Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brett Whiteley: Art, Dylan and the Other Thing


"An intriguing, absorbing and assured account of Brett Whiteley's life and work." 
--Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits

Brett Whitely was an artist who became a fairly substantial force in the Australian art world, with international recognition, having lived and painted in Italy, Britain, New York and Fiji. Born in 1939, Whitely was the youngest artist to have work acquired by the Tate in London.

After living in Italy and Britain, and looking for the epicenter of the times, he moved to New York for a spell where he took up residence in the famed Chelsea Hotel where he and his family "befriended Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the rock and roll royalty of the era."*

After two years in the Big Apple, he became impatient with the amount of time it was taking to get recognition, whereupon he up and left for Fiji, then ultimately returned to Australia where for the rest of his life he pursued his passion for the arts.

The book is called Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, by Ashleigh Wilson. A central, inescapable thread that runs throughout the book is the music of Bob Dylan. Even his ex-wife's book about their relationship took its name from a Dylan song, Tangled Up In Blue, My Years with Brett Whiteley.

Mark Knopfler, by Brett Whiteley
Though he'd won Australia's most prestigious prizes and great recognition for his art, the final chapter of Whitely's life closed out early when he overdosed in a motel room in June 1992, two years after his wife left him.

The book is a bio that not only tells Whitely's story, it includes many illustrations and photos of his work beginning with his earliest drawings. (His drawing of a cowboy that he drew at age 7 reminds me of a cowboy I drew in second grade.) By the time he was 20 he'd gained recognition as someone to notice.

When I first saw the cover the the book it stylistically brought to mind the art of Britain's Ralph Steadman: the energetic expressiveness, the draftsmanship, the bold distortions of a practiced eye and hand, the confidence with which he approached his work.

To some extent Whiteley was a product of his times, meaning he was immersed in an ethos of drugs, sex and rock 'n roll. Reading about his life journey, one sees echoes of many other artists of his era. From early immersion in LSD and mind-expanding explorations there is a descent into heroin and the cycles of addiction. Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia come to mind, even Dylan himself had his peaks and valleys.

* * * *
Dylan by Whiteley
Brett Whiteley described Bob Dylan as ''the most satisfactory voice in pop, I think. There's sort of mango and Courvoisier and the best sort of hissing and low gravel Jewishness on it.'' But Dylan's importance for Brett Whiteley went beyond a mere appreciation of the voice.

His sister, Frannie, records in her biography of Brett that ,"He found an intellectual and spiritual brother in this man... Brett was obsessed with poet-musician Dylan... He collected his albums and was intimate with every song as though they were speaking to him directly. He listened to Dylan almost daily for most of his life."

* * * *
Whitely images from the book.
According to artist/blogger Harry Kent, The Chelsea Hotel was also where Bob Dylan lived in the 60's, where he wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Brett kept a huge portrait of Dylan on the wall of his modest penthouse apartment there. It was an acquaintance and adoration that would last the rest of his days.

I believe that he discovered in the person of Dylan the kind of intuitive artist, gifted genius even, that he himself aspired to be ... a bringer of gifts from the gods. He saw in Dylan a kindred spirit writ large. In short, he idolized the man and the musician.

* * * * 
Ashleigh Wilson's book is replete with photos of Whiteley's paintings, sculptures and illustrations. It also contains a fairly thorough index so that one is able to find your way through the book back to its various references. Dylan references are sprinkled throughout, and in places come in chunks. 

Those who have long followed Dylan's career remember well his tour in the 1980s with Tom Petty and band. It was during this time that a major event came together in Whiteley's personal life. While in Sidney Whiteley hosted a Bob Dylan press conference in his art studio. This was huge for him personally. Here's an excerpt from this 1986 event:

This was not Dylan's last visit to Whiteley's studio. In 1992 while again in Sidney, Dylan paid a visit to the artist's lair. Artist Harry Kent, whose TACHISME blog is full of insightful commentary on a variety of arts related themes, devoted this 2012 entry to Brett Whiteley, which concludes with Dylan's 1992 visit a month before Whiteley passed on.

Brett had bought tickets to every show and carried with him every night a copy of the catalogue from his recent exhibition in case he got the opportunity to present it to Bob. Dylan's minders were under orders not to admit anyone new to his dressing room. But Brett was not new and the opportunity came. Dylan looked at drawings and asked, "How'd you do that man?" Brett was elated over meeting, "Tastic".

But better was to come. The following day Dylan came to the Brett's studio. They spent a couple of hours together looking at Brett's work and discussing painting. All his life Dylan's student, in those sweet hours he now found himself his hero's teacher.

A month later, Brett Whiteley was dead.

Reading these things leaves me saddened. Life is complicated. It's apparent that even fame and riches come packaged with challenges.

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Whiteley
**You can find a copy of the book itself here on Amazon

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