After winning a grant from the Art Gallery of NSW at the age of 22, Brett Whiteley set up residence in London where he amazed art collectors with his highly sophisticated paintings. Whiteley became the youngest artist to be purchased by the Tate Gallery when it acquired his only two works at the time, Red Painting and White Painting.
Whiteley’s explosion onto the London art scene gained him almost cult-like fame in Australia where he became enormously popular in the 1970s as a leader of the avant-garde movement.
In 1978, he received the honour of being the first and only artist to win the Art Gallery of NSW Archibald prize, the Sulman prize and the Wynne prize in the same year.
With an expansive body of work including sculpture, drawings and prints, Whiteley’s most popular works are his paintings of which he produced interiors, nudes, still life and landscapes with unquestionable proficiency. His style evolved dramatically during his Europe period, moving from minimal abstract work to figurative, sexually charged and sometimes violent pieces.
One of his most famous oeuvres, Alchemy (1973) is Whiteley’s most ambitious work, a gigantic two-by-sixteen metre abstract piece composed of eighteen wooden panels, featuring feathers, a bird’s nest and part of a glass eye. The piece symbolises life from birth to death, read right to left, and is punctuated towards the centre by the blunt, two-lettered statement, “IT”, a simplistic summary of the human condition in stark contrast with the complicated themes of animalism, spiritualism and enlightenment contained within.
Whiteley is also known for his superb paintings of interiors, one of which gained him first place in the Archibald Prize in 1976 – Self Portrait in the Studio. With a vibrant background of ultra-marine blue, this work offers a unique take on the self-portrait genre with the artist shown painting his own reflection from a small hand-held mirror in only one corner of the canvas, the rest of the piece being a view into Whiteley’s Lavender Bay studio, furnishings shown in minute detail, complete with a nude female figure prostrate on a day bed. Whiteley’s interiors allow the viewer a glimpse into his day-to-day life and show the extent to which his immediate physical environment influenced his works.
Whiteley’s art is well represented in Newcastle, NSW, with his Wynne Prize winning piece Summer at Carcoar (1977), donated by William Bowmore, and his commissioned painting of an iconic Newcastle scene, Nobbys Head and the Entrance to Newcastle, both in the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery.
Whiteley made Australian Art history in 2007 when his painting The Olgas for Ernest Giles sold for a record $3.5 million at auction, while other pieces, Jacaranda Tree and Opera House, sold for $1.98 million and $2.8 million respectively.
© 2018 Cooks Hill Galleries.