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Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  253 ratings  ·  35 reviews
Winner, 2015 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature

Acute Misfortune is an unflinching portrait of talent and addiction.

In 2008, the artist Adam Cullen invited journalist Erik Jensen to stay in his spare room and write his biography. A publisher wanted it, Cullen said. He was sick and ready to talk. Everything would be on the record.

What followed were four years of inte
Kindle Edition, 226 pages
Published September 12th 2014 by Black Inc.
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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David Hunt
Sep 25, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An incisive warts and all bio of a man with an incredible shrinking life. Jensen writes beautifully, but I found his depiction of Adam Cullen to be of a man so pitifully unlikable that it diminished my enjoyment of the book.
Sep 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
After reading all the press over the weekend, and a friend chatting to me about this new Adam Cullen book ... I was really curious. So I borrowed the Gallery's copy where I work, thanks Black Inc for sending us this, put aside everything else I was reading and devoured Acute Misfortune in two days. It's compelling reading because Cullen was such an interesting character, he could not have painted a more complex portrait himself. He's a Peter Pan, a boy that never wanted to grow up, he's reckless ...more
Can a failed project, a ghastly protagonist and a miserable life make for a great read?

In the hands of Erik Jensen (with, I suspect, careful editorial support), they certainly can. There is so much to admire about this book: it's exquisitely written, cleverly structured, subtle but clear-eyed in negotiating its way around its subject. Jensen can turn a great sentence, and deliver an understated kicker with aplomb - qualities often used to quietly but decisively deflate Cullen's own claims and fa
Jesse Coulter
Aug 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed-books
Not being much of an art connoisseur, I wasn’t very aware of who Adam Cullen was or what his work was like. A copy of this found its way to me and I read it based on the blurb making it sound a bit Gonzo and wild, what with mentions of author Erik Jensen being both shot and thrown off a motorcycle by Cullen. I don’t think that kind of imagery gives a fair impression of the book, however; it is more of a mix between character analysis and brutally honest eulogy than any kind of rollicking bio.

Sarah Walsh
Sep 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First-off, be aware of ignorance in my attempt to critique two men in art, a mischievous mythomane Cullen, and the author of this book, journalist and editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and founding editor of Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen. Furthermore, I'm animated upon recommendation to the Council's library who ordered not one but two copies of this book certain to take away basic wealth from the author, in defense, adding abundance to the blue-collared space I'm housed in and the extended ear ...more
There was a lot to think about while reading this book, and it took me well out of my comfort zone. I like reading biographies of artists, but although his prize-winning portrait of David *swoon* Wenham was on my radar, Adam Cullen (1965-2012) wasn’t. When the publicity blurb told me that this Cullen cultivated a ‘bad boy’ persona, (drugs, grunge, outrageous behaviour) I suspected that I was not going to like him – or the book. As it turned out, I was right about the former – and wrong about the ...more
Jan 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Like Adam Cullen, my first artistic revelation came in the form of Goya's dystopian nightmares on paper. Unlike Adam Cullen, I did not develop a crippling heroin addiction, collect weapons, win the Archibald Prize or shoot any of my friends. Jensen's portrait of a possibly great Australian artist dwelling on the fringe of society is gripping. At 188 pages it is all killer and no filler, with an emphasis on killer. The author is brave, reckless, and a brilliant writer. Highly recommended. ...more
Michael Livingston
This short, powerful book paints a vivid portrait of Adam Cullen, a prominent and controversial Australian artist. But more than that it portrays a fascinating relationship between Cullen and the book's author Erik Jensen, who writes perceptively about his intense and not always likeable subject. ...more
Oct 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Narrative nonfiction at its best.
Nov 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I could not put this book down. Adam was a fascinating person, not particularly likeable at times and a bit of a dramatist but I was riveted until the end.
May 15, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A true story about an Australian artist. So atrociously told, that the guy who bought this book (me) suffered "Acute Misfortune." ...more
Jan 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
I'd known who Adam Cullen was from the papers rather than his art, at least initially. He was the eminently quotable prick who had issues with his mum, and was a bit of a lair, given to creating sculptures out of random shit, and artwork that was distinguished from that of a truculent kid by dint of the violence bubbling underneath it.

I'd seen his Archibald winners (and non-starters), but hearing him constantly referred to as an enfant terrible or similar made me a bit leery of learning more. An
White dude toxic masculinity art laid bare.

You need a hot shower after you read this book. It doesn’t quite go deeply enough into the context of the art world Cullen inhabited (for my liking), and that accommodated/encouraged him. I’ve often thought the Sydney art world offered a lot of opportunities for investigative writing that just aren’t taken up. This is a good start. The most interesting aspect is the author’s personal and rather un-objective relationship with Cullen. It’s a bit too vigne
Daniel Mitterdorfer
The curious combination of inherited bias, learnt behaviour and chance wound up in Adam Cullen (one of the most infamous Australian artists of the last 20 years) with deleterious consequences. Would he have produced such groundbreaking work if it weren’t for his dependence on heroin and vodka, the lies, the manic depression? Probably not, but as I think he saw it, and even though he didn’t say so explicitly, his illness and eventual implacable death was his personal price for being a successful ...more
This is an unflinching account of the life of avant garde artist Adam Cullen. Cullen won Australia's major portrait prize, the Archibald, but most of his work was far more confronting and radical. He was an iconoclast with major dependencies on drugs and alcohol.

Erik Jensen spent months in close proximity to his subject, shacking up with him in his remote studio and talking about his deepest feelings. The relationship between writer and subject became fraught, even abusive, in the process, and J
Apr 13, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found Adam Cullen to be unexceptional both as an artist and a person. He was reckless of others and of himself. He certainly wasn’t mentally stable and there appears nothing about his character that is redeemable, at least not in the picture Jensen paints of him.

I finished the book with a disgust for Cullen, which I think was Jensen's intent, but was left wondering more about the author: why Jensen chose to remain with Cullen for such a lengthy period in such an environment. Jensen is observan
Robyn Maher
Feb 26, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An easy, fast, compelling read. As a straightforward biography of a wannabe self-appointed counter-cultural boundary-pushing, bad boy aussie male contemporary artist maybe I would have hate-read it. Jensen's approach refuses to glamorise or romanticise; rather it is compassionately humanising and instead of feeling contempt i felt mostly sad for the curious and pathetic life of the artist. Jensen's account as author, friend, observer and realist is incredibly intriguing. ...more
Oct 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting insight into an artist I like. Jensen focuses more on providing reasons as to why Cullen acted the way he did, and managed to intertwine this with a biography of his life. I found this approach a much better way to analyse Cullen's character than through a conventional biography. Worthwhile. ...more
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
On Art: "I love it because it is so useless." ...more
John Bartlett
Feb 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Author Erik Jensen was advised not to write a 'dainty' book about artist friend Adam Cullen and there's certainly nothing 'dainty' about his long association with a troubled but talented man.

Sometimes their two lives seem to merge into one and this was what Jensen always resisted about their association, finally ignoring persistent calls from a dying man whose demands just became too much.

It was Cullen's win in the 2000 Archibald that sealed his popularity despite much of his art celebrating the
Julie Devitt
Dec 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A frustrating read for us ladies. Obviously the man is very talented. The art is brilliant. Could you live with this person? No But you get to see some of that at the art gallery without having to hurt yourself everday by living with it! Worth the read
Jun 17, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I saw the film first (which I obviously enjoyed enough to come back for more), so I can't help but compare certain aspects of the book.

I was extremely worried when reading the opening pages of Acute Misfortune, which consist of email transcripts of extreme ego stroking and at times flirtation - i.e. total wank. Fortunately this eases up quickly, but both writer and subject come across as totally narcissistic so be warned.

Not sure how effective dividing the book into sections was; some are defin
Chelsea Arnott
Acute Misfortune: The Life & Death of Adam Cullen was a good book and an easy read. Adam Cullen, the artist in question, is a prime example of the artistic stereotype of being depressed and isolated & the theory that those characteristics are intrinsic to making good work. Jensen completely dismisses that (within the Prologue actually - in emails exchanged between him and a mentor of Cullen's) & sets out to show us a complete profile of a mentally ill & drug effected man - who just happens to be ...more
Erica Mcbeath
Jan 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great writing about a pretty fucked up person, basically. Reading this biography about a self destructive, self indulgent narcissist was like looking at a car crash - brutal, bloody, tragic and enthralling all at once. I couldn't put it down. At least I got to experience the horror at a safe distance. ...more
Zuzu Burford
As a artist I never understood the high profile Adam established. A man living in a delusional world who comes across as a tormented soul using drugs and alcohol on a fast lane to destruction. This was a man who needed help. I ended the book torn between being empathic to his troubles and also as a complete bastard.
Bettina Deda
Jan 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an insight into the life of one of Australia's most famous artists. Intrigued and disgusted at the same time, I could not put this biography down! I still wander how the author coped with this experience. Anyone interested in (Australian) art should read this book. ...more
Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker)
An interesting look at a prominent Australia artist. I liked the book much better than the picture of the man who emerges. There are many challenging topics discussed and it is thought provoking.

Velo Bones
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. Jensen's style is factual, light on judgement and sympathetic. He treads a fine line, avoiding mythologising Cullen as an artist while showing respect yet a certain paper-thinness. Hard to put my finger on. Beautifully written. Great read to end the year on! ...more
Cathy Neave
Feb 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully, beautifully written.
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“I’m so used to absolute freedom. I can shit anywhere. I can piss anywhere. I can take drugs. I can kill things. But in there I was nothing,” he says. “For the first time in my life I felt what Ned Kelly felt. The last month has been hell. I don’t think I was that mad. My own illness is news to me. They say that I’m borderline bipolar. That was odd – not to have the diagnosis but to swallow the diagnosis.” 1 likes
“the meaning of Adam’s work sat on its surface, that he had no opinion of his subjects, good or bad: “Cullen’s abjectness is not luxury at ease; his emptiness is not profundity; when he scribbles, his poor syntax is not a form of epigram. His crudeness is what it is – unabashed … He’s a bottom-feeder, none too pernickety about taste. Every pond needs one, especially the cesspools of popular culture.” 0 likes
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