It took journalist Ashleigh Wilson four years to research and write Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, his new biography of the revered Australian artist who died of a heroin overdose in 1992. When he began the project, Wilson had only a cursory knowledge of Whiteley—but unprecedented access to a treasure trove of private notebooks and personal photos allowed him to become deeply acquainted with the painter's life and work. “I had a pretty one-dimensional picture of Brett Whiteley in my head initially,” Wilson explains. “That he was a painter, that did some pictures of Sydney Harbour, that he was a drug addict, that he died at a relatively young age…and that’s the picture that most people have, I think. A guy with a rock n’ roll lifestyle." A chance friend-of-a-friend connection led the writer to Wendy Whiteley, the artist’s former wife and lifelong muse. She welcomed him into the private world of Whiteley’s estate and allowed him access to thirty notebooks, as well as other previously unseen photos and documentary materials that helped him form a more nuanced understanding of one of Australia’s most renowned twentieth century artists.
“The notebooks span from when he was very, very young right through to the end,” Wilson says. “And they just show him sketching, and doodling throughout his life… some of them were very detailed, quite elaborate paintings and drawings and sketches, some of it is a bit more offhand—just little scribbles, phone numbers or notes to himself." Much of the material was erotic, containing nude drawings and collaged photographs from pornographic magazines—if you’re at all familiar with Whiteley’s work, this won’t come as any surprise. “He was a very sexual being, and a lot of his life revolved around sex to be honest,” Wilson says. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll became recurring themes as Wilson read through Whiteley’s notebooks and interviewed former friends and lovers. At the height of his career and fame, Whiteley heavily romanticised what one of his favourite poets, Arthur Rimbaud, called “the derangement of the senses.” He partied with rock stars—Dire Straits, Bob Dylan— and revelled in the excesses of celebrity while maintaining a prolific output of work.
It was the artist’s palpable fear that his abilities would dissipate if he became sober that came to define Wilson’s research. “That was the real struggle,” Wilson says. “He had created the Lavender Bay series, for instance, during his most iconic period, after having begun taking heroin. So imagine ten years on, having created all these works, winning the Archibald twice, watching your prices go through the roof, and then asking yourself—what happens if I stop taking heroin? Will my craft disappear?”
Whiteley’s fame peaked during the 1980s, while he was in the throes of an opioid addiction that he would never overcome. Yet Wilson was eager to examine the equally fascinating beginnings of the artist’s early career, in the 1960s. Researching this period revealed a crucial turning point in Whiteley’s career trajectory that occurred very early on.
“People don’t really know just how big he got at a very young age,” Wilson says. “For example, his work was acquired by the Tate when he was just 22 years old—he was the youngest artist ever to do that, not only in Australia but also the world. And I think that’s still the record, it’s incredible.”
Whiteley faced a choice—live in London or New York, where he was on the verge of breaking into the upper echelons of the international art scene, or return to Australia where his reputation was already assured. Fascinatingly, the young artist chose the latter option. "I mean he could have had the same reputation he had in Australia around the world had he not decided to take the direction he took,” Wilson says. “But at that time his style wasn’t liked enough by the New York galleries, so he took himself back to Sydney, and stayed here."
It's now difficult to imagine things turning out differently—so iconic are Whiteley’s paintings of Sydney and its surrounds.
Wilson was also eager to investigate another overlooked period of Whiteley’s career—his final years in the late 1980s and early 1990s that followed the breakup of his marriage. Wilson delved into Whiteley’s subsequent relationship with new girlfriend Janice Spencer, whose story up until this point had gone mostly untold.
Spencer was still in a relationship with Whiteley at the time of his death, and her role in his life—particularly her efforts to help him curb his heroin addiction—is often overlooked.
“I flew up to Brisbane to meet Janice’s brother, and he gave me access to all her archives including an unpublished memoir she’d written about her time with Brett. It certainly taught me things I didn’t know,” Wilson says.
While his research into Spencer veered from the traditional narrative espoused by Whiteley’s estate—and the Brett Whiteley Studio, the artist’s former workspace that now operates as a museum—Wilson actually found the artist’s family to be very supportive of his attempts to get the story right.
“Wendy Whiteley always saw this as my book and didn’t interfere once. She read a version of the draft before publication and she didn’t ask for a single word to be changed…I think she recognised that a book like this would suffer were it to be seen as her sanitised version,” he says.
Through his interviews and access to the artist’s diaries and personal effects, Wilson was able to cut through the mythology surrounding Whiteley’s life. Objectivity, he says, was key. “There was no need to embellish anything, his story is colourful enough as it is," he says. Yet for all the glitz and glamour, after four years of research into an extraordinary life, Wilson says that the most interesting thing about Whiteley is still his creative output.
“All the talk about sex and drugs shouldn’t obscure the place of art in his world. He was always about art, from a very young age…it was his main love and he was an incredibly hard worker, incredibly passionate. I don’t think anyone who has a full understanding to Brett’s life would doubt his commitment to art, whether or not they like what he did. He was definitely a serious artist."
Brett Whiteley: Art, Life, and the Other Thing is out now via Text Publishing. Find out more about it here.