Vale Adam Cullen 1965-2012

Art Life , Stuff Jul 30, 2012 10 Comments

In the early 1990s Adam Cullen appeared in the documentary Moral Fiction. In it, Adam expanded on his personal philosophy concluding with the statement “I want my death back”. From Adam’s perspective the world deprives us of our essential liberties – the freedom to live as we choose to live and the ability to choose the time and manner of our own deaths. It was a line of thinking that Adam held pretty much for the entire time I knew him.

I met Adam at art art school in 1983 and was around to witness the pig’s-head-chained-to-his-leg performance that became the stuff of media legend. A mutual friend, Paul Terrett, introduced us. Paul told me he’d seen a performance of Adam’s where Adam had started a lawn mower on stage and Paul said we should meet. And so we did. Adam was a very gentle, thoughtful and funny guy, with an unassuming babyish face. Adam walked into the college library one day with the pig’s head and I was blown away by how pretentious it was. This was in the context of a time when a punk kid wore the skin and stuffed head of his cat attached to his leather jacket to painting classes. It seemed like either one-upsmanship by Adam or the sort of lame shock art that he’d be later accused of making. I think the denouement of that now-famous art gesture was its true meaning: he had to sleep with his leg sticking out his bedroom window because it stank so much and when the bus driver wouldn’t let him on the bus he had to abandon the performance. The exploration of his subjectivity had reached a limit beyond which everyday society rejected him. It was a wall he bashed his soul against for the rest of his life.

The myth Adam constructed around himself blinded a lot of people to his incredible talent as a painter. Adam’s subject was himself, although he denied it, and he likewise rejected my assessment that he was essentially a libertarian Romantic. His painting was based in drawing, and an understanding of colour that remains unique. His subjects – masculinity, nationalism – reiterated his world view that everyone should be free without limit. His best work stretches from the early 90’s grunge sculptures and drawings, through the late 90s paintings and into the early 00’s. This ten year stretch was always vigorously inventive, surprising and thrilling. For me, this was Adam at his best and his best work- shocking, hilarious, cutting. What art is meant to be. The later stuff, from about 2004 onwards was occasionally great, but it never reached the heights of his earlier painting, nor was his work consistent. The exhibition Let’s Get Lost at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 highlighted the great schism that occurred in his work pre and post the Archibald win in 2000 – it was as though the exhibition was cut down the middle – the lean and taught, black and white aesthetic of the early work, the day-glo monsters of the latter years. I recall the excitement of the Archibald win and the palpable sense that something had changed. One of our own had breached the walls of the Academy. The after-party at the Bayswater Brasserie was the stuff of legend – cigars, beers, cognac.

The myth came to replace the old Adam with a new version of “Adam Cullen” that seemed to bear little resemblance to the person I had known. He told me that he hated it, but he fed it too. You’d pick up a weekend supplement with a profile and there would be all the old familiar stories and rehearsed asides – the story of the pig’s head, the accolades from famous and infamous new friends, Adam always saying his girlfriend had just left him and that’s why the place was a mess. The place was always a mess and his girlfriends left him years ago. He’d call me up and tell me he was flying me and my family to Spain to accompany him on his residency and he’d be paying all the expenses. He’d fly into a rage when I said that sounded too good to be true and slam the phone down when I told him I had him on speaker phone [so I could make dinner while he ranted at me]. No one was going to listen in on his conversations, he said.

There was always the hope that he would pull out of the pattern of addiction, sickness and all the false promises of rehab, and pull himself together. He was relatively young and there was still time. But Adam’s curse was that he was smart enough to know that he was trapped but not clever enough, or ultimately honest enough, to admit he wasn’t dying by his own choice but dying because there was now no other option. Sickness led to chronic illness which led to terminal addiction and then eventually to nothing. The sense of inevitability of the news on the weekend was crushing. It could have been different – but it wasn’t.

It seems like a waste – and it is – but at least Adam has left us his legacy: the good, the bad and the ugly, the funny, the insightful and glacial glistening of truth, the dancing black line, the splat of curdled enamel on the infinity of a single colour acrylic. It wasn’t conceptual he always said, it was optical. Just look and you will see.

Picture: Bayswater Brasserie, post Archibald Prize win. Adam Cullen fourth from left. Courtesy Carrie Miller.

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Andrew Frost


  1. Beautifully expressed Andrew. You clearly (once) loved the guy and your sorrow is palpable. Thank you. Ella

  2. Beautifully said Andrew, so very sad, so very frustrating and shockingly inevitable. It’s clear that you loved him, despite everything. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Andrew Burgess

    What a load of utter bunkum. Seems you bought into the persona and skipped across the person, but I can see that you were moved to write and are rocked by his passing as I am. He was loads of fun but one of the least pretentious people at Art School who attracted the pretentious deliberately by his antics. I was too busy balancing paid work and work for grades to hang out where Adam paraded the pig, but it made the gossips sizzle. Jimmy was not a punk, he was a confessed feral who made his own clothes and was quite serious about using road kill in the same way it is becoming fashionable to do in UK restaurants and as Aboriginal people have done for a long time. It would have been better to just come clean with the fact that you knew him, was entertained by his antics and take the piss polemics, and focused on the truth evident in the last two paragraphs instead of the purple fantasy to please the pretentious. He played the role of Cheshire Cat amongst all the characters one meets in various Art Schools, but was refreshingly serious about getting all he could from the experience. I was truly happy with his success, was amused that someone so contemptuous of painting and so into performing visual Art should become a painter, but am myself rocked by his passing and share sorrow with all those who will miss him too.

  4. Prof Ian Howard


    An important piece of writing- for the person who was Adam, for students wanting to become artists and for the archives of Australian art history. A difficult task as well, attempting to explain/describe Adam- his art practice, his ambition and the out-there logistics of his life. The pigs head performance piece, the cat pelt etc came out of my New Art Forms course at Mackie,..or was COFA called City Art by then?
    Adam repsectfully kept in touch- sometimes through generosity, sometimes through need. In a deliberately supporting statement to the magistrate who was hearing his drunk driving and possession of guns charge, I wrote..
    “Adam Cullen has been a ‘risk taker’ in his image making for decades. From the successes, his contribution and reputation stems. Never has this risk taking been reckless of his own or anyone else’s safety or well being. Adam often tests himself but never others,…except in the sense of an audience being the willing observers of a confronting work of art.”
    Of course I lied about Adam never being reckless about his own safety and well being, it seemed the right thing to say at the time,…perhaps now,… it was not.



  5. So sad. A very beautifully written meditation on his life and art, Andrew.

  6. Chris Jones

    Let the guy die.

  7. Jack Robertson

    A heartfelt piece on a sad but fundamentally banal daily happening: some angsty middle class lad with real talent and promise drinks himself to death for a living instead. I didn’t know the man and like most outside the contemporary art scene have to struggle against the suspicion that the whole thing is one great insider’s circle jerk. It can be easy at emotional times like these to form the impression that people like Adam Cullen (strictly, his cheer squad) claim some kind of monopoly, or at least proprietary first dibs, on human feelings and insight. In fact I think the essentially squalid vapidity of this guy’s decline and death serves to underscore an unpalatable truth no artist ought to dodge: the vocation isn’t defined by what an artist thinks or feels – we all think, luvvies, we all feel, we all have dark sides and anger and cosmic conceits – but by what he makes. Once you stop making art you’re just another shabby, self-destructive and hurting narcissist. I heard there’s a bit of it going about these days. It don’t alone an artist maketh.

    Anyway: a sad time for those who knew and loved him and I liked this tribute, which seems honest and unflinching, as decent a tribute as any fellow artist can offer. Though I think the writer meant lean and ‘taut’. (Or maybe ‘taught’ is, on balance, a better description of what the average modern Art School contributes to the average modern Genius’s valedictory pose. Sorry – prose.)

  8. child of jean

    i love seeing pictures for andrew, they always look like he has photo punk them; above(adam was have a little i hate women convo, then someone yelled photo and andrew crashed in) .

  9. Brian Conolly

    I remember Mikey repeating “Adam’s shit doesn’t stink!” many times that night at the Bayswater. Read Erik Jensen’s biography today. He captured Adam’s spirit very well. He should be applauded. Enough to portray his manner,….. yet still only just a quick brush of Adam’s full story. There are hundreds more stories to add to his biography. People missing from Erik’s experience. The hotel in his name. His attempt at jewellery made from spent cartridges shooting camels in the outback. His canoe. Stinking dead animals under the house tanning hide. His under-painter that worked with him for the last couple of years. His last studio (that I doubt Erik visited?) His other girlfriends. Prostitutes. The Tasmanian devil. Etc. etc.

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