- Brett Whiteley
- Portrait of Paul Gauguin on the Eve of his Attempted Suicide, Tahiti
- signed, titled and dated 1968, N.Y.
- oil, acrylic, charcoal, graphite, glue, plastic, glass, wood collage and printed paper collage construction on panel
- 60 by 104 by 2 in. 152.4 by 264.2 by 5.1 cm.
Barry Pearce, Brett Whiteley: Art & Life, Sydney, 1995, pl. 81, p. 140, illustrated in color
Margot Hilton and Graeme Blundell, Whiteley: An Unauthorised Life, Sydney, 1996, pp. 75-76 and 120
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The Whiteleys had spent much of the 1960s living in London, which was also home to several other expatriate Australian artists at the time. Bryan Robertson, director of the influential Whitechapel Gallery, championed his work and included him in the Recent Australian Painting show in 1961. Whiteley’s Untitled Red was bought by the Tate Gallery, at that time making him the youngest artist to have ever been bought by the Tate. Through Robertson, Whiteley met Francis Bacon and remained intensely fascinated with Bacon’s work throughout his career. Reminiscing about their meeting, Robertson would later write: “[Francis] and Brett took to each other, talked and argued all evening and kept up a lively friendship over the years.” (Robertson in Barry Pearce, Brett Whiteley Art & Life, Sydney, 1995, p. 10)
Upon arrival in New York, the Whiteleys checked into the Chelsea Hotel, taking a recently-vacated and much-prized penthouse suite with access to the roof garden. The hotel had for many years been home to poets, writers and painters; guests included Bob Dylan, William S. Burroughs, Jr. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen. Here, Whiteley started work on a series of paintings for an exhibition scheduled for the following May at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York.
The works included in the May 1968 Marlborough-Gerson show reflected the frenetic energy of New York and the influence of artists such as Rauchenberg, whom Whiteley had met in London. Many were huge works using an amalgam of materials. Plywood, fiberglass, photography, chrome, piano keys, wood appendages and blinking lightbulbs all made their appearance. Several paid homage to the “heroes” who had shaped his thinking and inspired his art: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Martin Luther King, Ravi Shanker, Brendan Behan and Bob Dylan. For all the excitement around him, Whitleley was acutely aware of the malaise in American life: the demonstrations and sit-ins, the violence and confrontation, the cloud of the Vietnam War hanging over everything. He viewed the decline of portraiture in contemporary art as a sign of the disconnect in a troubled world: “Portraiture is in trouble because man is.” (Whiteley in Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Sydney, 1979, p. 113)
Whiteley was never afraid to absorb the influence of the artists he most admired, as Gorky had done. Lee Krasner, who met Whiteley in London, noted his fearless encounters with other artists: "When he sees a painter he admires, he meets his work head on, and paints through the middle of it." (Lee Krasner in Robert Hughes, The Bulletin, Sydney, 1965)
Whiteley’s portrait of Gauguin is dominated by bright yellow, the color he saw everywhere in New York, and was for him a symbol of the city. "It is an American yellow...the color of optimism. It's in the taxis, in the mustard, in the Kodak boxes and Con Edison construction tents, in the sanitation trucks." For him it was a joyful color which reminded him of the sun. "It is also the color of madness." (Whiteley in "Painting: Plaster Apocalypse," Time Magazine, November 10, 1967) Down the left side of the painting are ribbons of ultramarine blue, a color that he would often pair with yellow and which would dominate his future masterpiece, The Balcony 2 of 1975.
Whiteley is known to have read the poetry of Baudelaire during his stay in New York and his portrait of Gauguin mixes the optimism of the ideal island paradise, where the artist could be at one with nature, with the ominous portend of Gauguin’s attempted suicide. An early study for the painting included a photograph of a Tahitian girl next to the photograph of Gauguin. In the final version, this idyllic portrait of the girl is eschewed in favor of the sensuous nude reclining on a sofa in the lower right, the juice of the fruit she holds dripping onto her bare shoulder and breast. The figure looks back to the celebrated Woman in the Bath series depicting his wife Wendy in 1963-64. It also looks forward to the great nudes on the beaches of Sydney which would occupy him in the 1970s and 80s. In the current painting, a series of lines and arrows crisscross the canvas, guiding the viewer’s eye from the Tahitian sculpture (Pleasure) to a collaged fruit form (Tree of Knowledge), from Gauguin to the fruit being eaten by the nude girl, and then to the warning of the “Arsenic” bottle in upper right.
In mid-1969, increasingly tormented and subject to bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, Brett Whiteley fled New York for his own island paradise, Fiji, where he spent five months before returning to Australia. The present work, which McGrath called one of the most “lyrical” of the paintings in the 1968 show, was traded to the Chelsea Hotel as a partial payment for rent and has remained in New York ever since. Its appearance in this sale is the first time it has been seen publically in almost 50 years.