John M. White is an iconoclast. Venerated as a fixture on the Los Angeles art scene since the late 1960s, his work has shifted seamlessly between painting and drawing, installation and performance. His contributions to California art are historically significant, hence his inclusion in four different exhibitions during the Pacific Standard Time initiative. His approach to performance in particular combines a refreshing blend of fuck-the-system meets tongue-in-cheek meets unguarded sincerity and warmth. "I am a very lucky boy," he says.
On Saturday, June 30th, White opens, "Good Morning Giacomo," a solo show of new paintings at the Sylvia White Gallery -- his wife's gallery in Ventura and the home of his much beloved studio space. The following Friday, July 6th, White's ongoing monthly performance series, "5 x 5 x 5" takes place at their space as part of Ventura's First Friday art openings. The show always features five artists doing five new pieces that are around five minutes in length.
What follows is an assemblage of a conversation with John that touches on many points: his career, his moving shop to Ventura, his latest show of paintings, the "5x5x5" performance series he created, and some poignant essentials about performance and art making.
"I'll be jumping around with you so you'll just have to listen in," he says. In conversation, sometimes White is 75, sometimes he's 76. Sometimes he's walked out of 50 to 60 performances, sometimes 70 to 80, but only (and rightly so) when the performer, he says, "didn't give a shit about the audience." His career details are spotty as his recollection of them, but for an overflow of stories and well-earned insights, White is sharp as ever.
He attended the Patri School of Art Fundamentals in San Francisco from 1962 to 1964. His new show is a series of paintings made in homage to his first teacher, Giacomo Patri, a man White says he is "indebted to" for teaching him how to see. Students would spend a week studying something through looking, drawing, painting and sculpture, or they were instructed to stare out the window at night and paint what they remembered in the morning. White's upcoming show is a reflection of this time in his life. The paintings, dotted and dashed with silhouettes of birds on wire, echo this night watching and the gratitude he feels for his teacher.
White received a BFA and then his MFA from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles at age thirty, which he feels has gifted him with an urgent sense of time. "Not in a gloomy or a pressured way," he explains, "but I'm sorry, I don't have time to be depressed or to be blocked." While at Otis, the school librarian, Joan Hugo, encouraged him to attend a performance workshop by experimental choreographer, Yvonne Rainer. He says this moment was "very vital" to his career. He participated and was blown away by her approach, forever changing the trajectory of his work.
Since his first public performance in 1968, "Dirt Event," to retiring from performance in 1989 to focus on painting, White's work has been collected by such institutions as Los Angeles County Art Museum, Guggenheim Museum in New York, La Foret in Tokyo, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. In that time, he taught performance at U.C. Irvine for a ten week gig that instead lasted seventeen years. Last year, he was honored with a retrospective at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena that included visual, installation and performance works.
This past January, one of the Pacific Standard Time shows that featured White's work included a re-creation of his historic 1971 performance, "Preparation F," which, like the original, was presented on the Pomona College basketball court. The college football team enters in street clothes, undresses while chatting with audience, gets padded up into uniform, does some movement as a team, and scrimmages.
White has come out of performance retirement three times. Once was in 1991 for "Annotated Lipshitz," a site-specific work at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. White staged the piece under Ron Lipshitz's massive "Peace On Earth" sculpture, which placed the performers squarely in the fountains below it. Given that the Music Center was under criticism for elitism, White and company dragged debris and trash from surrounding alleys, put them together into a sculpture and painted them black as part of the set. "I have no faith in the corporate support of performance art," he remarks. The rehearsal process was marred by strange harassments and a constant barrage of complaints from the center's board of directors who were horrified by what was taking place. The night before the show, White got a call saying the board of directors didn't want the show to happen. The center director at the time suggested tuxedos and White countered, "I don't know -- that is really against my aesthetic." But he eventually caved. The director had a connection at Big & Tall so the performers went first thing in the morning for fittings. That night they performed in the tuxedos, the sun setting, sitting at a table with jets of water plowing through the piece. "Fucking gorgeous," says White, "and the tuxedos were even better than what I was going to do." The board loved it. The problem, White says, is "they couldn't see the piece until the tuxedos were there" and for White this translates into corporate control of aesthetic, where those in power can crush or bless something based on whether it is a "part of their image."
The third major piece he has presented since "retiring" was "John White's Back," which he presented to inaugurate the opening of his wife's gallery space in Ventura in May of 2008. "Life-changing things can start from just absolutely a pin dropping on the floor, okay," he says. When asked why he and Sylvia moved their operations to Ventura, he responded, "the weather." A weeklong spell of 104 degrees in Agoura Hills sent them up the coast for relief. While driving through Ventura, they argued over the pronunciation of the exit, Seaward Street, and decided to pull off the highway there, "just for the hell of it." Lunch and some internet searching landed them in front of a car wash that was for sale. Sylvia talked about turning it into a gallery and White says "she got that look in her eye." While driving back down Main Street for coffee, an empty commercial space caught their attention. They bought both properties and launched a new iteration of the Sylvia White Gallery in a biker town that was making radical efforts to become the name the city calls itself: "the new art city."
The new art city has a monthly "First Fridays" art walk, but for the Whites, the concentration of cultural assets on the far west side of town brought little foot traffic to their high-end space in midtown. White's idea for "5 x 5 x 5" was born. On the very first night, at ten minutes before show time, there were only six to eight people milling about. He began to prepare an apology for his performer friends. Then at five minutes before the performance, there were fifty people. He stuck his head out just before and there were 175 people waiting for the show and he says he thought, "what the fuck is this?" The show had struck a nerve and made visible the hunger for performance in Ventura. Going now for four years, the series draws performers from the region, with White serving as director, producer and marketer, as well as the warm-up act.
Having been part of an evolution of the art form, White possesses the revolutionary spirit for fostering performance in Ventura. In the beginning, there were clearer lines distinguishing performance from theater and performance was dizzy with its own freedoms; freedom from artifice, freedom from the distancing of the stage, freedom from control of the experience, and the freedom to enlist the audience as co-conspirators in the enterprise. "I use everything that theatre throws out," White says. In White's work, this freedom generates ideas and actions that are so simple they seem brilliant, so spontaneous they appear inevitable, and so without guile they inspire kinship.
To White, the audience is key. "I believe strongly that I need them," he insists, "they are a good third of the piece." He'll grasp an audience member's hand and rub it, like a genie bottle, then take the imaginary force of it into his palm, show it to the rest of the audience saying "woah!" and tuck it into his pocket. He may pull it out later and toss it up, the audience instinctually reaching up to catch it. He also connects them to the space they are sharing. He might walk over to a wall, write something on it and read aloud, "there's a crack on the floor," then walk over to that spot and put light on it.
Humor plays an important role in White's works. "It relaxes people," he says. But not every audience agrees with him. Early on in New York he remembers, "I had people really pissed off because I was dealing in humor, [the work] was somehow less important and if you were pleasant, that was bad." What audiences often find funny is when White does something to "reveal the process." In a piece, he might go up to a wall and say, "the performer just made a mistake," and make a mark. Or because of his distaste for remembering lines, he used to put up sheets behind the audience that mapped out what he was supposed to do, which they loved discovering and often purchased after the show.
While White says he's finished formally teaching performance, he does feel that revealing the process creates what he calls an "experiential form of educating," by connecting people's awareness to the simplicity and immediacy of the form, as well as to its endless possibilities. "You can teach people how to look, how to listen, how to see," he continues, "and you can use that as your basis for putting together pieces."
He has awe and gratitude for the process, which he attributes to his first teacher and mentor. Giacomo instilled in him a belief that "it was a blessing to be able to enjoy what you're doing," which he feels actually, really, literally, made me into a better person." The path of his career traces his process of making art: curiosity, serendipity, instinct, impulse, playfulness and luck. The path of his career traces his process of making art: curiosity, serendipity, instinct, impulse, playfulness and luck. But he should get the last word on what it means to him:
"What's so wonderful is: you get an idea and you can make a form out of it. You can make a form out if anything: I'm having an argument; I'm anxious; I've got heartburn; I had a heart attack; I'm dying; why did that asshole do that to me; or whatever it is, and I can make art out of it if I want to. I am telling you, it keeps me alive. It's just good for the soul. It is just fucking good for the soul to be able to not be confused. Being confused all the time is a lousy feeling."