Brett Whiteley’s vast 1968 painting The American Dream is about to go on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), following a painstaking three-month restoration last year.
The American Dream consists of 18 adjoining panels, 2.44 metres high and 22 metres wide, and was painted by Whiteley during his time living in New York’s famed Chelsea hotel, surrounded by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Robert Cook, curator of contemporary art at AGWA, said the painting was a response to what was going in the United States when Whiteley moved there in 1967 when he was offered a fellowship by the City of New York.
“He was full of beans about what the place might offer him as an artist but he ended up being really confronted by the place, by the failed utopia of it,” Mr Cook said.
Events including the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy affected Whiteley deeply.
“He said he became ‘attuned to ribbons of violence squealing from the TV’,” Mr Cook said.
“America’s problems were his problems and he was trying to kind of sort it out in a way.”
The American Dream was completed by 1969 and acquired by AGWA in 1978.
It has become one of the gallery’s most requested art works, but its sheer size makes it a big undertaking to put on display.
The work underwent a full restoration before being lent to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and now that it is back the curators have decided to put it on display.
Removing the dirt and dust of a modern masterpiece
Maria Kubik is the senior conservator of paintings at AGWA and said restoring the painting took three months, removing dirt, touching up faded colour and checking the added on elements – including a stuffed bird and an early computer part – were intact.
“Every artwork is incredibly fragile, so it is part of my job to make sure it lasts the distance and that we get to display it to future generations,” Dr Kubik said.
“If you have discoloured varnish or dirt, the public doesn’t really want to see that, they want to see the work in pristine condition.
“He wasn’t the cleanest worker of all time and did spill food on his artwork occasionally.”
Paints can fade over time and with exposure to light, meaning restorers may have to carefully repaint sections.
“The nuclear explosion at the centre of this work is painted in day-glo pink, which is a very specific fluorescent colour.
“To colour match that we need to go back to the original manufacturer and get the exact same pigment again.”
Adding paint to a valuable artwork is a delicate job but not as scary as people might imagine.
“That’s all reversible, anything I add on I must be able to take off in the future. So if I get it badly wrong I know I can take it off.” Dr Kubik explained.
“Taking things off – that is problematic. I want to clean the dirt but not the paint underneath so it’s a case of knowing how the solvents react with the surface and when to stop.”
Up close and personal with paint
For Dr Kubik one of the most rewarding parts of conservation work is getting to know an artist’s work and methods intimately.
“I love the up-close aspects of it,” Dr Kubik said.
“I also use some analytical tools, which allow me to penetrate through the top layer or to recover some of the lost detail that has faded away, so it’s almost like meeting part of Brett Whiteley that has been hidden for a long time.
“I found a few inscriptions that he has since painted over. He wrote some items of poetry on the panels and then changed his mind during the process.”
The American Dream will go on show in conjunction with British artist David Hockney’s set of 16 prints – A Rake’s progress.
Then in December the show will change and Whiteley’s painting will be displayed in company with more political works by a number of American artists.
“We are calling the whole thing The American Dream, The American Nightmare,” Mr Cook explained.
Whiteley initially had big hopes for the painting’s political impact, but they were never fully realised.
“I think he imagined that the painting would have an effect. Certainly he gave everything he had to it and really fought with the painting and for the painting,” Mr Cook said.
“He talks about thinking that he would wake up America to what was going on and then realised that one person couldn’t really do that.”
The American Dream, The American Nightmare is on display at the Art Gallery of WA from August 15, 2015 until February 15, 2016.