BRETT WHITELEY: THE EXPRESSIONIST OF AUSTRALIAN AVANT-GARDE

Source: https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/whiteley-brett/

Combining a pop star's persona with that of a visual artist, the Australian artist, Brett Whiteley, is best known for a series of paintings inspired by the British mass murderer John Christie.

Leading artist of Australia's avant-garde movement, Whiteley was born on April 7, 1939, in Sydney, New South Wales, and grew up in Longueville, a quiet suburb on the northern shores of Sydney harbour. By the age of seven, Whiteley had won his first art competition. He was sent to boarding school at Scots College, Bathurst and in 1956 was awarded first prize in the young painters' section of the Bathurst show. Leaving school mid-year, he took night classes in drawing at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney while holding down a job at an advertising agency.

In 1960, aged 21, Whiteley left Australia on a Travelling Art Scholarship (judged by Sir Russell Drysdale), and by 1961 had settled in London where his work was shown at the Whitechapel and Marlborough galleries. In 1962, he won the international prize at the second Biennale se Paris, and had his first solo exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery.

Whiteley's painting developed rapidly during his time overseas. His abstract and fluid style turned increasingly to figuration, and his paintings became laced with images of sex and violence. His work began to incorporate collage elements such as fiberglass shapes and photographs. He exhibited widely during these years, including in Australia, France, Belgium, and Italy.

In 1967, Whiteley exhibited at the Pittsburgh International Carnegie Institute in United States and was awarded the Harkness Foundation Scholarship. He lived in New York for 18 months and returned permanently to Australia in 1969 after a brief stay in Fiji.

In 1972, Whiteley began work on “Alchemy”, which was exhibited at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney. In 1975, he was awarded Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize. In 1976 he won his first Archibald Prize with “Self-portrait” in the studioand the Sir John Sulman Prize for “Interior with Time Past” (genre painting).

In 1977, Whiteley won the Wynne Prize for “The Jacaranda Tree” (On Sydney Harbour), and in 1978 became the only Australian artist ever to claim the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne art prizes- a unique treble. He was awarded the Wynne Prize again in 1984, and the following year purchased an old T-shirt factory Surry Hills, Sydney and converted it into a studio. In 1991, he was awarded the Order of Australia (General Division).

In the last years of his life Whiteley traveled far and wide, taking in England, Bali, Tokyo, and spending two months in Paris. On 15 June 1992 he was found dead from a heroin overdose in a motel room in Thirroul on the NSW coast. The coroner's verdict was ‘death due to self-administered substances’. He was 53 years old.

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