Brett Whiteley – Bohemian Artistry
By ALEC SMART
Acclaimed artist Brett Whiteley spent the last four years of his life in Surry Hills, where, in 1985, he purchased an abandoned warehouse and converted it into a studio and exhibition space, which remains a testament to his prolific and varied output.
Whiteley was an internationally renowned artist, Bohemian, peace campaigner and influencer who crossed mediums and continents in a relatively short but prolific career spanning 33 years. His paintings ranged between abstract, figurative, erotic, collage, portraits and landscapes, sometimes fusing different styles and mediums.
He lived at his Surry Hills warehouse at #2 Raper St from 1988 to June 1992, when he died, aged 53.
Born 7 April 1939, Whiteley grew up in Longueville, Lane Cove. Showing artistic talent at an early age, during his teenage years he often travelled to inland towns of NSW and Canberra to paint landscapes, then, from 1956 to 1959, he studied at the National Art School in East Sydney.
In 1957, aged 17, he met Wendy Julius, 15. Herself an artist, Wendy joined Whiteley in the life drawing classes at Sydney Art School in The Rocks and they began a 30-year-relationship.
In 1959 Whiteley won an art scholarship sponsored by the Italian Govt, then left Australia for Europe. Wendy saved and also emigrated, the couple reuniting and residing awhile in Florence.
In 1961 the pair relocated to London, where Whiteley set up a studio. There he was discovered by the distinguished Whitechapel Gallery, known for promoting contemporary artists.
One of his works, Untitled red painting was purchased by the prestigious Tate Gallery - the youngest living artist to have work purchased by the Tate, a record that remains.
In Nov 1964, the Whiteleys’ daughter Arkie was born, and in Dec the following year, they returned home to Australia and settled awhile in Whale Beach.
In Sept 1967 the couple sailed to New York, after Whiteley was awarded a creative sponsorship. In Manhattan, after visiting the notorious Hotel Chelsea, the Whiteleys were offered the penthouse apartment.
Here the Whiteleys socialised with notable movers and shakers of the arts and music world, including Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe and Janis Joplin (the latter sometimes babysat Arkie), became louche Bohemians and developed lifelong drug and alcohol habits.
Whiteley was twice admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning, although his recreational experimentation with marijuana and psychedelic drugs profoundly influenced his work.
From June 1968 Whiteley gradually immersed himself in his monumental 22-metre-long, 2.4 metres high obsession, The American Dream, which covered 18 wooden panels. Taking a year to complete, and merging collage, photography, painting and illuminations, the piece began and ended with tranquil scenes but was divided by a chaotic, nightmarish nuclear Armageddon.
Whiteley was incensed when the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in Manhattan, which exhibited 23 of his works in May-June 1968, refused to display The American Dream when it was completed in July 1969.
Distraught that his piece-de-resistance was denied an opportunity to impact upon the American public, the couple immediately abandoned the USA and departed for Fiji.
There, in the Pacific, they resided for five months in the remote tropical village of Navutulevu, about eighty kilometres from Suva. However, a drug raid cut short their plans and they were forced to flee to Australia.
The Whiteleys returned to Sydney in Nov 1969 and moved into a 1907-built Federation house in Lavender Bay.
The interior of the premises and exterior views of the harbour often appeared in Whiteley’s paintings, the former frequently featuring a naked Wendy reclining on furniture or in the bath.
Throughout the 1970s, Whiteley’s creativity continued with pieces inspired by Japanese art, studies of rural towns, portraits of friends and numerous Sydney Harbour scenes.
Another multi-panelled work that fared far better than The American Dream was Alchemy (1972), which was featured on the cover of the Dire Straits’ live album of the same title.
It’s now on permanent display at the Surry Hills gallery.
Whiteley also won three of Australia’s most prestigious awards, twice each: the Archibald Prize for Australian portraiture in 1976 and 1978, the Sulman Prize for landscape in 1978 and 1978, and the Wynne Prize for landscape painting and figurative sculpture in 1977 and 1978.
In 1985, Whiteley purchased an abandoned T-shirt factory at 2 Raper St, Surry Hills and converted it into a working studio. In June 1992, Whiteley died, aged 53, from a heroin overdose in a motel in Thirroul.
Brett Whiteley Studio
2 Raper Street Surry Hills 2010
Brett Whiteley, Printmaker
3 April – 11 July 2021
‘Almost Once’, Brett Whiteley Sculpture in The Domain, Sydney. Photo: Martin Pueschel / Wikimedia