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 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