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Brett Whiteley (1939–1992)

by Lucy Palmer

When once asked if he regarded himself as a rich man, Australian artist Brett Whiteley who was found dead on Monday night in a NSW motel, said with a smile — "No, but I'm valuable".

Whiteley, 53, was found dead in his bed and surrounded by needles, tablets and a bottle of whisky by the manager of a South Coast hotel.

Born in Sydney in 1939, Whiteley was one of Australia's most prominent artists.

His career spanned more than 30 years, and award-winning paintings of sexual murder, drug addiction and landscapes adorned galleries from Melbourne to New York.

During his controversial career, he won the prestigious Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes and was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1991. His friends and colleagues described him yesterday as a "genius", and a "richly gifted and talented painter".

Stuart Purves, managing director of Australian Galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, said he was deeply shocked by Whiteley's death and rumours that he died of a drug overdose.

The federal Minister for the Arts, Wendy Fatin, said in a statement that Whiteley was regarded as a master of contemporary painting and his death was a great loss.

Barry Pearce, curator, of Australian paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW, said he was shocked but not surprised by the death, an event long predicted by stories of his drug and alcohol abuse echoed through the art world in the 1970s and 1980s.

Known recently as a man struggling with a powerful heroin addiction, Whiteley once said he had always preferred "booze and grass" to expand his creative consciousness.

"Sometimes I wonder if I've done it from a tremendous sense of inferiority and doubt, or is it superiority and feeling I am so incredibly bloody gifted, stuff all of you?" he said.

He leaves a daughter from his first marriage, and his de facto wife, Janice Spencer.

Original publication

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Citation details

Lucy Palmer, 'Whiteley, Brett (1939–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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