‘Acute Misfortune’ by Erik Jensen
Black Inc.; $32.99
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Robert Hughes’s notorious 1988 demolition of the New York art-world darling Jean-Michel Basquiat was called ‘Requiem for a Featherweight’. Erik Jensen’s brief, episodic biography of Adam Cullen could not be further from Hughes’s article in tone: neither lordly in condemnation nor malicious in intent. Both efforts, however, concerned as they are with widely popular, boundary-pushing artists, could carry the same title.
Few regular readers of the Monthly will be unaware that Jensen, at the ripe old age of 25, is the editor of the Saturday Paper. Much of Acute Misfortune predates this achievement. Indeed, it is something quite different to the day job: an uneasy homage, an essay in ambivalence.
Jensen met Cullen in 2008. For the next four years, until Cullen’s early death, the two spoke often and at length. Jensen was to be a Boswell to Cullen’s Johnson, though the relationship became far more fraught and complicated than young talent recording senior genius.
This was partly a result of Cullen’s growing obsession with Jensen. Uncomfortable sexual undertones and general bad behaviour wore away at the biographer’s patience and ease. Yet that same desire for connection loosened the lips of the Archibald Prize–winning artist. He paid for Jensen’s presence in the only currency that would compel his attention: a storm of interesting lies, with outbreaks of honesty.
The result is thorough demystification. Where the reputation of a painter such as Cullen demands dangerous edges and enigmatic aloofness, a story emerges of a relatively happy childhood on Sydney’s northern beaches. The would-be paragon of virile masculinity turns out to be terrified of women. There is a decided absence of damaged glamour in the family tree.
What Jensen discovers instead is a gifted artist whose addiction to drink and drugs was justified as the cure for a disease he had never suffered from. Though, to be fair, the substance abuse eventually did bring about the tragedy that Cullen stubbornly claimed as his birthright. The biographer concludes: “He spent his life rebelling against an upbringing less complicated than he had hoped it would be, less interesting. And yet he never really wanted to outgrow this childhood. He never wanted to become an adult.”
The irony is that such statements issue from the mind of a much younger man capable of startling maturity: not only in the assurance with which Jensen practises the difficult craft of life-writing but also in the balance he strikes between respect for a wild, sometimes brilliant subject and a growing dismay at who that subject has become. The finished work, a quiet triumph of gentle objectivity, is as damning as any blood-and-thunder sermon by Robert Hughes.