Menzies Art Brands



A combination of precocious talent, natural bonhomie and early critical acclaim marked Brett Whiteley from an early age as
a figure destined to capture both media attention and the popular imagination.
In addition to his artistic talent, Whiteley was also blessed (or cursed) with a voracious appetite for life, seemingly boundless energy, a profound intolerance of boredom and an insatiably curious mind, which Barry Pearce has characterised as a kind of computer greed for all the things that tantalised his curiosity1

This obsessive inquisitiveness, coupled with a keen nose for excitement and a predilection for becoming absorbed in the thrill of the chase (whether in the quest for a new idea or in order to stave off the more mundane aspects of everyday existence) are qualities not inconsistent with Conan Doyles brilliant yet troubled character, Sherlock Holmes.

Whiteleys questing curiosity led him to pursue his artistic vocation in Australia, the UK and the US, and explore a diverse range of media including painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture, as well as his own distinctive hybrid creations.
However, the medium to which Whiteley was to return again and again was drawing. It was a skill he excelled at as a child, winning his first drawing competition at the age of seven, and something that he engaged with obsessively even during the most turbulent periods of his life, such as the one during which Reclining Nude 1991 was created. As Barry Dickins notes in his 2002 publication, There were no divorces in drawing; nor was there upheaval or sin. When he drew, there was only security and innocent pleasure for future fellow-travellers and blinking beholders.2

Reclining Nude 1991 had its genesis in the tumultuous years leading up to the artists untimely death in 1992. Divorce from his long term partner and muse in 1989 and his long struggle with addiction led Whiteley to feel, as he indicated to journalist Janet Hawley in 1990, like General Noriega under siege.3

However, throughout the course of his career, Whiteleys draughtsmanship was to attract what Barry Dickins described as blinking beholders aplenty, ranging from revered art critic, Robert Hughes, to noted curator, Daniel Thomas, who stated that No one can carry curvilinear forms, gentle or violent, across a picture so well as he.4

In this large-scale ink drawing from 1991, we see the dramatic, yet sensuous line work which is so characteristic of Whiteleys work, whether depicting an undulating river or the contours of the human form.

Whiteleys drawings in ink range from finely rendered works executed with a pen, such as Frangipani 1976 or The Roofs of Paris 1989 to bold works on a more imposing scale employing a large brush, including The Cushions circa 1975 or Wendy Drunk 11pm from 1983. The current work, which measures more than two metres in length belongs to the latter group.

Executing a drawing on this scale with the necessary fluidity of line requires consummate skill, with the artist himself stating that, I find that the big sloppy Chinese brush, if I can crack a drawing in that medium, I can think of them as my highest drawings.5

Under the rubric of Drawing Or How To Get it On, Whiteley documented the qualities of the different instruments with which he created his drawings, contrasting the sensitive harmonics of pen and ink, of which he said the rapier and scalpel are cousins, with the properties of the brush.6 The brush, he noted, will do anything its asked. Ive even seen it do a few things its told,7 pointing to the technical prowess required to wield such an instrument in order to produce the slithering calligraphy which was the artists aim.8

Drawing for Whiteley was neither a quiet nor a contemplative process. Line flowed from movement, with the artists energy directly fuelling the production of his work, which was often accompanied by loud music and shots of whisky to set the pace. Fellow artist Garry Shead observed the sheer physicality of Whiteleys drawing process, stating that He drew speedily. He didnt ponder. The whole drawing thing by him was quite balletic. It involved dancing, standing back and posingNot self-consciously a beautiful style, it was.9

In Reclining Nude 1991 the languid lines of the elongated central form seemingly uncoil before us, evoking the subjects first stirrings from slumber. Marks representing creases in the bed linen are at right angles to those of the figure, further emphasising the bodys movement as its muscles tense and stretch, heralding the transition from sleep into a state of tenuous wakefulness.

The current work was created when the artist was no longer residing at Lavender Bay, but living instead at his studio in Surry Hills. It is tantalising to speculate about the identity of the central figure and given the context in which Reclining Nude 1991 was created, it is probably Janice Spencer, the artists girlfriend of later years who resided with him.

However, the importance of this work lies more in what it represents than whom it depicts. As Lou Klepac observes in his 2014 publication regarding the artists drawings, A poem is compressed language; in the same way a good drawing is a compressed experience.10 In Whiteleys case, the compression is due to the speed and fluency with which he worked, in addition to the act of depicting a moment in time in a tangible, two dimensional form.
In Reclining Nude 1991 the artist fluidly apprehends just such a moment on an imposing scale using a medium in which he excelled.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Barry Pearce.

1. Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art & Life, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.20
2. Dickins, B., Black & Whiteley: Barry Dickins in Search of Brett, Hardie Grant Books, South Yarra, Vic, 2002, p.4
3. Hawley, J., Brett Whiteley: The Art of the Warrior, Good Weekend, 17 February 1990, p.19
4. McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley (revised edition), Angus & Robertson, Pymble, NSW, 1992, p.191
5. James Gleeson interview with Brett Whiteley, National Gallery of Australia, 15 May 1979, quoted in Klepac, L., Brett Whiteley Drawings, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2014, p.21
6. Klepac, p.9
7. ibid
8. Brett Whiteley, letter to Professor Bernard Smith, Lavender Bay, 27 March 1972, quoted in Klepac, L., p.16
9. Dickins, p.60
10. Klepac, p.23

Anne Phillips BA (Hons), MA

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