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Art In Conversation

The Seeing Word: An Interview with Robert Whitman

Robert Whitman at Dave's Corner, NY (1971). Photo by Gerard Malanga.
Robert Whitman at Dave's Corner, NY (1971). Photo by Gerard Malanga.

Robert Whitman was born in New York City in 1935. He studied literature at Rutgers University from 1953 to 1957 and art history at Columbia University in 1958. In the late 1950s he began to stage performances, including the pioneering works "American Moon" (1960) and "Prune Flat" (1965), as well as to exhibit his multimedia work in some of New York's more influential experimental galleries, such as Hansa, Reuben, and Martha Jackson. With Robert Rauschenberg and scientists Fred Waldhauer and Billy Kluver, in 1966 Whitman co-founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T), an informal association that organized collaborations between artists and scientists. He had one-person exhibitions at the Jewish Museum (1968), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1968), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1973). The Dia Foundation hosted a retrospective of his theater works in 1976. Several theater projects also have toured various European museums, including the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1987 and 1989), and the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2001 and 2002).

Erik La Prade (Rail): What were you doing before you got to the Hansa Gallery?

Robert Whitman: I was in college. I was doing the same sort of work that was in the Hansa show. Constructions.

Rail: Were you painting more in college?

Whitman: No. I know that when a lot of people go to college, they are focused and together. I wasn't one of them.

Rail: You were an English major in college?

Whitman: Yes. My life was boring.

Rail: Was making Constructions a move toward doing theater?

Whitman: Well, the reason I became an English major was because I decided I was going to be a playwright. I would create works that would be performed. But you have to look at all these things in some bizarre way, because your unconscious is working and you're not making these decisions. When I was a junior in high school, I went to see a very successful, important play in

New York called A Member of The Wedding. The cast was Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, and a child named Brandon de Wilde. It was an amazing production. I was sitting way, very far, high up, and the seats that we were in were extremely raked, as they are in those sections of those old theaters. The kid next to me was slouched in his seat, and I was aware that his feet had moved from where they were supposed to be, in the little area in front of your seat, and were over the shoulders and head of the women sitting in front of him. I can tell you that I realized right then and there, this was a hell of a lot more of a dramatic event than anything that was going on on stage. This was also a magical event that transcended anything that was going on on stage. I realized something was up.

Also, my very first experience of art was seeing the clown Emmett Kelly in the circus. It was like a miracle. I kept looking around, wondering, Everybody's looking but they're not like, seeing God. So, that sort of fixed me right then and there.

Rail: Emmett Kelly's physicality combined with the theater experience.

Whitman: He was physical but also he was a magical character. He was trying to sweep up a searchlight. So, he would sweep up the search light and it would move or get smaller.

What I'm saying is they fix in your head an idea of what magic is, what might be transcended in some kind of experience, in kind of a harmless way. They might even be moving and might even be spiritual. Also, add in the history of silent movies, with people like Buster Keaton or Chaplin, and the real clowns working in the circus, but that's later on. As I say, I wanted to be a playwright, but I used that word in my head. What I meant was, I wanted to make images that had a time— they began and they ended. Somebody asked me who my audience was and I answered instinctively, "Those who have gone before."

Rail: Did Julian Beck and his work with The Living Theater influence you at all? Were you aware of it?

Whitman: It didn't influence me at all and I was aware of it. They did a lot of very interesting performances. I saw some wonderful things there. Some things that stick in my mind, even now. There was a young musician/ composer from California named Terry Jennings. He came out, sat down at the piano, and just looked completely confused. Well, he was confused. He was an addict and probably had been through a lot of bad things but he was a kid. He was wearing a jacket and he went through all his pockets sitting there at the piano, until finally, he picks out of his pocket a crumbled-up piece of paper, opens it up very carefully, and that was his music. It was just beautiful. So, when we were doing our stuff, these early performances, I thought maybe there was a conjunction of energy, so I did try to talk to Julian Beck about this experience but he was very off-putting. I think he was offended by these brash people who were doing stuff that was out of their league and he had this long history and commitment to the theater.

Rail: What was or is, to you, the difference between a theater piece and a happening?

Whitman: I never used the word happening. It's a word that was derived from the title of a piece by Allan Kaprow. Max Baker, who at that time was the significant other of the woman who ran the gallery, was an advertising guy. Max recognized the power of that word for promotion and he was 100 per cent correct. So, they decided to promote these things that were being perceived by the audience as artist/theater types of things, as happenings. So, that's how that monster was created.

Rail: That's how it got to the television show Laugh-In.

Whitman: Yes. I used the word performance or theater piece.

Rail: Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg and you created pieces that had no audience participation, but Kaprow's happenings physically involved the audience. That was a specific distinction.

Whitman: It is a specific distinction and part of it is political in attitude. My attitude is, I don't believe in telling somebody what to do or manipulating them.

Rail: Your phrase, "the natural theater," seems to apply to things you were doing then.

Whitman: At that point it seemed appropriate to use found spaces. It seemed appropriate to architect specific spaces for the image you want to create where people would react in a natural way, so you don't have to direct them. You can walk in front of them and they'll follow you if they want to, and if they feel like going home, they'll go home, I hope.

Rail: This is a cliche, I think, but did your theater pieces go beyond the canvas to explore the space in the theater? Maybe it gets back to that phrase, "natural theater."

Whitman: I would never have thought of the canvas to start with. A few artists made pieces that directly related to their being painters. Red Grooms did a piece of painting a painting. Jim Dine did a wonderful piece of painting a painting.

Rail: I think Dine's piece is called "The Happy Workman." Where did you first do "Prune Flat?

Whitman: It was part of a fundraiser for the Cinemateque. That was one of the most fun evenings for me. The spirit was very high and everybody took what they did very seriously.

Rail: What theater pieces did you do at The Martinique and The Circle in The Square?

Whitman: I did "Prune Flat" and I did another piece called "Untitled."

Rail: Was it an actual theater you were doing your piece in?

Whitman: Yes. For "Prune Flat" it is was okay because I accepted the actual theater as a kind of found space. That's the part of the flat idea and what you end up with is a proscenium stage where you have people who look like jolly jump-ups. They are just planes in space. The plastic part of that piece has a lot of that character to it. Jolly jump-ups were those wonderful children's books that contain all sort of characters on the pages. Like fake 3-D, but they're flat.

Rail: How about John Cage ? Did his idea have an impact on your work?

Whitman: No. Not really.

Rail: How about your relationship to film or when exactly did you begin to make film?

Whitman: Around 1960. It was a film that I used in a piece called "American Moon." And I don't call those films. They are just parts of a piece.

Rail: When Charles Henri Ford brought Andy Warhol to your studio (around 1962), did you show Warhol a film and do you remember what it was?

Whitman: It was a film from a piece called "Flower."

Rail: What was the film in "Flower" about?

Whitman: Somebody is on a bed and as they become increasingly more agitated, throwing clothes out from under the covers of the bed, making a big heap, and then, everything goes into that heap, including the person on the bed.

Rail: Do you think your film from "Flower" had an influence on Warhol?

Whitman: I have no idea. I think the biggest influence on Andy would have to have been Jack Smith.

Rail: You wrote in 1966, in the 9 Evening: Theater and Engineering catalogue: "I am after a work around the stability of a film image and the immediacy of news flash. The images are concerns— the whole piece makes an image. Television is a great way to collect stuff; besides what's on the air, a camera on anything brings it in live— a local newsflash. Film is a rock solid steady unchangeable record of someone looking at something past." How do you feel about film today?

Whitman: That's pretty good. I still feel the same way.

Rail: Can you talk about the relationship you had with Allan Kaprow at Rutgers University before you got to the Rubens gallery, since he was your teacher who also became a friend.

Whitman: I originally took Allan's course in the history of modern art. I think Allan was more of a senior cohort.

Rail: Even through Kaprow was occasionally viewed as an academic, then and now, he did write a significant essay, "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," published in Artnews 1958, which is regarded as a seminal article.

Whitman: By whom?

Rail: Academics and some artists.

Whitman: Not one artist I know thought that article had anything to do with it. So it's seminal for other academics. That view, by the way, because Allan was writing, carries a lot of weight, but nobody ever bothered to talk to anybody about it or look at the work. All you have to do is look at the work.

Rail: Whose work?

Whitman: Any of the artists' work he's referring to. Any of the performing people, the installation people. The essay is related to what Allan did. Look at the tires, ("Yard," 1961), which is a good Allan piece.

Rail: Was Kaprow or any of his writings an influence on your work?

Whitman: Probably in the best way. Everybody was yelling and screaming and talking to each other with a lot of enthusiasm in that respect. That's an influence. But we were lucky to have a little circle of intelligent, wonderful people who were there by accident. George Segal. George Brecht. Lucas Samaras. Allan. At that time, I don't think you could find a college that would have that kind of nucleus of energy and that kind of focus, all by accident.

Rail: Besides Kaprow's input, you had a large amount of feedback from your friends.

Whitman: Sure, especially in a collective sense. It helps you focus your ideas if you are constantly being challenged and arguing, and all that stuff you do when you are 20.

Rail: Were you aware of Daisetz Suzuki, the teacher of Zen Buddhism at the time? He was giving some courses at Columbia University.

Whitman: No. Not at all. Allan was into that sort of thing. In that respect, Allan was very much interested in John Cage and taking that view. The view being that chance techniques were somehow liberating or accidents. I wasn't totally sure. I mean, for those guys it worked, in a way. Up to a point. I'm not familiar with anything of Allan's that would have had that same kind of potential for disaster, or change or flux as Cage. But, the interesting thing about Cage, and I don't know enough about music, which is too bad, that I always get the feeling that it made a huge difference if David (Tudor) was playing the music or if somebody else was playing the music. The so-called random choices were probably not that random.

Rail: You attended Cage's class at the New School?

Whitman: I think I went once or twice.

Rail: Can you talk about your collaborations with Lucas Samaras at the Rubens gallery? I think he was in three performance pieces.

Whitman: Lucas performed the pieces. It's really hard to figure out what a collaboration in that respect means. You don't ask anybody to do anything you don't think they are going to do. Lucas was very serious about his performing.

He studied acting with Stella Adler. He was in plays. Julie Martin did a taped interview with Lucas, where he says that he viewed performing in Happenings as his way to become a star. And then he says, "and so I did for about 12 people."

Rail: How did you and Lucas Samaras work together?

Whitman: We talked.

Rail: Was the creation of a piece influenced by things he would tell you about the performance he was going to do?

Whitman: In a subtle way it might have been influenced by me knowing him. But, you don't exactly ask John Malkovich to be Indiana Jones.

Rail: At the time you were doing these early pieces, did you have an interest in dada assemblage?

Whitman: Yes I did, but I didn't know anything about it. These days, most people that I know have more art books in their library than Rutgers college had in its library.

Most of the art schools, most of the art publications that you find, might have been focusing on American realism and stuff like that, but it was hard to find this material. Clearly, before the Second World War and for some years after, there was a whole gap of no information. Have you looked at art magazines from 1948?

Rail: Very stuffy.

Whitman: It's not very relevant. I would read that stuff and maybe find a Picasso show somewhere. But I think people were really interested in Schwitters. Particularly, Merz House. Schwitters was very interesting because he took the cubist idea to the next level, the next step.

Rail: How were you exposed to Dada assemblage?

Whitman: From looking at books.

Rail: Not necessarily from reading volumes on its evolution.

Whitman: No.

Rail: Did you have an interest in Antonin Artaud's theater of Cruelty?

Whitman: I didn't even know about it. I had no idea.

Rail: But you were more in touch with The Living Theater?

Whitman: The most interesting "play" The Living Theater was doing was the stuff they allowed to happen on the stage, but that wasn't theater. It was music, dance, and the vanguard things. The most vanguard they got were doing plays like "The Connection" and "The Brig." But, it was a proscenium stage, which wasn't very interesting. The music performances they had were fabulous.

Rail: Your drawings of Dante's Paradiso are included in your DIA show. How did you come to do them and why weren't they ever shown?

Whitman: I can't talk about why they were never shown, but it's a real pain in the ass to show them because they're on two sides and they can't be placed between two mats because the surfaces are very important.

They're doing a very elaborate framing job. When I was in college I didn't know any other artists that read. Anything. But I did spend a lot of time studying Italian and reading Dante. I took a course in Dante in college. So, I figured at some time I would do something related to the Inferno, and I figured I was safe because artists don't read. Time passes and time passes, and Bob (Rauschenberg) does those INFERNO drawings, so that meant I was cooked. Purgatory, I think, in the long run, might be the most difficult and the richest of the three sections. It's certainly the richest. There is a lot of visual stuff in Purgatory, a lot of literal images one can relate to the way Bob does in the Inferno drawings. In Paradiso, it's a whole other story. It's hard to read, it's all this philosophy you have to read, all these guys in Latin. So, I figured I was safe because I couldn't imagine anyone else having the will to suffer that much. I shouldn't put it that way. Just in the technical part of being physically difficult to read, to translate the page into your brain, not in the text is the beauty of the work. Which is wonderful. I have no idea where the whole thing of two sides came from. I suppose I wanted to make it really hard for anybody to deal with this material. Since it has taken all these years to be shown, it must be hard. I also had the idea that the way to relate to them was to physically hold them up to the light because the images relate on both sides of the page. So, you get a little something coming through.

Rail: How many drawings are there?

Whitman: Twenty-seven, I think. There are 33 cantos, and I think toward the end I doubled up. I didn't make one drawing for each canto. I may have doubled up on some of the other, earlier ones. I hope that's the truth and that I didn't lose any. It took me two years to do the whole series. It comes out to about one a month. When I did them they were precisely related to very specific thoughts. Some of them are very literal.

Rail: Is "Ghost" your last performance piece?

Whitman: Yes.

Rail: How did it come about?

Whitman: Well, this was very different from anything I've ever done.

Rail: Certainly, more different than your early work.

Whitman: It's different for a couple of reasons. It's simple. I thought of it more like a chamber piece and it's not in a specifically architected space. So, for me, the idea of having a room is peculiar. Because I never do anything in those kinds of spaces, it's unique. Normally, I like to make the space for the piece. But the real change for me was actually scripting it, what the woman who did the lights called a "story board." Normally, I like to work with people in a group and work with images together to see how they would fit together. Since there was a time constraint and a financial constraint, I had to line everything up so it could be done with no fooling around.

Rail: Could you draw a line between your earlier pieces like "Flower" and "Ghost"?

Whitman: I could probably do it but I wouldn't want to. I like to think there are some new things in there too.

Rail: "Ghost" is more lyrical and refined than your older work. But the older work has greater shock value, don't you agree?

Whitman: I think if there is any shock to anything, it's always because people never saw it before. They never felt you could do stuff like that. A lot of people never look at clowns or Buster Keaton...

Rail: Or Emmet Kelly.

Whitman: They never look at that as something they put into that part of their heads they put "art" into. But they should.

Rail: Has anyone ever accused you of being a conceptual artist?

Whitman: Not to my face.

Rail: Because some of your works fall within those years, it's open to interpretation.

Whitman: I'm sure some people have looked at a laser piece and thought of it as minimal.

Rail: How would you compare the audience that came to the Rubens gallery to audiences now?

Whitman: In another videotaped interview that Julie Martin made, Claes Oldenburg points out that in those days, you knew almost everybody in the audience and you were very sophisticated and up on everything that was happening. It was a very educated audience. The audience was a group of people who took part in almost all of the intellectual ferment of the time. In the visual arts. Any sort of movement, as soon as it got perceived like that, with that kind of energy, did create a lot of hostility. Or they didn't get it or they didn't take it seriously. But, if you look at the photographs of the audience, you see a lot of interesting people in those audiences. Maybe they attached a value to it beyond what was sensational. The value of art is what I mean.

Rail: And today?

Whitman: I wouldn't have any of knowing what an audience is like today. But, what's interesting to me is that people who I wouldn't have expected to have reacted to "Ghost," did get it. I was pleased with that.

*"Ghost" was performed at Pace Gallery in November 2002.

*Robert Whitman's recent exhibit Play Back is currently on view at Dia Center for the Arts until June 2004.


Erik La Prade


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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