed away con­fused from their con­ver­sa­tion — and spot­ted Roy Licht­en­stein across the room. And he met Ti­mothy Leary on the street: “very friendly, smashed face white cow­boy boots white cow­boy hat + giv­ing the Hindu bow at part­ing. Very bizarre.” Arthur Miller called the Chelsea a “house of in­fi­nite tol­er­a­tion”. It was a swirling pic­ture of peo­ple and music where fa­mous and ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters be­came everyday faces in the el­e­va­tor and lobby: Va­lerie Solanas press­ing into Wendy’s hand a copy of the SCUM Man­i­festo, Ge­orge Kleinsinger wan­der­ing up to the gar­den to give his python sun. Buy­ing burg­ers across the street, Brett and Wendy made con­ver­sa­tion with a well-dressed singer from Canada called Leonard Co­hen. When Wendy saw Ja­nis Jo­plin in the ho­tel, she felt sorry for her. Jo­plin was dy­namic on stage but it looked like her fans had a death wish for their idol, egging her on to more ex­tremes. In the Chelsea, Jo­plin was just an­other bo­hemian who liked a drink. She got to know the White­leys, and looked af­ter Arkie for a few hours one night while Brett and Wendy went out.

In New York, he had an op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate the evo­lu­tion of his art. His ex­hi­bi­tion con­sisted of 23 pic­tures, most of which had some el­e­ment of mixed me­dia in their con­struc­tion. On the front of the cat­a­logue was Vin­cent, the artist de­picted above a table with a can­dle, a pipe, a let­ter to Theo — and an ac­tual ra­zor at­tached. There were three portraits of Dy­lan. There was Martin Luther King, who had been killed the pre­vi­ous month, plus New York im­agery like hot dogs, taxis and city land­marks.

Af­ter the pic­tures were un­veiled at the Marl­bor­ough-Ger­son, five floors up on East 57th Street, it was time for the party at the Chelsea. The crowd made its way across town and crowded into the apart­ment and the gar­den on the roof.

When Brett dis­ap­peared, Wendy at first thought noth­ing of his ab­sence. Open­ings al­ways made him un­com­fort­able. But as the party went on, she be­came sus­pi­cious. She knocked on the door of an apart­ment down­stairs, where an ar­chi­tect called Con­stance Aber­nathy an­swered the door. Wendy pushed past and found him crouch­ing on the out­side bal­cony, naked, high above 23rd Street and shiv­er­ing in the spring air. He came in­side and sat on a pi­ano stool, smirk­ing. “You can keep him,” Wendy said to Aber­nathy, and re­turned to the party up­stairs.

This was not Brett’s first af­fair. In Lon­don, while they were liv­ing at Mel­bury Road and Arkie was a baby, Brett had a one-night stand with a wealthy Ital­ian col­lec­tor and told Wendy proudly about the con­quest. Wendy was dis­traught, even sui­ci­dal, but Brett in­sisted their mar­riage was solid: it was just an af­fair, just sex. Brett told Wendy she had an ad­van­tage any­way, given her beauty. At his stu­dio Brett was be­com­ing ob­ses­sive about a new pic­ture in progress. It was a sin­gle

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