Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pacific Standard Time Shines the Spotlight on a Veteran Artist: An Interview with John M. White

John M. White has been making art for a long time. A fixture on the Los Angeles art scene since the early 70's, and honored last year by a retrospective at the Armory Center for the Arts, John M. White's considerable contribution to contemporary art in Los Angeles is further acknowledged by being included in four of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time exhibitions.

Throughout his career, White has focused on three major areas of work: performance art, installations, and drawing and painting. White's work has always been cross-disciplinary, seamlessly blending object-making and performance. In today's art world, there's nothing unusual about that, but when White was getting his MFA at Otis Art Institute in the late 60's, it was almost unheard of.

 

John M. White, Performance Guide, 1969, Ink on Paper, 28" x 32", courtesy of Sylvia White Gallery
I spoke to White earlier this week about those early days.

JC: How did you initially become interested in performance art?

JW: I was a student at Otis and I met Joan Hugo, who was a librarian there, and she was quite hip for Otis. She was connected to a lot of performance work that was going on in New York.

JC: When was this?

JW: I was at Otis from 1965-69. She would take one or two students under her wing every year. I was warned about her, in a nice way. If you really wanted to find out what was going on in the contemporary art world, you went to Joan. So I introduced myself to her and we became friends. She realized that I was looking at different things, other than painting and making objects, and that I was also interested in doing things live. One day she posted a flyer on the school bulletin board saying that performance artist Yvonne Rainer was in town, that she was a dancer and was looking for helpers. I didn't respond because I'm not a dancer. But then Joan asked me why my name wasn't on the list. She said "it's not dance, but it's called dance."

So I signed up and went down to this abandoned Cadillac showroom. Yvonne was very interested in common movement, and wanted a bunch of people to follow her around and emulate what she was doing. Very simple instructions. We met a couple of times, about 50 of us, and I began to really fall in love with the idea of just walking, then getting on the ground and rolling around and getting back up and just doing common things. That to me was very acceptable.

John M. White, Performance Guide: Boulder Delivery, 1970, Ink on Paper, 28" x 32", courtesy of Sylvia White Gallery
Next I went up to Dwan Gallery with Steve Paxton and he said he'd like to use me in a piece. "Just hold on to my body and as I walk around the audience, talking to the audience, you just hold on to my sweater." I said ok, so we did that and the audience went crazy, they went nuts, they were clapping -- there were about 200 or 300 people in the audience. Then he took me outside, we walked around the block and then came in the back way, did the same thing again and the audience went absolutely crazy again. I kept saying to myself "What is this?" It was wonderful.

So I took both Steve's and Yvonne's workshops at an abandoned warehouse in Venice when they came back in town a year later. This was my sophomore year at Otis. We tried lots of different things. I remember a really break-through piece when Steve asked me where I worked. I told him I worked in a brewery in Azusa from midnight until 6:30 in the morning. He then asked me what I did there. I said "well I do a lot of hard labor until about three in the morning and then I come into a room and I take a newspaper and I put it over my face and I fall asleep for a couple of hours on a bench." He suggested I make a piece out of it.

About a month later Steve and I went down to Del Mar to this huge factory and warehouse. I got about 15 stacks of left-over newspapers and put them in a big circle and went to the audience said I needed about 20 people to work in the piece. I pulled them aside and said I was going to cover them with newspapers and they were to count to 1000 and get up and leave. So they laid down in a circle and I asked the rest of the audience to take the newspapers, crinkle them up into a ball and throw them on top of the performers. We made this gigantic stack of crinkled newspaper, lit by one light from above which made it look very dramatic and then we all sat down and waited. One by one the performers got up and left.

We thought it was over when someone said "my husband's still in there!" We called for him and nothing happened. He had fallen asleep! So we woke him up and it was really a nice way to end the piece. Everybody laughed. It was a good audience participation piece as well as a sculptural form, and also live. It was called Paper Pile. It looked very good, it was very beautiful. So that was my initiation to performance art.

John M. White, Mind Field III, 2009, Ink on Paper, 23" x 36", courtesy of Sylvia White Gallery

JC: So from then on you did performance as well as drawing and painting?

JW: Yes. While I was still at Otis I started making paintings called Floor Plans for Performances, but when I titled them that way, Otis wouldn't let me graduate. They said they weren't a dance school and they weren't a theater school. They loved the paintings, but they hated the titles. So I changed the titles temporarily -- I called them untitled painting #14, things like that, and then I was able to graduate!

I realized that I was a little bit different. The feeling in LA at the time was that you were either a performance artist and you did live things, or you were an object-maker and you did drawings, paintings or sculpture, and the two camps didn't get along with each other. That was completely foreign to me. I'd do a performance and then I'd do some drawings based on the performance and I'd go back and forth. They fed each other.

I had major problems with it, getting gigs and things like that. I was actually disallowed from a show I was going to have in a nice gallery on La Cienega because the other artists said I was a performance artist and warned the gallery to be careful about showing me. I got a call from the owner of the gallery and he said "I'm sorry, we've decided not to show you." I found out a few years later that all the other artists had gotten together to push me out.

JC: Fast forward to the last couple of years. You've had a retrospective at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and you are represented in four Pacific Standard Time shows around LA. What has this meant to you?

JW: With Pacific Standard Time, I think they were trying to highlight a lot of artists like me who were under the radar. I think the older you get, the further under the radar you get if you haven't established yourself early on. So for me Pacific Standard Time has really been a godsend in terms of my public career, but I always work anyway. I don't care if it's public or not. But it has given me a chance to do a lot of things I wouldn't have career-wise.


John M. White, Solimar Beach Elements, #3, 2010, Acrylic on Panel, 23"x36". courtesy of Sylvia White Gallery

JC: One of the four shows you're represented in was the performance you did for It Happened At Pomona: Art of the Edge of Los Angeles 1963-1973 at the Pomona College of Art Museum in January. The other performances were by Judy Chicago and James Turrell. You received a glowing review in the LA Times.

JW: That was very interesting. They called me up about redoing a performance from 1971. It was a group of football players. I had 34 people in the audience and six football players and I choreographed their movements.

JC: That was Preparation F?

JW: Yes. I've never done a re-do of a performance, so when they called I told them I didn't think that it was viable. But then they called back and told me they had forgotten to tell me about the budget -- a very healthy budget. My response was "you're kidding?!" And then I said yes. They had found my price!

I came down one night for rehearsal and I asked where the football players and the coach were. I was told they were upstairs waiting for me. So I went up the elevator and I went into this room and these kids went crazy, cheering me, jumping up and down. I had just gotten out of the hospital and I was on a cane, so I went limping in and it was very dramatic. The coach had whipped them into a frenzy. We did a rehearsal and I saw that these guys were ready to go. They had studied the piece from the 70's, from the notes and photos, and they were ready to do it in a big way. It was a match made in art heaven. It has inspired me to get back into performance. I've made a couple of drawings and paintings based on that performance in Pomona already.



JC: The LA Times review must have been very validating.


JW: I was sitting here in the studio and someone called and said "bravo, John!" I said "bravo what?" He asked me if I had seen the LA Times. I hadn't, so I stopped painting and went and got one, and here's this big beautiful color photograph from my performance on the front of the Calendar section. It was not exactly validation, that's not what I'm looking for, but it was wonderful.

JC: Where does your self-validation, for lack of a better term, come from? What has kept you working all these years regardless of how your public career was going?

JW: That came from my first teacher -- he ran a private art school in his house in San Francisco and that's what he taught. I lived there for three years. He was a very strong figure.

JC: That was Giacomo Patri?

JW: Right, the Patri School of Art Fundamentals. He was a consummate teacher, an extraordinary person. He taught us to work our way through things, to do it ourselves and not to worry about getting famous or discovered. He said it was a blessing to be able to enjoy what you're doing.

I was going to become a brewmaster like my dad, and I just stumbled into his school, started taking a class, and before I knew it, I had moved in. I stopped working at the brewery and learned how to exist on almost nothing. I lived there like a monk. I've been making art ever since.

Click here for more information on John M. White


Upcoming at Offramp Gallery
March 4 - April 15, 2012:
John M. White: Recent Works
Opening Reception: Sunday, March 4, 2-5pm









Sunday, March 25, 3pm:
Betty Ann Brown reading & book signing

from her new book, Afternoons with June: Stories of June Wayne’s Art & Life

May 6 - June 3, 2012:
Chuck Feesago: Retention

Opening Reception: Sunday, May 6, 2-5pm







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