A thrilling bi­og­ra­phy of the flawed ge­nius Brett White­ley will make peo­ple cry for the artist and re­visit his art, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Brett White­ley was the great streak of light­ning on the Aus­tralian art hori­zon. From 1960, no one had a vaster gift, more sheer bril­liance or a big­ger im­pact on the Aus­tralian imag­i­na­tion. No painter since Sid­ney Nolan in his hey­day — and it’s heart­en­ing that the old Ned Kelly myth-maker called into White­ley’s stu­dio late in the piece — said: “He’s one of us.’’

White­ley died, alone and only 53, in 1992, of a drug over­dose in a mo­tel at Thirroul in Wol­lon­gong, on the NSW coast south of Syd­ney.

He was a painter with a great gift: a ge­nius, a junkie, a rock star of a man. Yes, when that was a pre­car­i­ous em­i­nence to em­u­late, as well as a young per­son’s game, and White­ley’s con­stant quest was to find him­self, and he wore it like a badge of hon­our and a tragic des­tiny.

Ashleigh Wil­son has writ­ten a full-dress life of White­ley that speeds and soars and never ceases to do homage to the colos­sal con­fronta­tion and con­tra­dic­tion the artist rep­re­sents.

Wil­son’s is an au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy and Wendy White­ley, who di­vorced Brett in 1989 (af­ter she had suc­cess­fully won her bat­tle with heroin and he had ab­jectly failed the 100th time), has stood as the Madonna to Wil­son’s St Luke, whis­per­ing of an­nun­ci­a­tions and mag­ni­fi­cats.

Just oc­ca­sion­ally, read­ing the early chap­ters, you won­der how much an anec­dote has been (or could be) checked in­de­pen­dently, though the gain far out­weighs the loss. It’s a break­neck nar­ra­tive and ini­tially you con­sider if you need a bit more de­tail about the boy whose fa­ther ran a cinema and whose mother worked for him and be­came preg­nant.

We hear that White­ley was ex­pelled from Scots Col­lege in Syd­ney’s Belle­vue Hill for steal­ing art ma­te­ri­als but it would be handy to know what the lover of Rim­baud read at school and to hear more teach­ers and con­tem­po­raries.

The teenage White­ley ap­par­ently be­longed to a mas­tur­ba­tion cir­cle — and Brett sketched the em­blem of what was known as the “hairy balls club” — but you do think if the bi­og­ra­pher has asked him­self if this prac­tice may not have been a bit rarer in the mid-1950s than it was in the 1990s. The same might be said of Wendy’s abor­tions — the first of which Brett’s fa­ther, Clem, paid for — in the first phase of the re­la­tion­ship.

Rus­sell Drys­dale awarded White­ley the Ital­ian govern­ment schol­ar­ship when White­ley was just 20 in 1959. We see the cou­ple young and up in Paris and Rome, and Brett in the first flush of what looks like the long goodbye of ex­pa­tri­a­tion. White­ley is al­ready talk­ing, when he hits Rome, like a Rim­baud in the making.

“Across to St Peter’s,” he says, “with Michelan­gelo’s mas­ter­piece stand­ing blue and brutal; the Ro­mans speed­ing them­selves to work or nowhere. A 40 lire ride to the Borgh­ese gallery where the sledge­ham­mer ef­fect of Ital­ian yes­ter­days comes crash­ing down.”

Sud­denly White­ley is sound­ing like a ge­nius — and al­though “sounds like” is no proof in lit­er­a­ture, let alone paint­ing, it’s a tremen­dous blast in Wil­son’s nar­ra­tive.

He com­pares him­self with Rothko and says, “He is a painter of essences, I’m a painter of es­sen­tial­ism.” He drinks in Modigliani and Mont­par­nasse and, af­ter the Giot­tos and Cimabues have “con­firmed his com­plete faith in ab­stract art”, goes on an im­pas­sioned quest for Piero della Francesca, be­sot­ted with “his flat­tened space and geo­met­ric pre­ci­sion and per­spec­tive”, which he finds “ut­terly con­tem­po­rary”.

At his first show in Lon­don, ev­ery­thing sells and he is the great hit at Bryan Robertson’s Whitechapel Gallery with the Re­cent Aus­tralian Paint­ing ex­hi­bi­tion in 1961, and Roy de Maistre, the ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralian painter, de­clares, “The best is Brett White­ley. He is the one who will last.”

White­ley shines be­fore an ex­tra­or­di­nary au­di­ence in­clud­ing Fran­cis Bacon, Henry Moore and Gra­ham Suther­land. It’s the pe­riod of Ken­neth Clark’s pas­sion for Aus­tralian art.

The young Robert Hughes, in the cat­a­logue in­tro­duc­tion, says Aus­tralian art shows, “an ex­hil­a­rat­ing sense of starting from scratch” be­cause it is “a hymn to the in­dif­fer­ence of the uni­verse”.

How fas­ci­nat­ing that not only does White­ley talk about the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of ab­strac­tion and Brett White­ley: Art, Life and the Other Thing By Ashleigh Wil­son Text Pub­lish­ing, 410pp, $49.99 (HB) the sug­ges­tion of “hu­man ac­tiv­ity” via “sex, tur­pen­tine and doubt” and “a net­work of hu­man planes that stop the viewer and didn’t dis­ap­pear into il­lu­sion­ism”, but there is also an in­stinc­tive recog­ni­tion from Lon­don art crit­ics, at once rhap­sodic and an­a­lyt­i­cal, of his work.

They cot­ton on to the “fe­ro­ciously organic” ghosts of fig­u­ra­tion be­hind the ab­strac­tion.

John Rus­sell writes in The Sun­day Times of White­ley’s “ob­ses­sional tech­niques” and his “half-as­sim­i­lated sex­ual im­agery”. He says his achieve­ment is stag­ger­ing for a 22-year-old — and adds: “Life’s pun­ish­ments are still to come.”

A fig­ure from the lower depths of crime and pun­ish­ment, the Rilling­ton Place se­rial killer John Christie, is White­ley’s next sub­ject, in 1964. But where some saw White­ley grov­el­ling in the shadow of Bacon’s sense of sin­is­ter glamour, Hughes thought the work tran­scended its sen­sa­tion­al­ist oc­ca­sion and showed White­ley’s “power for trans­for­ma­tion”. How­ever “patchy” he might be “his in­tel­lec­tual ap­petite is matched by no other Aus­tralian painter”.

The in­tel­lec­tual ap­petite, alas, is al­ways buzzing off into a sort of bub­blegum mys­ti­cism on the cusp of the coun­ter­cul­ture that fell into the vat. And this is cen­tral to White­ley’s imag­i­na­tion, so that Don­ald Friend recog­nises how “ex­tra­or­di­nary and very im­pres­sive” work co­ex­ists with “fash­ion­able and quite mean­ing­less gim­micks”.

White­ley be­longs to the first gen­er­a­tion to swal­low some­thing like a hip­pie mythol­ogy. He can drivel on about how “ev­ery­thing is all just part of an enor­mous cos­mos and we’re in­volved in the buzzing and boom­ing”, while also say­ing, “How can I take my­self se­ri­ously? 98 per cent is com­pro­mise, pre­dictable ac­tion, sludge.”

He adds — hu­mor­ously and slyly — “That 2 per cent equals 100 per cent, is so sweet, so pow­er­ful.”

But White­ley can sound like an over­grown teenager — not sim­ply when he’s in his 20s — and talk about, for in­stance, Bob Dy­lan not just as a great song­writer (or poet if you like) but as a kind of god. This White­ley is off into the mys­tic and for­ever cit­ing the gnos­tic Gospel of St Thomas or RD Laing’s in­junc­tion to take “a voy­age from the in­ner to the outer”. No won­der Ed­ward Lu­cie-Smith says of him that he is a wun­derkind suf­fer­ing grow­ing pains.

In­evitably he quits the drab gumtrees of Aus­tralia — and the ur­ban­i­ties of Lon­don — for New York and the Chelsea Ho­tel and lives there from 1967 to 1969. Along the way he meets Her­bert Read’s son, Piers Paul Read (later to be­come the dour, im­pres­sive Catholic con­ser­va­tive writer), who de­scribes him to his mother as a nice chap “with blond gol­li­wog hair that made him look ridicu­lous”. White­ley’s New York show is, Read says, “like a high­brow cham­ber of hor­rors”. It is fun, but is it art?

In New York he meets Andy Warhol, Leonard Co­hen and Ja­nis Jo­plin, who looks af­ter the White­leys’ young daugh­ter, Arkie, while Brett and Wendy are out on the town. There is the sheer on­to­log­i­cal pre­ten­tious­ness of White­ley in this New York phase. He rages at America like ev­ery drug-tak­ing New Left layabout and burns with an anger that seems his own pri­vate hysteria but also the all too fa­mil­iar cliche of his times. He paints The Amer­i­can Dream, a huge work spread over 18 pan­els, and in New York no one will ex­hibit it. He is at the epi­cen­tre of the world, at the best and worst of times, the supremely heady 60s and that world — which he thrives on — re­ceives him not.

Was it his black­ing fac­tory, was it his ruin? He clearly wants to be the bright­est star in the high­est world. He wants to be a su­per­star painter and in per­sonal mag­netism (which is not ex­actly at­trac­tive) he is. And all the while he’s say­ing things such as, “I must put the force to beauty now be­fore it de­vours me. Do you think we’re devils? Ter­ri­ble thought, isn’t it, but ex­cit­ing! Sh­hhh.” Sh­hhh in­deed.

The White­leys go to Fiji in 1969 but are booted out over opium pos­ses­sion so that, with­out any prior in­ten­tion of com­ing back to Aus­tralia any time soon, they set­tle in Syd­ney, in Laven­der Bay on the Har­bour.

White­ley muses about Aus­tralia, “my breed­ing home, my stu­pid­ity, my cra­dle”. He re­ceives the back­ing of Pa­trick White, who says White­ley is “making the right use of” Bacon, and warns against “the aw­ful so­cial and com­mer­cial rack­ets in Aus­tralia that will try to kill your ge­nius as they have picked off many lesser tal­ents. I hope you will be strong enough to hold out against them.”

The crit­ics re­spond with some neg­a­tiv­ity to his next show: Don­ald Brook in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald says White­ley needs “some-

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