Affairs of the Art began with author Katrina Strickland’s desire to find out more about the widows of some of Australia’s best-known artists.
The resulting book, subtitled Love, Loss and Power in the Art World, features interviews with people such as Wendy Whiteley (wife of Brett) and Yvonne Boyd (wife of Arthur), as well as art dealers, curators and auctioneers. It offers an insight into the lives of the artists and their loved ones, as well as exploring the way in which benefactors influence an artist’s reputation after they die.
Ahead of the Adelaide book launch this Friday, when Strickland will participate in a Q&A with Art Gallery of SA director Nick Mitzevich, publisher MUP has given permission for InDaily to republish this extract from chapter three, The Crimson Line, which compares the divergent reputations of 1970s “art stars” Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin.
Affairs of the Art, by Katrina Strickland
published by MUP, $34.99
Brett Whiteley does not struggle for profile anywhere in Australia. That his name remained a constant in the news even after his death, thanks to court battles, books, record prices and fakes, as well as a studio and annual scholarship in his name, helps explain his continued recognition among the general public, in contrast to Baldessin. Writer Barry Dickins observes that Whiteley was ‘the only Australian painter to make the grade as a pop superstar’, a person who ‘seemed afraid of nothing except being forgotten’. Accountant Tom Lowenstein (who acts for Wendy Whiteley) sounds nostalgic when he tells me that there has been ‘nobody with that kind of pizzazz and flourish’ since. Wendy has not had to ‘raise Brett Whiteley’, because he never went away. As a result, her job has been altogether different from that of Tess Edwards Baldessin. From helping Arkie sort through the studio and remaining work after Whiteley’s death in 1992, to overseeing the hang of exhibitions, her biggest involvement has been with the Brett Whiteley Studio, primarily in helping to set the visual sensibility of the place.
Attention came to Whiteley from the beginning, and also to Wendy, who started going out with the artist when he was seventeen, she fifteen. By their early twenties the couple were living in London, catapulted to the northern hemisphere by an Italian government travelling art scholarship that Whiteley had won at the age of twenty. It was the swinging 60s and he was a star on the rise, with his abstracts and then his Bathroom and Christie series finding critical and popular acclaim there. At twenty-two he became the youngest artist to have a work bought by Britain’s Tate gallery.
‘Australia in the 50s—who didn’t want to get out?’ Wendy says now. ‘We walked into the full rebirth of activity in London, mostly because of [Whitechapel Gallery director] Bryan Robertson. Australia had these two big exhibitions, one at Whitechapel and one at the Tate. I think it was the first time anybody thought there were artists in Australia at all.’
Later that decade Whiteley won a Harkness Fellowship, which took the couple and their toddler daughter to New York, where they lived in the famed Chelsea Hotel, partying with the likes of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and getting increasingly disillusioned about the United States and its Vietnam War. Angry when his New York dealer refused to exhibit his eighteen-panel 1968–69 painting The American Dream, Whiteley left New York for a stint in a quieter place, Fiji, taking his family with him.
The peace did not last, however; Whiteley was caught with drugs and thrown out of the country. Neither he nor Wendy was addicted to heroin yet; that was to come in Sydney in the early to mid 1970s. Journalists and photographers were waiting for the family when they landed back in Australia, however, the first of many life moments recorded by a media that never tired of the Whiteley story. And why would it? The story kept evolving. It wasn’t just the artist, either; people were fascinated with Wendy and Arkie, too, not least because they were both beautiful. In the public consciousness the whole crazy package came to embody the clichéd artistic life. Wendy recalls arriving home from Fiji in 1969:
We weren’t kind of mad, desperate bloody drug addicts, [but] that was the focus, as well as having long hair and funny clothes, and a bit of success in other countries. We weren’t living an enormously destructive, drug-addled life. We’d experimented, were messing about with experimenting, really … That photograph of us walking along with Arkie hanging onto my skirts and trying to hide, that was us in a state of absolute shock. My God, what’s all this about? And the customs going through all the stuffed birds and things, thinking we probably had a huge supply of drugs hidden in there or something.
Interest in Whiteley remained high throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as he painted Lavender Bay vistas from the family’s home on Sydney’s North Shore, and became the first artist to win the AGNSW’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes in the one year. The artist continued to paint and party at a prodigious rate. He and Wendy split up in 1987–88, and Whiteley started seeing a younger woman, Janice Spencer (who looked remarkably like his former wife). Eventually, prematurely but not completely unexpectedly, Whiteley died. His body was discovered in a motel room in Thirroul, on the New South Wales south coast, after Spencer raised the alarm when she could not get him on the phone.
Wendy and Whiteley had divorced but were in the midst of a bitter property battle at the time of the artist’s death. Copyright in his oeuvre, plus many works, came to her nine years later in the saddest of circumstances, namely the death of Arkie from adrenal cancer, aged only thirty-seven. Arkie had gone to court in the year after her father’s death to fight a 1989 will that would have left half the artist’s estate to the establishment of a museum in his name. She argued that a subsequent 1991 handwritten will, which she said had been taped to the bottom of a kitchen drawer but could not be found, left the lion’s share of Whiteley’s estate to her. This will made no mention of the planned museum, which Arkie and others told the court was simply a device to keep property from Wendy during their divorce. Whiteley had hidden artworks in the wall of his studio for the same reason. Although that 1991 will was never found, the judge believed Arkie’s account, and it was this will that was upheld. Spencer ended up with just one painting, which within two years she had put up for auction.
The museum happened anyway. In 1993 Arkie sold the Surry Hills studio, together with ten paintings including the eighteen-panel Alchemy, to the New South Wales Government for $3 million. The sale allowed her to pay off her father’s debts and legal fees without having to sell any paintings privately. It was a neat financial outcome, given what she had argued in court, with the cost of the museum now to be borne by the state. Over the coming years there were other court cases and disputes involving the ‘Whiteley women’—Wendy, Arkie, Spencer, Whiteley’s mother Beryl and sister Frannie—and battles with publishers over who had the right to tell the Whiteley story, and how it should be told. The media lapped it all up. The deaths of Spencer in 2000 from heroin, aged forty-one; Arkie in 2001; and even Beryl in 2010, aged ninety-three, all made newspaper headlines—not because of their own achievements, but because of their roles in the Whiteley soap opera. Covering the 1993 court case over the wills, journalist Brook Turner finished one of his reports in The Australian Financial Review with the memorable line: ‘The case is complicated but the “Whiteley women” kept it simple yesterday—the artist’s ex-wife Wendy in white, Ms Spencer in black and Ms Whiteley in black and white’.
That Whiteley was equal parts artist and pop star is highlighted by the half-a-dozen books written about him, which run the gamut from serious art texts to a memoir by his sister Frannie, to journalistic explorations of his life. The contrast is stark with Fred Williams, about whom there are two serious tomes, both written by former public gallery directors, and John Brack, whose scholarly catalogue raisonné by Sasha Grishin is out of print and now a collector’s item. Wendy has mixed feelings about the ‘pop star stuff’, telling a journalist in 1994 that ‘my focus is Brett Whiteley as an artist, not as a pop star’, adding caustically that ‘a very good idea to find out about an artist’s life is to actually go and look at his fucking pictures’. When we speak in 2012 she has softened, agreeing that it was part of Whiteley’s persona:
There’s nothing wrong with the pop star stuff, because he did have a pretty out-there personality. He didn’t go out there consciously working on that, it’s just who he was. He was charismatic, he was funny when he chose to be, he was interested in other people, very generous when he chose to be, fucking mean as shit when he changed his mind about something. You know, he was not a saint.
Affairs of the Art is available at mup.com.au.
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