Last week the Brett Whiteley Catalogue Raisonné 1955-1992 arrived on my doorstep. When I bent down to pick it up, I thought I’d need a forklift. Lugging it inside I made straight for the bathroom scales, which registered 22.9 kilos. Upon opening the package I discovered a gleaming white case in which seven white volumes of varying thickness had been tucked into seven slots cut to the same proportions. It was such a snug fit that an effort was required to separate each book from the mother-ship. When I found myself tipping the case backwards so I could reinsert a volume I wondered if design had triumphed over practicality.
The Brett Whiteley Catalogue Raisonné, published by Schwartz City, is not made for casual browsing. People won’t be flicking through it in bookshops or leaving it lying around on the coffee table. It’s three times heavier than the permitted amount of hand luggage on a plane trip. It’s as sturdy as a piece of furniture. It’s a work of art in its own right, and a monumental statement of intent. That intent is to proclaim the glory and greatness of Brett Whiteley (1933-92) for now and forever. Amen.
The set features 4,600 artworks exquisitely reproduced over more than 3,000 pages. Selling for $1,500, in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, it’s an expensive book but cheaper than the smallest Whiteley drawing. One suspects the edition will sell out quickly as there is no point in waiting for the paperback.
It might be useful to say a few words about the catalogue raisonné – a literary genre that confounds the most dire predictions about the impending death of the book. We use the French term because it better describes such a publication. The literal translation would be a “reasoned catalogue” meaning that it not only collects all the known works by a particular artist, but puts them into a context, explaining how and when they were made, where they were exhibited and sold. A catalogue raisonné not only provides a thorough description of a work, but charts its provenance, sometimes through the hands of many different collectors.
In the past this made the catalogue raisonné a valuable tool for scholars and art dealers. Because such projects often ran into multiple volumes and required vast amounts of research they were produced in small editions and sold for high prices. But as soon as the books were published another batch of works would turn up, which meant the catalogue was instantly superceded. The inelegant solution was to publish supplementary volumes, but this was hardly viable unless there were enough new discoveries to justify the cost of printing.
One would think all these problems would be solved in the digital age by the simple expedient of putting the relevant information on a database that could be kept up to date, able to be consulted or downloaded for a fee. But despite being cumbersome and impractical, catalogues raisonné continue to be printed with great regularity. The raison is that they are supreme symbols of an artist’s historical importance and market value.
The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, which began publication with five volumes in 2002, is now up to seven volumes, and may be acquired for the ‘discount’ price of around US$3,000. To date there are seven volumes in the catalogue raisonné of Cy Twombly’s paintings, another four volumes of drawings, two volumes of sculpture, three more of photographs, and one of printed graphic work. If you’re ready to spend a million or more on a piece by Warhol or Twombly, you may as well get all the books.
No prizes for guessing that the Brett Whiteley Catalogue Raisonné is a way of consolidating and extending the huge prices the artist’s work commands in the Australian art market. Yet this need not detract from the Herculean labours of editor, Kathie Sutherland, who has spent seven years putting this material together, patiently checking details, tracking down references and investigating relationships between works. Her sole creative contributions are two essays on the nude and the landscape, respectively, in Volume 7. The rest of the job might seem like pure drudgery, although Sutherland may see it differently.
I’ve written a lot about Whiteley over the years but have never been an admirer. The constant hullabaloo about the artist’s “genius” is hard to square with bloated, self-indulgent monsterpieces such as The American Dream (1968-69) and Alchemy (1972-73), which have Volume Two entirely to themselves, in two lengthy fold-outs.
With most artists their largest works are their best, but not Whiteley. The larger the canvas, the more grandiloquent the intent, the more bilious the impact. The most appealing works are often spontaneous sketches or lyrical landscapes. The worst are those in which he gives free rein to his ‘genius’. Here we get the full repertoire of cosmic swirls, objects glued on to the canvas, tasteless borrowings from other artists, and a graphic line that whips and curls like a cobra on heat.
After looking at 4,600 images I’ll risk a few generalisations. It’s not unusual for an artist who begins as a figurative painter to gradually embrace abstraction, as he or she grows in confidence and ambition. Whiteley does the opposite. His early works are largely abstract, characterised by a creative uncertainty that results in numerous corrections, overlapping lines and planes of closely-matched colours. See, for instance, Summer at Sigean (1962-63).
As he becomes successful there is a turn to figuration, albeit with a taste for provocative imagery, from the mildly erotic bathtub paintings to the full-on horror show of the series based on serial killer, John Christie. Yet these works still show an artist struggling with his material, questioning his choices and being prepared to revise extensively.
As his fortunes rise, and he becomes a Australian superstar, Whiteley’s struggles rapidly give way to works of cosmic, messianic fantasy, or mere decoration. His career is a lesson in the creative complacency that sets in when an artist thinks he can get by on talent without the shaping influence of self-criticism. Or simply never outgrows adolescence. Those youthful, hesitant scratchings are replaced by a slick, wristy line that wiggles around painting after painting. Turning the pages of this catalogue, the repetition of this line took on an increasingly mechanical aspect.
Whiteley’s line is forever taking a victory lap around the picture in celebration of his genius, but it’s better viewed as a vehicle for his personal obsessions. This is most apparent in what must be hundreds of pictures of women’s backsides – mostly belonging to his wife, Wendy, but whosoever the model may have been, Whiteley had one favourite angle. Ths catalogue could be subtitled Confessions of an Arse Man.
Picasso once said that what chiefly interested him in Cézanne’s work was that quality of “doubt”. With Whiteley it is the absence of doubt that becomes tiresome, as if he had become so convinced of his own innate talent that no line need ever be corrected or re-thought. Needless to say, the drugs and the constant adulation didn’t help. That all-important sense of judgement was replaced by an expanded sense of self. How unbearable he would have been had he lived to see himself immortalised in seven massive volumes!
Brett Whiteley: Catalogue Raisonné: 1955-1992
Schwartz City, slipcase of 7 books, 3188pp, $1,500
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September, 2020