Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen

In 2008, the Archibald Prize-winning artist Adam Cullen invited Erik Jensen, now founding editor of The Saturday Paper, to write his biography. Cullen cited a book contract, from Thames & Hudson, though it later transpired this never existed. The invitation marked the beginning of a four-year relationship, and the time the two spent together, largely at Cullen’s home and studio outside of Sydney, forms the guts of this masterful character study of a deeply troubled, compelling painter.

This is ultimately a story of decline – Cullen died in 2012 aged 46 from excessive drinking and drug-taking: ‘In the end, Adam did not need to overdose. Drugs had been working quietly on his body for two decades. At times, more loudly.’ Jensen’s prose is bewitching, and he draws out clarity, even as Cullen intentionally disrupts stories with mistruths, incessantly rewrites his past, and baits Jensen to take on his self-mythologising. Cullen’s own voice looms large, even at his most pensive, and Jensen, for much of the book, elegantly positions himself around it. When he places himself physically in the story, sitting beside Cullen on his couch, he seems almost an intruder – it’s an interesting repositioning, as it actually signals the inevitable withdrawal of Jensen from Cullen’s life. Jensen’s depiction of Cullen’s father, Kevin, is warm and telling. Though essentially a peripheral character, Kevin’s commentary, and banter, serves to shift, again, the shape of Cullen – another layer on the layers.

Though this isn’t a work about art, strictly, the handsome production of the book is worth noting. A selection of Cullen’s work is depicted in a series of colour plates, and the endpapers show an ink work, Heart Valve Penis. Viewing this series of Cullen’s work situated with Jensen’s biography is both achingly intimate and shiver inducing. As an offering to a deceased artist this book, as artefact alone, is a reminder of both Cullen’s beauty and vulgarity. Whether you know of Cullen or his work is not important. Here is an astounding, seductive and unwittingly moving portrait – an addictive read.

Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.