Brett Whiteley, 1982

Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, 1982, 184x162cm, spray paint on canvas, © Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust.

Jonathan Watkins is the Director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

"In 1982 I was teaching art history at the University of Sydney alongside Jack (Elwyn) Lynn, the artist and critic close to Sidney Nolan. Jack had recently written a catalogue essay for Illuminations, an exhibition of a new series of spray paintings by Nolan at the Lanyon Gallery in Canberra, and somehow he convinced me to make the long road trip to see it. I remember the whole thing vividly, who I was with, the music we played on the way, the smoky smell of the hotel room where we staye.

Above all, I have strong memories of the show. Such freshness, such spontaneous exhalations of paint across expanses of canvas, the likenesses conjured up out of colour. I bought a catalogue, a slim volume with a reproduction of Nolan’s portrait of Brett Whiteley on the cover, and kept it for many years as a souvenir, a memento of the road trip, of my friendship with Jack and, I suppose, the fact that I first met Brett Whiteley around that time. On a Sydney Harbour ferry, wearing sunglasses, stoned – him, not me – five years before I met Nolan, but that’s another story.

Time whooshes by. Several house/career moves later, in 2008, impulsively getting rid of stuff, I sold off much of my collection of art books and with it the Lanyon Gallery Illuminations catalogue, probably thinking that it would never be useful to me, but for some reason, I kept an image of its cover deeply etched in my memory. Last year at the Sidney Nolan Trust, set up in the artist’s last home on the Welsh border, I saw another actual copy of catalogue and was immediately transported back to Canberra, 1982. There again, staring out of the no-nonsense graphic design, was Whiteley’s famously angelic face, a bit troubled, detached, a kind of psycho-symphony in blue.

It would never have occurred to my twenty-five-year-old self that more than thirty-five years later, not far from where Nolan was making his spray paintings in the 1980s, I would be making an exhibition of them to mark the centenary of his birth. It is a huge privilege, and something very personal. This summer, as I walk through Ikon’s first-floor galleries to my office, I’ll be touched by a daily reunion with Brett Whiteley."

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