Fake or Fortune: The Life and Times of Brett and Wendy Whiteley
My lawyer friend sent me the divorce settlement of Brett and Wendy Whiteley. Everyone should have at least one lawyer friend. The law intrigues me (artistically speaking), offering us a strange portrait of society and what it considers important. Maxine, as a small child, asked her Daddy: ‘when will Mum learn the law?’
Brett and Wendy’s divorce settlement is something I probably shouldn’t have seen. But my lawyer friend knows me well. She knew I’d love it. She knew the divorce was art. Feminist art. We gossip on the phone together for hours. The court document, whilst not gossip itself, is a rich primary source of conversation. An International Australian Art Star and his beautiful muse, sex, drugs and a messy divorce! What’s there not to love? As far as divorces go, it’s not as messy as say Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn or the smaller decapitation of John Bobbitt by his upset spouse Lorena. Those bust-ups set a high benchmark for when love turns bad. Speaking of History, I’m also interested in the institution of marriage and why so many women keep falling for it, me included. Someone said recently: Shouldn’t marriage be illegal? And we laughed. Of all the patriarchal constructs, marriage is a real doozey, with so much abandoning of reason required to be seduced by its charms. I like to laugh almost as much as I like having sex. In or out of wedlock. Almost. A best friend to comedy is drama, and the divorce proceedings of Brett and Wendy certainly has drama, in an LA Law/Judge Judy kind of way.
All feminist art is conceptual art. Feminism is the concept of equality for women. This concept is more closely related to surrealism than realism. Equality for women more a dream than a reality. Conceptual art, like feminism, is not popular with the public who don’t like to think too hard. Feminist art isn’t even popular with conceptualists. Female artists are as under-represented within conceptualism as they are within every other art movement. So much for your big ideas guys.
Since art school, I’ve seen many talented female artists forgo their own artistic careers to nurture those of their artist partners. That’s what Wendy did. Wendy Whiteley now calls herself an artist and I for one am more interested in Wendy’s art than that of her former husband. I’m not a big fan of Brett’s work. I know thems fighting words, especially since art collectors are committed to the notion that the market never gets it wrong, but you’ve gotta call it how you see it. What else has an artist got except an eye? Brett’s art I see as cheesy, ham fisted, expressionistic slop, in lurid tones. Maybe it was the drugs, but you can’t really blame drugs. Miles Davis didn’t blame drugs. He used drugs.
Within the conceptual art of the legal document produced by the Family Court of Australia, there’s a myriad of issues with which the viewer must contend. The court ponders the concept of artistic inspiration. They’re putting a monetary value on Wendy’s contribution to Brett’s artistic success, a judgment that’s sure to fire up my fellow feminists. The court puts a monetary value on Wendy’s role as the artistic muse, the model, the wife and mother. What is the inspiration/the sounding board, to a highly successful artist worth, in real dollar and sense terms? Wendy didn’t get from the Court the percentage she thought she was worth. Do women ever get paid what they’re worth?
In court, it’s 1990 and there’s contention too over what Brett’s paintings are worth. Art is only ever worth what someone is willing to pay for it. There’s a tussle over specific paintings, particularly Blue Naked Studio. Brett is arguing that some of his paintings are ‘irrevocables’ or points of artistic reference, so he should definitely keep them. These works will help him in making future works, thus affecting future earnings. So you see, this divorce case has a minefield of ‘concepts’ to weigh up and wade through. In the same way as the very best art does.
The judge calls in the experts and experts never fail to impress with their differences of opinion. Unfortunately for Brett, the judge finds Wendy’s valuation expert, who prices up Brett’s art at $15,001,750 to give more preferable evidence than Brett’s valuation expert, who reckons it’s only worth about half that amount at $8,148,600!
There are other moments of absurdity too, like on p. 13 when the judge says:
‘The wife was the husband’s close artistic friend and his lover for some thirty years. Art is their life and was their life together. Her influence is apparent, visually so, in some of his works. Further, the husband’s painting is often influenced and sometimes dominated by a sexual theme according to evidence, which I accept. His use and reference to the female form is characteristic of a great deal of his work whether it be the representation of human beings or not. For instance, experts find in a landscape depicting mountains allusion to a woman’s breasts.’
Good one Your Honour: Mount Tittie. Wendy’s creative energies were used to foster Brett’s art rather than making her own art. Maybe. Brett made the stuff to sell, artists have to have something to sell, but Wendy sure as hell helped sell it. And she still is too. As Warhol said, the best art is business. And Wendy is and was very good at business. The Whiteleys were a high profile, in demand, collaborative duo. He the star and she the leading lady femme fatale.
In 1960 Yves Klein said: The painter has only to create one masterpiece, himself, constantly.
Wendy Whiteley has been doing a highly successful performance art endurance project for all her adult life. The artist Brett, had to self promote half as much with Wendy around. Maybe we should begin to see that Wendy outsourced the art object making, with all its mess and its sticky brushes and such, to the husband, who needed (like most men) to be kept busy. Given a job to do and a whole lot of positive feedback along the way. Meanwhile she grew and maintained the all important art world business relationships, with their potholes and vested interests. She designed the high profile/alternative lifestyle schtick, as reported by the magazines. She organized the parties and the crazy wild nights out that we’re all glad someone was having. This bit is and was Wendy’s art. She enjoys the type of media exposure most artists can only dream of. Fame clings to Wendy like the turban that shrouds her curls. Wendy’s oeuvre is complex and sits firmly within the best Feminist art. Wendy Whiteley is Australia’s answer to Marina Abramovich but she hasn’t sold out yet. She sold out Brett instead. Wendy teaches us the virtue of contemplation through gardening rather than Marina’s method of sitting round a table counting rice. Introspection monetized for a soulless audience
A spokes model spruiking the estate she now controls, Wendy keeps the ghost of Brett very much alive. With her stories and her memories about the good old days of yesteryear. All the reminiscing would be positively exhausting, if it weren’t so goddamned glamorous. The F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of Lavender Bay. They were hot, young, dangerous and rich. It’s a never-ending episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, with harbour views through a drug haze. Wendy isn’t just selling us Brett’s nasty figurative canvases, the ones with the sunglasses collaged on over the ping-pong ball eyes. How crass! She’s selling us something far more intangible. She’s selling us a boho myth from the elite comforts of the Sydney establishment.
This boho dream is so popular, that according to the Australian Art Sales Digest (2012) http://www.aasd.com.au of the 86 paintings that have sold for more than $1 million at auction in Australia, the works of Brett Whiteley account for 18 of the $1 million plus sales. He’s well ahead of Russell Drysdale, 11, Fred Williams, 9, John Brack, 8, McCubbin, 7, Arthur Boyd, 5, and Sidney Nolan, the best painter amongst them, at 4. Sidney Nolan woz robbed! And oh look! What have we here, surprise surprise, it’s one great big wealthy boys club, women artists don’t figure within the high sales. The art of women is not valued by society. You may as well stay the muse, it pays better.
We’ve seen Wendy as the wild addict wife/mother, the “goddess muse”, the artist model, the survivor, the wealthy divorcee, the grieving widow, the Sydney Socialite, the Guerilla Gardener, the media star, the Brett Whiteley art expert, the Fake or Fortune show host, the Order of Australia recipient, the style icon. Wendy Whiteley is everywoman. Wendy is a far more important artist than Brett Whiteley ever was.
I commissioned my 11-year old daughter Maxine to age the divorce transcript with tea, crumple them, then burn round the edges like it’s a treasure map. The gravity of issues within the official court document undermined by child’s play. Whilst she painted the pages with tea, then used the hair dryer to dry them off, we spoke together of relationships, marriage and divorce, art and artistic inspiration.
I look forward to exhibiting/selling this important work to you in the near future (Christmas is just round the corner). It comes in an exclusive edition of 25, one for every year of Brett and Wendy’s marriage. It presents like a treat once framed, and is accompanied with an authenticity certificate of my making. The perfect stocking stuffer! And a bargain at $250 per print, or just $10 for every year the marriage endured.
‘Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’ Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own p. 78
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have included links to several YouTube clips from Brett and Wendy Whiteley for you to enjoy:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUsnrTmIuio Restored Films show psychedelica 7 mins. By Gary Shead, with Martin Sharp, Brett and Wendy Whiteley. Ah the good old days.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV9OzeeW0pw Wendy talks up Brett, 11 mins. Wendy curates another Brett show, this one on the importance of the beach and the sand to the couple.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjnPJLM4DcA 1976, trippy video, self-portrait in the studio, 5.20mins, featuring flute playing, eastern Zen influences and Crazy eyes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmnyaHnnYCA Wendy Whiteley talking about Brett for us again, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 3.24mins. It’s all about Brett.