We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

‘Brett Whiteley: Eternity is Now’ audio guide

Listen to Wendy Whiteley speaking about the Brett Whiteley Studio spaces and selected artworks in the exhibition Eternity is Now

Wendy Whiteley:

‘I hardly ever see my paintings around. I don't have the faintest idea where half my life's work is. Sometimes that worries me. We should have a museum, especially built for retrospectives. It would be 10 feet wide and a mile long, like a railway tunnel. And you could walk down someone’s life chronologically.’ Now, that's a quote from Brett himself.

Mainly he said about museums, but in a sense, the studio wound up to be his, well, it is his museum as well as a living space, a studio where he worked. I think the idea of walking down someone’s life chronologically, also, we don’t really do that here. We run through all the studios in this building here. And the main object of everyone's delight is Alchemy, of course, which is so long that it almost needs a mile long, like a railway tunnel wall.

We managed to hang it here, to hang it in any other museum takes up so much space. It’s often dealt with, with alarm. However, it's here in the studio, and I hope you can walk down that particular painting with a sense of walking like a mile long, like a railway tunnel, and looking at the work as a major self-portrait chronologically.

Wendy Whiteley:

The first image we’ll start with is Self portrait at 16, 1955. This portrait was actually full-length down to the waistline, so that you could see the whole torso and two arms. I don’t think the hands were included. And then Brett decided to just cut the head out of it in probably about 1985 I think he did that, and presented us this tiny little head, which it is now.

That’s one of the earliest things we’ve got in the studio collection. And it’s a beautiful head. The head’s actually very accurate, though I think he looked a bit younger actually at 16. I didn’t know him then [in] 1955. I didn’t meet Brett until 1957, or ‘56, ‘57, so this was just beforehand, and I knew it quite well as the full-length portrait.

Wendy Whiteley:

This is Getting quite close 1982. I believe the actual photograph at the back of this was taken by Graham McCarter, who took quite a number of wonderful portraits of Brett’s. He then actually made a mask himself, which we still have in the collection, pinned it to his face or pinned it to the photograph, not to his own face, and collaged it over the top of the photograph and then collaged Vincent’s eyes, an actual photograph of Vincent van Gogh’s eyes onto the top of that.

So it’s as close as he can get to the original inspiration and adoration for Vincent van Gogh, and then transposing it onto himself. They were both redheads, and that was a kind of another thing that he wanted to make reference to, and they were both accused of being a bit off the planet half the time. Anyway, he did but there’s a whole exhibition that he made around this, which was first displayed as a non-selling exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, another one of Edmund Capon’s moves to get an exhibition up of great interest. It was a popular exhibition, but confused a lot of people because it was such a direct reference to Vincent van Gogh and Brett’s love of Vincent van Gogh and his work.

Wendy Whiteley:

Alchemy 1972–73 ... it probably went into ’74, a little bit, too, this one. The beginning of it all depends which end you come from, whether you read it from left to right or right to left, but the gold end was actually part of another painting of a portrait of [nationalist Japanese author Yukio] Mishima, which Brett did for an exhibition called Portraits and Other Emergencies [29 February – 21 March 1972, Bonython Art Gallery [in Sydney]. That’s why it has that very Japanese feel about it. It had the rising sun, the Japanese flag at the back originally, and all that gold leaf was made for that. But then he destroyed that portrait and used it as the beginning or the end of Alchemy, depending on the way you read it. It then proceeds to be, really from the other end, with the arrows and things, a kind of portrait of Brett’s life, really. There’s the conception, there’s the birth, which is obviously him being born, with a little red-headed baby. Though if a baby had been born with all of that hair, it would’ve been remarkable.

And then we just go through it. It’s a painting that needs to be looked at from a distance first and then to be moved right in, close up to it, so that you start to see all the details, which are often quite surreal in the sense of being very influenced by [Hieronymus] Bosch’s Garden of earthly delights [c1490–1500], little things from the mind, references to people Brett either admired or hated. His own ... another self-portrait with a little door that gets covered up. But when you can close the door, there’s a key for that door, so it can be locked – which they might have lost, but should be around somewhere. There’s a plug which implies the whole thing could go down the plug hole at one stage. There’s loving references to landscape, to people that he much admired, like Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Patrick White ... varying figures inside this thing.

And it’s ... it’s very strongly, I mean, it is viewed, I think, as a kind of self-portrait, but then I think most of Brett’s work, in some ways, are self-portrait, because he always paints from life. However, it’s an extraordinary picture. It belongs now to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but it lives in the studio as the kind of key work for people to peruse. And I think the more you look at it, the more you get involved in the actual what’s going on in it. When you get up close, the more you’re able to like it.

It’s on 18 panels, I think, which makes it feasible to move, of course. And that whole issue of painting on wood then allows Brett to be able to cut holes in it and stick things on it and have electricity at the back of it ... all of those things that drive some critics completely nuts about his work. People keep being very intrigued with it. So it’s really ... it’s a trip. It’s an organised excursion. He had a theory that the best way to have a life story told would be – for him, as an artist – would be to have a three-mile-long gallery. So you just start at the beginning of a life and went to the other end. This is a kind of smaller version of that idea.

Alec George:

The 18 panels were created over an 18-month period. It’s a great quote by Whiteley, where he states it’s a journey through his inner paddock. And so there are many ways that you can refer to this work ... to look at it as a self-portrait with signposts within the work itself of moments in Whiteley’s life at that period of time. It covers not only the personal, but also the social and political activities that were occurring at that period with the Vietnam War next to the ‘IT’ panel.

You’ll see, it’s quite dense. There’s Nixon and Mao Zedong. There’s Vincent van Gogh, above all of this ... horrors that were occurring with the Vietnam War at that period of time. Whiteley himself refers to IT as, it isn't IT, but a progression. And for my interpretation of that, it’s a period of his life and time that he’s captured. It’s an incredibly ambitious work. It’s extraordinary for its breadth and range ... the materials he uses: we have chicken bones and pins and a taxidermy bird egg and nest, a human brain. Bath plugs, electricity. There’s collage and paint. It ranges from an extraordinary breadth of subject matter and content. It’s a work that you need to look at slowly and to engage with. And that’s something that Whiteley does visually. He wants you to move in and out of the work.

Wendy Whiteley:

This of course is painted after The American dream [1968–69], the other big work that Brett took on, but it’s much more contemplative and calm than The American dream, probably. It was painted mostly at the Gasworks Studio [in Waverton, Sydney] which no longer exists, but it allowed Brett to paint a picture this size because the Gasworks Studio itself was huge. So this could have been painted in Lavender Bay, but he would’ve – like Francis Bacon in his studio – we would never have been able to put it up as one work anywhere other than somewhere like the Gasworks Studio. And even in Raper Street, you see, we’ve had to turn the corner with it, because on a straight wall it’s not possible to hang it. There’s no wall long enough. [Former director] Edmund Capon had it at the Art Gallery of New South Wales a couple of times, and they did do it as a straight run.

And it’s interesting to watch people actually walking along the front of it, and what catches their attention, and what draws them into it like a magnet, to peer very closely at what goes on with it. So you can see people actually living the experience as well, which is interesting because everything it refers to is still going on today and went on thousands of years ago and will go on forever. It’s love, hate, the beauty of the landscape, the fears of everything going on in one’s personal life, and relates to everybody. I think it’s quite a ... it’s both very intensely personal, but it also relates to most people being able to, looking at it … It’s a language that’s understandable in the end.

Wendy Whiteley: 

Self portrait drawn calligraphically. This is 1975, so it's an earlier work made at Lavender Bay. I remember him sitting on the floor at Lavender Bay making these. The drawing, he's wearing actually a beautiful Chinese coat that I'd bought in London that was heavily embroidered, there's a photograph of him wearing it in the studio, taken by Greg Wait, and it's him with a big calligraphy brush, drawing some leaves on a big roll of paper, which subsequently got stuck up on the wall and you can see it in the background, I think, of quite a number of his other self-portraits, that particular leaf drawing.

And it's the beginning of Brett working with a big calligraphy brush and going for the zen concept of hitting the mark, hitting the target in an instant, and if it works, you keep it, if it doesn't work, you don't rub it out. Very unlikely method for the works done with charcoal. And then putting those red stamps, which is obviously a reference to Japanese scrolls, and having the narrow sides on the painting, and putting it, it is in a frame, unlike a scroll. But the same narrow sides, and top and bottom being different proportions, is all referencing Japanese scrolls, and his admiration for that way of making it work.

Wendy Whiteley:

Self portrait in the studio 1976. Self portrait in the studio is the first time that he won the Archibald, with this painting. And it was a startling decision because he deliberately made it very different to what was the current style for the Archibald, which was usually a politician or somebody sitting in the middle of the canvas with their hands folded in their laps and being head, torso, and a bit of legs and hands. Rather dull, rather dull. And Brett deliberately painted this thing, which is the interior at Lavender Bay, where he’s used that same blue as for Balcony 2.

But he’s also got the view out a window going into the bay. He’s got the interior Lavender Bay with another window with another view looking out of it, drawings on the wall, me as the nude on the bed – on the sofa, it was our sofa at the time, which was like a platform with cushions – stuff going on on the table, some of my jewellery, a vase, some money, a cigarette burning on the edge, and his face looking at himself in the mirror. And I think probably almost the first time he’d done this trick of putting his own hand, making a drawing inside an image.

So very much it’s the artist present in the room and it’s called Self portrait, and it won the Archibald. I think everybody was a bit startled by it. It gave the Archibald a bit of an idea about ‘we better do something different next year if we’re going to win it’. So everybody started painting paintings that involved quite a lot of interiors, I think, especially the Chinese artists. You’d get a lot of people painting portraits inside a room so that the room became almost as important as the portrait itself, which is good. I thought it made the portraits much more interesting. But anyway, so that was a big deal, winning that at the time.

Alec George:

I think it’s an extraordinary work because when you look at what a portrait can be, it’s an extension of Whiteley himself as the artist.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah.

Alec George:

He’s just a reflection in the mirror, and the mirror itself’s not still, there’s a bit of a quiver in the way it’s held. The gaze isn’t directed outwards towards us, but it’s more inward towards himself.

Wendy Whiteley:

Of course it was.

Alec George:

And what was happening at that time. It’s a fragmented work. He and both you are not complete within the painting itself, but you’re surrounded by all these beautiful objects.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah. He wanted to make an interesting self-portrait. I mean he always thought – I mean, and I agree with that actually – some of the best things that have won the Archibald have been self-portraits, because an artist has much more leeway doing a self-portrait. He can insult himself. Whereas if you’re trying to insult somebody else who hates what you’ve done, it’s not so – or to be accurate, and therefore insulting, usually. He doesn’t have to flatter himself. It’s very biographical, that whole thing. And the fact is, Brett saw himself much more as an artist rather than a person that wanted to have a portrait painted of himself. You see the mirror’s in his left hand, he’s drawing with his right hand, which is natural to him. The whole idea came very much from a drawing and an idea that he made at the time and in a notebook and then made the painting and made it, blew it up into a colour.

The nude is pretty much done in this kind of stylised way. So it’s not a portrait of a nude. There’s sculptures, there’s drawings that were on the walls, there’s pieces of furniture that actually existed. The view out the window is as it is, as it was, and the view out the other window is too, very much. So it’s very real. But you can’t really define the distance between … Once more, it’s semi-flattened, because there’s just a line that denotes the difference between the floor and the walls and the rug coming forward. So once again, you’ve got that almost double thing going on with the work.

Alec George:

There’s no difference between the wall and ��

Wendy Whiteley:

No.

Alec George:

... the bottom of the wall, if you like.

Wendy Whiteley:

Right.

Alec George:

Where that line cuts through, there’s no vanishing point or no depth to the work itself.

Wendy Whiteley:

No.

Alec George:

But what I find interesting, too, is that this has as an extension of the portrait, it’s the objects, the materials around, which extend our understanding of who this artist is. The Asian influence within the brush and ink scrolls, the sculptures, the sketchbooks. His own hair – the DNA of the artist himself in the work.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah.

Alec George:

The furnishings are quite simple and elemental. You mentioned the objects on the table, those little secrets between yourself and Brett. The sculpture that’s up against the wall and then the views through the harbour.

Wendy Whiteley:

He’s painted it from life, from his existence as it existed, then, in that time, in that moment. So in that sense it’s biographical, and quite confessional because of the look on his face. It’s more or less the beginning of problem with drugs, and he’s got cigarettes in that one.

The next portrait [Art, life and the other thing 1978], of course, that he won the second lot of Archibald for is much more confessional, but this is semi-confessional.

Alec George:

Yeah. On the surface –

Wendy Whiteley:

Pretty honest, pretty brutal about himself, actually.

Alec George:

Because on the surface it’s a beautiful work. And then there’s actually a psychological layer that …

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah, exactly.

Alec George:

... is uneasy.

Wendy Whiteley:

Bather and mirror (second version) 1964 – so it’s a little bit later than the others. There are two versions of this particular work. One of them was included in Darmstadt and won a big prize, I think it’s this one, in Darmstadt in Germany during this period. And it’s one that was floating around in private collections for years and years and years and which I purchased back for the collection at one stage. And at the moment it’s hanging in my house in Lavender Bay and I love it. I love it passionately. And it’s very much that thing of combination of both painting and drawing so that the ... It’s actually considered to be a painting, but you can see the elements of the drawn thing, which Brett has basically just left, and this very, very pale blue colour, which is kind of quite French in a way. And the mirror, which he uses, and the heater.

So you’ve got the mirror, the heater, even a can of Ajax in this one. So it’s very much taken from life as an idea. And once again, that shower with the water, with the sprinkling water coming out of the shower at the top. So it encompasses all of it. The sense of the bath is not so much here. The curve of the bath, it’s there at the top, but it’s … the figure is much freer in this. It’s not kind of squashed into the figure of the bath. So it’s as though the figure’s actually standing having a shower in this one. It’s incredibly beautiful, I think.

Alec George:

I like that subject of the elements of drawing in paint too, that freshness of the composition, the looseness of it, which is really lovely. There’s a sense of spontaneity.

Wendy Whiteley:

My theory, that the look of spontaneity comes from somebody being very confident with what they’re doing and having learned their craft well enough to make it look easy, which is like the ballerina or the ballet dancer making that leap and everybody thinking, ‘Oh, so free, it’s like a bird.’ It’s taken them 15 years to get there, basically. But Brett is really, really confident at this stage about what he’s doing and it just looks free. It looks easy. It looks graceful. It looks all of those things.

Alec George:

And daring.

Wendy Whiteley:

And daring. Yeah.

Wendy Whiteley:

This is Bathroom drawing from 1963. It's a charcoal on paper work, made at the same time as the previous painting we were talking about, the big one, '63, all for the bathroom show at [inaudible]. So it was exhibited along with that big bathroom picture, and some other works.

There's a second drawing that belongs to the same time, that works, and it's the same thing of the figure drawn, actually crouching in the bath, and Brett's using here, more or less for the first obvious time, the thing of movement, which is denoted by leaving the lines from a previous attempt at the figure behind, so that, in a sense, you're kind of going into the thing, which is used by cartoonists a lot, of the figure actually moving. So you're seeing two different frames of the figure, or maybe sometimes, three of the frames, as though the figure has moved in the bath, while you're making the drawing. But instead of correcting it, or rubbing it out, he's left it.

And it's quite emotional actually, looking at these things. Not because it's me in the bath, but because it kind of has a feeling of the body is alive, it's moving in the sense of the work. It always seems very fresh, as an idea, actually, the way this is drawn, because it's not like a cartoon drawing, where the lines are done very heavily, like a Lichtenstein, or something, it's the artist actually working. So you have very much a strong sense in these drawings, of the artist being present in the room, which is another thing Brett's always impresses on people, that the artist is present, as well as the model, in the bath.

Alec George:

There's a sense of freedom, the way he expresses those lines.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yes, very much so –

Alec George:

Rubbing it back, allowing that memory to be there. And you've got this intimacy of the space, the scale of the space, and the way he's drawing you, in there.

Wendy Whiteley:

I think it's very confident. Brett has learnt how to use his materials, his charcoal, and his thing, and he's confident enough in what he does, to be able to leave the traces, so –

Alec George:

And he's exploring.

Wendy Whiteley: 

– and say, 'Well, this is me, this is what I do,' instead of having to feel, 'Ooh, I've got to make it perfect,' which is what students have a tendency to do. When a teacher's breathing down the back of their neck, they don't have the confidence to say, 'Bugger off, and leave me alone.' He's really starting to show how confident he really is with drawing, with his draftsmanship.

Wendy Whiteley:

This is the other second drawing in that series of Woman in the bath charcoal drawings made at the same time, 1963. Once again, also exhibited in [inaudible] Galleries for the Bathroom Exhibition, '63/'64 works. This is the same figure again, stretched out in the bath though. So there's an extended leg, so it's as though the figure's lying in the bath. The edges of the bath, so that the figure is caught in the form of the bath is just indicated at the edge. But once again, it's the confidence of the figure moving. '#MeToo' people object to Brett's nudes not having heads and faces and things, but I'm quite happy for that. It's always me at this stage of the game, and I don't think the face needs to be there. They're not portraits, they're nudes or figures in a bath thing. They're not meant to be portraits.

Alec George:

It's also a lower composition in this. The viewpoint is more at the bather's eye view, if you like, looking through.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yes, exactly. One of the great loves of course is Bonnard, and he figures in the bath, but these are very different from those. The Bonnards are very intimate, portrait suite. There's a painting in the Tate Britain, or it used to be the Tate Britain, of a Bonnard in a bath. The figure's lying absolutely flat out, that William Scott actually had the most amazing copy of in his house when we went to visit him once. We were invited for dinner and I thought, 'Oh my God, he's got the Tate picture.' But it was an incredible copy that somebody had made.

And that was a big marker, once I'm seeing that for the first time in the Tate, that big Bonnard of his wife lying in the bathtub stretched out. But Brett's is very different to that. That's very static and very still and very beautiful, but these drawings are about the movement once again and the use of that particular medium, charcoal on paper.

Wendy Whiteley: 

New York, New York. This is New York 1. In 1968, Brett got a Harkness Fellowship, which included enough money for Arkie and I to be included, and Arkie was just three. She was three when we actually won the scholarship. And [we] went to New York on the last voyage crossing the Atlantic, on the last voyage of the Queen Mary, or was it the Queen Elizabeth? One of those boats. Anyway, it was the last one. With some friends, we went on the boat. And we crossed to New York and went immediately to the Chelsea Hotel, which was a well known kind of, what? What would you call it? A place for –

Interviewer:

Bohemians.

Wendy Whiteley:

... creative types or Bohemians to hang out or live. So we went straight to the Chelsea Hotel. And by absolute luck, they had available what was called, laughingly, the penthouse, which was on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and had a garden outside. And one and a half rooms where we lived until full-time, all the time. We were in New York for a couple of years, and Brett eventually got a studio across the road, directly across the road from the Chelsea Hotel when he started to paint pictures that were too big for just to be in the Chelsea Hotel.

This particular painting had an extended panel that was bright yellow from the taxi that went out and then sat on the floor, which was exhibited at the Moore Gallery, along with a lot of other paintings, mostly which have either gone missing or been destroyed from New York.

This one ended up in the Chelsea Hotel after the exhibition. It didn't sell, this one. It's got a big chromed star in the front, which in this image is reflecting, got a reflection in it. And it's an odd shape, but it was meant to be. So it's a girl getting out of a cab in New York. It's very New York and very 23rd Street where the Chelsea Hotel was.

We lived in the Chelsea Hotel for almost two years on the Harkness Fellowship. I had a business with a friend called Liz Sheridan, who was married to Noel Sheridan, who wound up here running PICA, an Irish couple and their kids. Arkie went to a kindergarten down the road. This painting lived there, and then Brett had a second exhibition. We had an opening night on the roof of the Chelsea with guests coming from uptown New York, which was like another country, to downtown New York where they were quite nervous. All the rich people from uptown who were the buyers coming down to the Chelsea Hotel, to New York. New York's quite conservative in the sixties, actually, much more conservative than London, where we'd come from.

And there was a real divide between rich and poor and middle class. And well, there wasn't really a middle class, it was rich and poor in New York, quite extreme. And we were down the poor end at that time. It was a fascinating time to be there, but in a way quite dangerous, except I was never nervous in New York.

Interviewer:

Shall we talk about how the living room is today and what changes have occurred over time?

Wendy Whiteley:

The living room? Well, the living room hasn't changed that much. There's almost the same photographs up on the back of the door and above the desk as far as the... And the collection of CDs and things, the music, that hasn't changed that much.

The floor, when Brett was first there, he had this, was pretty horrible actually, kind of pale, apricot-coloured carpet all over it. And it got just completely worn by people walking up and down on it when we opened the thing. And so eventually, we took it up and discovered it had a very beautiful old floor from the... the back part of the studio is actually a very old building, the brick part, and I think it must have been a kind of hayloft up there because there are ...

Interviewer:

The building's over 100 years old.

Wendy Whiteley

The back part, yeah. Not the front part. That had –

Interviewer:

No. That was an internal courtyard –

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah, exactly.

Interviewer:

– over periods of time. What about the Balinese doors?

Wendy Whiteley:

The Balinese doors and that end wall there, which is just a false wall, really, was added by Brett in order to make a kitchen and bathroom behind that, when he decided to live there. The Balinese doors we'd acquired in Bali, in one of our visits to Bali, and they were just cut into that wall as a door.

The windows are the same. They've got blinds on them, and so the floor's very different. The sofa that was there, we had to throw away. It was a pretty horrible sofa anywhere. And that other sofa, he had, the leather sofa he had. So, the table was there.

Interviewer:

What about the lighting?

Wendy Whiteley: 

The lighting's changed because the New South Wales Art Gallery fortunately have kept updating lighting as the necessities been, but it's the same lighting in principle as before, which is a series of spotlights.

Interviewer:

I think what's interesting is that when the lights were upgraded, it was in consultation with you. And I recall you saying that Brett would have wanted the best to have his works represented.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah, of course. The lights he had before were just old-fashioned forms of electrical spots, but they were big studio kind of spotlights. They'd been changed to, what do you call it, Noel? LED lights, et cetera, et cetera. And there's a brilliant light guy that comes from the Art Gallery and adjusts them for each exhibition so that they're specifically focused on the works, which is what spotlights are supposed to be about. And then it changes, the look of it changes depending on what we're actually hanging. So, these particular photographs are of the Lavender Bay exhibition, and so all the works in the studio upstairs and downstairs relate to that.

Wendy Whiteley:

This is the wall in the living room above the little desk that’s now got a phone that you can listen to and interview with, an old-fashioned telephone that you can pick it up and listen. Photographs on the back wall, which are pretty much the same as they were when Brett died. Some of them have fallen down, and most of them we’ve had to reproduce because photography fades. The Heroin clock 1981 was part of, I think, recent nudes or somewhere. Obvious what it relates.

Interviewer:

The works from 1981 – I think it was a Life and Death exhibition of Reiby Place [in fact it was Australia Galleries, 28 May – 18 June 1983] around that period of time.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yes, of course it was. Yes, that’s right. It’s in relation to the use of heroin. I don’t know what more can you say.

Interviewer:

The distortion of time?

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah.

Interviewer:

The impact that has.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah, exactly. So it’s there, I think. And it still works, doesn’t it?

Interviewer:

Yep.

Wendy Whiteley:

Got to change the batteries from time to time.

Interviewer:

What about the portrait above the Heroin clock of Brett?

Wendy Whiteley:

Well, most of the photographs on this particular wall are very much to do with Brett’s personal life. So that’s a photograph of him – Brett and Malcolm McLaren, who came to the studio for a visit. I don’t know who took the photograph, but somebody. And I always thought they looked like sisters, actually, in this photograph.

Interviewer:

Johnny Lewis took the photo.

Wendy Whiteley:

Oh, did he?

Interviewer:

Yeah. And there’s photographs of Brett with Billy Connolly.

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah. That’s a snapshot that somebody took. That particular one that’s up on that wall, Billy and Pamela had a renter house at Palm Beach [in Sydney] and Brett had gone down there and he and Billy spent time jumping off verandas into the pool and taking shots of each other. Brett loved Billy Connolly. And I think Billy Connolly was very affectionate about Brett. And when he came to Australia for one of his visits, he came to the studio and shot some film there when he was making his television documentary about his trails around Australia.

Interviewer:

There’s also a great photograph of Bob Dylan sitting on the couch in the studio. Tell me about that.

Wendy Whiteley:

Well, that one was taken during a press conference held at the studio. There was a lot of journalists there, and there was a Q&A after Dylan had reluctantly, as usual – sort of few journalistic questions. And Brett asked him fairly direct questions about spirituality and how he made his work, and he responded pretty well. And then after that, Dylan came back to the studio, and he had – I wasn’t there for this – he had a couple of people as an entourage, and asked Brett … Actually, Brett got really paranoid, because he asked him very weird questions, or he thought they were weird, about how you make a painting. He was looking at the big portrait head of me, which was up at the time, and he kept saying, ‘How do you make it that size?’

Alec George:

We're often asked about the studio itself as it is today. Has it changed?

Wendy Whiteley:

Fundamentally, no. Not at all. The paints and the actual working materials are pretty well as they were 25, 30 years ago. When it gets to be that stage, occasionally they have to be dusted, but [inaudible] only get moved very much. The books and things were more or less like Brett had them. The stuff on the walls is the same. What does change from time to time are the works that are actually hung on the wall so that they actually become part of the exhibition. I've never thought that there's that much benefit to just leave a stack of old boards stacked up against the wall taking up space. It's just an opportunity to show a few more works to people at the time. But it retains, hopefully, the sense of, that's where Brett was working using the same tools.

The chair never changes. Can't let anyone sit in it anymore. It's become a kind of sacred icon, that chair, and it'd probably fall apart if anyone sat in it, anyway, but... And this last exhibition, I think you can see it, there's a chair from Lavender Bay that relates to a work that was made in Lavender Bay, and so I brought that into the studio there. And things like that will probably end up in the studio when I'm dead, anyway. But the rest of the stuff is, yeah, fundamentally the same.

Alec George:

The studio chair you mentioned, it's Brett's chair.

Wendy Whiteley:

The green chair.

Interviewer:

He had that for a number of years, didn't he?

Wendy Whiteley:

Yeah, yeah. That chair went like the quotes on the wall, and all the storage stuff, from studio to studio. We bought it at Vinnies once when we were first in Sydney, and then it was in the house, and then he took it to the Gasworks and then to Reiby Place and then to here. It was just a comfy cane chair that he always sat in.

Wendy Whiteley:

Ravi Shankar 1966. This magnificent drawing was gifted to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by a private collector. It was made after we'd seen a concert of Ravi Shankar in Calcutta on our way back from Australia to London. So the drawing was actually made in London after we'd seen Shankar on stage in Calcutta, at which we were part of a very small audience, including some of Shankar's family who talked all the way through it, making comments about whether they thought he was doing a good job or a bad job.

We'd been, of course, gobsmacked to find the fact that when we were in Calcutta, Arkie was a small baby, actually, when we saw the concert. And we'd seen Shankar in London a few times at the festival hall with Yehudi Menuhin and things like that. He'd become a very '60s admired figure. And the music people had listened to a lot and some of the Beatles went to India and learned to play the sitar and things.

So Shankar was a big figure, but in India he was considered to be a great artist, but taken for granted a bit. And we were walking from the hotel we were staying in Calcutta, and we went past this enormous queue and wondered what it was for. It was all the Indians lining up to see the latest James Bond movie. And we went, then, around the next corner and went to the Shankar concert, which we felt very honored to be able to go to. And Shankar was sitting on the stage on the floor with one leg hanging over the edge of the stage, and he was keeping time with his foot. And Brett made this drawing, which made such a big impression on us.

And once again, you can see that he's used that very same technique with the charcoal, but he's got a thought bubble thing going out of Shankar's head. And also, the hand playing the sitar, which was moving very rapidly, is denoted as lines. Well, I don't know what to say except that I think it's an incredibly accurate drawing of a man playing a sitar.

Alec George:

It's a big drawing.

Wendy Whiteley:

It's a big drawing. Yeah.

Alec George:

We've got two musicians peripheral to the right and left of Shankar himself. But what I find it really interesting is you've got that real movement of the instrument and the hand up and down. And then there's a white light emanating from the top of his head, as if he's become one with the instrument, if you like. That fusion of the music and the musician and the instrument. It's trying to capture that sort of moment in music when you are in that space.

Interviewer: Wendy, tell me about the graffiti wall and the book collection in the studio. 

Wendy Whiteley: Well, this is the actual working space upstairs where Brett actually painted the pictures and drawings, et cetera, but the graffiti on the wall really went from one studio to the next. Most of those quotes; there are a few additions and obviously some later photographs and things of other people. The photograph right at the top of the woman with the huge breasts, that’s an extraordinary photograph. That’s up there. There’s a few highly personal photographs. There’s one of [Bob] Dylan, and there’s a couple of Joel Elenberg, our very close friend who died. There’s a shark saw, a headline – well, we’ll get to the details in a minute. But anyway, most of those quotes were taken from one studio to the next and rewritten on the walls. I think this one works pretty well and people love reading them. We’ve used some of them on t-shirts and things like that, and they’re popular, particularly the one about Thursday afternoon. 

Interviewer: My favourite quote among the graffiti wall quotes is, ‘The moment you are no longer a child you are already dead’, by Constantin Brâncuși, the sculptor. It’s one that I reflect upon every time I go through the studio. What are your favourite quotes or interesting quotes that you refer to? 

Wendy Whiteley: Well, that one would be one of them. I think it’s quite clear what most people, what most adults mean by that desire to return to the innocence and the wonderment of childhood. I don’t think it means, as some people misunderstand it to be, I think, that to draw like a child is a great thing, because I don’t think you can do that without being a child. But to have that just moment of experience again, the innocence, the joy of discovery is what’s meant. 

Interviewer: 

I think that sense of wonder as a child that you carry through your life, that makes you stop and reflect on the simple things of life, whether it’s a flower or whether it’s an artwork that you can ruminate over, I think that’s something special. 

Wendy Whiteley: It’s that thing of feeling that moment of discovery. Hopefully, most artists want to achieve that all the time with their work and for other people to experience it through them. There’s various ones on there that ... I think they’re all quite – even ‘Oysters think’ I like, because it’s probably true. The one about Thursday afternoon I’ve always found funny because it’s really about that feeling ... Most people say Monday, Monday’s the day that gets up their nose. But Thursday afternoon is when people are really feeling fed up with the week, I think. 

Interviewer: ‘Life is brief, but my God Thursday afternoon seems incredibly long.’ 

Wendy Whiteley: Yeah, it’s been a popular t-shirt, that one. One stage Brett was thinking what he could do. Actually, he was convinced that he would’ve been almost the best in the world at everything. He thought he’d be a great t-shirt designer, so he made a lot of t-shirt thoughts and designs to give away. Somebody asked him what they could do with their life, and he came up with a really good idea would be making and selling ant farms. They were fashionable at one stage. 

The other one was doing t-shirts, and he thought he’d be a great fashion designer. When we were living in Tangier he went out and bought yards and yards and yards of muslin. And I challenged him, ‘Okay, design me a dress.’ And he kind of bandaged me up with this muslin. Literally, I couldn’t move. All around my head with my face sticking out and things, and said, ‘That was a great ...’ I don’t know whether he was trying to put me in a tomb or not, but it was completely unwearable, so I said he failed as a designer. 

Interviewer: There’s a great quote on the graffiti wall that says, ‘The moment you know what you are doing, it’s just another form of illustration’, FB [Francis Bacon]. 

Wendy Whiteley: That is the thing of repetition and doing the same thing over and over again, then that’s what Francis was saying. The moment you don’t surprise yourself, basically. You know, it’s just repetition. You’re just repeating yourself over and over again. And you’re almost frightened to move away from that. Bacon had a great love of chance. He was a gambler, inherently a gambler all through his life. He gambled away a lot of his money, actually – and often obviously won some sometimes – but he loved gambling. And that element of chance you see in Francis Bacon, and in other artists, but in Francis Bacon particularly, it was that throwing the paint at a canvas because it simply wasn’t right for him. And then he’d throw a slash of white out of a can or something at the canvas or off the end of a brush. And it was that chance element that gelled the whole thing together. And so that’s what he was talking about, and Brett agreed.  

‘Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.’ I don’t know who said that first, but somebody. ‘Love thy neighbour.’ ‘Good poets borrow, great poets thieve’ – TS Eliot’s thing, and Brett believed that too. If you were timid, you’d borrow something. Great poets could steal something and make something else with it. It didn’t mean you copied it. It meant you moved on, that you used history, that you used what had gone before you, you could steal it completely, but you’d move on from there. Not copy it, but move on. I understand that. It’s about being game. 

Interviewer: I think also with artists in general, but Whiteley specifically, he had, for example, admired Matisse. But when he’s exploring the flattening of the picture plane or other things or taking elements of Nicolas de Staël, Picasso or whatever, it’s as if through his own art practice it’s transformed anyway, by his hand, his eye, his judgement on composition, but you can see the homage he’s paying to those artists in its own way, but it’s all uniquely Whiteley work in the end. 

Wendy Whiteley: Yeah, of course it is. And I don’t think anything exists without there being some connection or influence or even if it’s just an intellectual idea from beforehand that there is no such thing. There’s nothing new under the sun. It all has a tradition, a pathway in history. Brett was very open about acknowledging which people he admired and which people he didn’t like at all. And his thing was that they were there. They were there actually for him to be able to leap from, to be able to take his own steps into it. It’s not unusual. I mean, without Africa, Picasso would never have probably got around to cubism. Without Japan, a lot of the French post-impressionists wouldn’t have moved on from where they were. It was seeing something other than what they’d grown up with all around their lives. One markedly different moment to leap from. 

It’s odd because now in current time we know almost everything that’s gone before. There’s nothing new. America and Europe are just discovering the Aboriginal artists in an extraordinary way. And for them that’s absolutely new and we’ve begun to acknowledge the place it has here. Of course, we have. The world has. But apart from that, you think there’s not much more to find. We’ll have to keep going back. People in the future will have to keep going back to the people that have already existed from everywhere, looking at it and using it, absorbing what it means and being able to go forward from there.

  • 01
    The studio
    1 minute
  • 02
    ‘Self portrait at 16’ 1955
    50 seconds
  • 03
    ‘Getting quite close’ 1982
    1 minute
  • 04
    ‘Alchemy’ 1972–73
    6 minutes
  • 05
    ‘Self portrait drawing calligraphically’ 1975
    1 minute
  • 06
    ‘Self portrait in the studio’ 1976
    5 minutes
  • 07
    ‘Bather and mirror’ 1964
    2 minutes
  • 08
    ‘Bathroom drawing’ 1963
    2 minutes
  • 09
    ‘Woman in bath’ 1963
    2 minutes
  • 10
    ‘New York 1’ 1968
    3 minutes
  • 11
    Living room
    3 minutes
  • 12
    Living room wall
    3 minutes
  • 13
    Has the studio changed?
    2 minutes
  • 14
    ‘Shankar’ 1966
    3 minutes
  • 15
    Graffiti wall
    8 minutes