Brett Whiteley was the first Australian to combine a pop star's persona with that of a visual artist. He worked across the mediums of painting, sculpture and graphic work and was several times awarded the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes. He achieved domestic and international recognition early in his career in the 1960s. His Matisse influenced paintings of domestic interiors and Sydney Harbour remain enduring images.
He was born on 7 April 1939, the son of Clem Whiteley, an entrepreneurial businessman, and his wife Beryl (née Martin). The family home at 18 Lucretia Avenue Longueville, was near the Lane Cove River where it feeds into Sydney Harbour, so he always had a sense of the beauty of where land meets water. Whiteley could always draw: he won his first art prize at the age of seven. When he was nine his parents sent him to boarding school at Scots College in Bathurst on the other side of the Blue Mountains. This was culturally an unusual decision for urban Australians. The young Whiteley was unhappy at school and did not flourish. He did however come to love the country around Bathurst and later in life returned to it as subject matter. His enduring friendships from these years included the artist Vernon Treweeke. In 1956, the year after he saw an exhibition of Lloyd Rees paintings, Whiteley was awarded first prize in the Young Painters section at the Bathurst Show. He left school mid-year and began working in the art department of the Lintas Advertising Agency. He enrolled in classes at the Julian Ashton School and also joined the open air sketch club conducted by John Santry on the shores of Sydney Harbour. He came to know Lloyd Rees who frequented the group. Always gregarious, the young Whiteley came to know students at Sydney’s other main art school, East Sydney Technical College, including the beautiful Wendy Julius. On weekends he returned to near Bathurst to paint around the old mining towns of Hill End and Sofala. He also ventured south to coast around Thirroul and Wollongong. Landscape was the dominant popular genre for Australian artists at this time, but Whiteley also wanted to explore the human condition in art, and one of his paintings of this period was of people in an inner city soup kitchen. In 1959 the artist and cartoonist William Pidgeon, who was a family friend, encouraged him to leave his job with Lintas and to concentrate on painting a body of work for a travelling scholarship to be awarded by the Italian Government. The judge was Russell Drysdale and Whiteley’w winning work, painted around Bathurst and Sofala, showed sensuous painterly qualities in the browns of the hills. He arrived at Naples on 25 February 1960, and spent some months in Rome as well as travelling to Florence and London. In Paris he was reunited with Wendy Julius and together they returned to Florence and then Venice. Whiteley first exhibited with a commercial gallery in London in 1960, and at the end of the year moved to a house in Ladbroke Grove in London, where he was reunited with friends from Sydney, including Michael Johnson, and met other Australian expatriates, including Arthur Boyd. The following year his work was included in the Survey of Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and a painting from this was bought for the Tate Gallery. In 1963 he married Wendy Julius, her body and her beauty became embedded into his subject matter. Whiteley’s successful London years were interspersed with extended visits to Europe and the USA. He drew the lithe movements of animals in the zoo, and made a memorable series of paintings and prints based on 10 Rillington Place and the activities of the psychotic murderer Christie. In 1967 he was awarded a Harkness Foundation Scholarship and moved to the United States. The Whiteley family (daughter Arkie was born in 1964) stayed in a penthouse in the Hotel Chelsea. Janis Joplin was one of Arkie’s baby sitters, and when they left, a Brett Whiteley painting took pride of place, hanging behind the desk in the reception area. The intensity of this American experience, which coincided with a time of cultural and political turmoil, was reflected in changes in his art. Sandra McGrath has linked his art of this period to a self-identification with Bob Dylan, and Whiteley at this stage did begin to grow his hair in a Dylanesque mop. The excesses,contradictions and conflicts he felt were at the heart of the American experience were expressed in his large panel series, The American Dream (1969). In July 1969 the Whiteley family left the USA for a simpler life in Fiji, where they were arrested for possessing marijuana and were deported to Australia, arriving in Sydney in November. They rented a house overlooking the Harbour in Walker Street Lavender Bay; later they bought it and modified the house for their purposes. Sydney at that time was on the cusp of change as the first generation of post-World War II babyboomers were not prepared to accept the wisdom of the past, but wanted new heroes. Whiteley’s international fame had preceded him, and he relished in the rock star status he was afforded in the popular media as well as in artistic circles. In Sydney, in the early 1970s, his excesses were seen as legitimate behaviour for a great artist. From about 1970 he also enjoyed the creative milieu of the Yellow House, which Martin Sharp had caused to be established on the site of the old Terry Clune Galleries in MacLeay Street, Potts Point. Here Whiteley worked collaboratively with old friends, and made new ones. The Yellow House ended in about 1973 and in its last days the drug that easily supplanted all others was heroin. Whiteley’s major work of this time was the panel series of Alchemy, a work on the elements of dross andmagic that combined to make art. It was an intense painting, and some were uncomfortable with its intensity. Afterwards there were more relaxed works, as views from Lavender Bay became elements in a series of Matisse influenced odes to the beauty of Sydney Harbour. These paintings became such objects of lust to Australian art collectors that the possession of one is the leitmotif in Up For Grabs (2000), a play by David Williamson. Whiteley was first awarded the Archibald Prize in 1976 for Self Portrait in the Studio. In the following years other self portraits tracked the changes in his body, perception and ability under the increasing influence of heroin. Wendy joined him for some years as an addict, but was eventually successful in withdrawing. In 1985 he purchased an old T-Shirt factory in Surry Hills, which he converted into a dedicated studio. He moved to the studio alone in 1987, but some time afterwards began to share with Janice Spencer, a fellow addict he met at Narcotics Anonymous. In 1989 Brett and Wendy Whiteley were divorced, but the acrimonious property dispute over the ownership of was still not settled at the time of his death from an overdose of methadone at a motel at Thirroul south of Sydney, on 15 June 1992. After Whiteley’s death his will was successfully disputed by his daughter Arkie, who was awarded the bulk of his estate. The NSW government established the Brett Whiteley studio as an ongoing (albeit sanitised) record of his working life. To honour his memory, his mother, Beryl Whiteley, established the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. As with the Brett Whiteley Studio this is administered by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.