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Abstraction

Whiteley arrived in Italy at the beginning of 1960 and stayed for about ten months. Basing himself in Rome, then Florence, he spent most of his time looking at paintings in churches and museums, developing a particular interest in late Byzantine and early Renaissance artists, such as Cimabue, Duccio, Uccello and Piero della Francesca.

During this period, Whiteley made a few paintings that were derived from the goldfields landscapes he had painted in Australia but informed by the still lifes of British artist William Scott and the semi-erotic abstractions of American artist Arshile Gorky.

After moving to London, where he remained primarily based for the next seven years, Whiteley continued to combine these elements – the earthy colours of Australia and the ambience of Italian painting and architecture – with powerful hybrid forms of landscape and the female torso.

Three Whiteley works shown in a group exhibition titled Recent Australian painting (June–July 1961) at the Whitechapel Gallery created a sensation, with the purchase of Untitled red painting 1960 by the Tate Gallery establishing Whiteley’s international reputation. He was 22 years old.

With this early success Whiteley was soon offered his first one-man exhibition at the prestigious Mathiessen Gallery in March 1962. This included a large number of abstract gouache drawings and paintings that were created over the previous year and was a great financial and critical success.

After Whiteley married Wendy Julius in London in March 1962, the couple spent six months in Sigean in the south of France. Whiteley’s most elegant and relaxed abstract work emerged from his idyllic life there. But Sigean also signalled a move away from both landscape and abstraction into figuration. The transition had begun.