At 81 years of age, John M. White can look back on an illustrious career that spans decades, disciplines and locations, from San Francisco in the 1950s to Los Angeles in the 1960s to Orange Couny, Malibu and, finally, Ventura in the years that followed. He was once in the Naval Reserves, almost became a brewmaster and even contemplated pro golf — until a chance meeting with an influential artist set him on a course that led straight into a life steeped in creativity.
While White’s work has been shown and collected all over the world, he may have been most influential as a performance artist. He began this foray into “theater off the proscenium” as a student at the Otis Art Institute in the 1960s, taught at the University of California, Irvine, in the 1980s, and continues to this day. Locally, his 5 x 5 x 5 series — five artists, five minutes, five pieces — has been a hit. It began during ArtWalk 2008 at the Sylvia White Gallery and has continued in one form or another since.
It seems appropriate, then, to look back on White’s career in a series of stories he shared during a two-hour conversation at his Downtown Ventura studio.
White served in the Naval Reserves in the 1950s, and in 1955 he was stationed aboard the U.S.S. George A. Johnson, one of two destroyer escorts traveling together between San Luis Obispo and San Francisco. White was named head of Section H, which was in charge of submarine depth charges.
One Navy man laughed, telling White and his reports, “You know what Section H is? Section HEAD! You have to clean the toilets every morning at 4:30 a.m.” Which, as it turns out, was also true.
For two weeks, White and his crew carried out their duties faithfully, if not joyfully. As they neared San Francisco, leave was imminent. So after one final scrubbing of the shipboard bathrooms, White told his reports, “Mops overboard!” An order they obeyed both faithfully and joyfully. Despite one false alarm that briefly called all men to their battle stations, the trip reached its destination without incident.
Once in port in San Francisco, the admiral gathered all crew members (125 regular Navy men and 25 reservists) for final inspection before leave was granted. He called up Section H.
“We thought we were getting a reward,” White recalls.
“It’s three months in the brig for you,” the admiral told White. And to White’s reports, he said, “You’re all dishonorably discharged, and will lose all your stripes.”
The reason? The mops that White’s men threw overboard, bobbing in the water, from a distance resembled submarine periscopes. The second destroyer escort following the Johnson briefly thought they were under attack and sent up the alarm. While the facts of the situation were quickly ascertained, Section H was nevertheless punished for the temporary panic they sent through the fleet.
All’s well that ends well, however: The brig to which White was condemned was a military prison in San Diego. He ended up serving only one week of his three-month sentence.
“You’re too smart for being in the brig,” the warden told him.
A GOOD-LOOKING GUY WHO CAN GOLF
White was by all accounts a bright man, but not a stellar student. He gave it the old college try at a number of institutions, including California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, but was ultimately unsuccessful in the traditional academic realm.
“I flunked out of college in 1956,” he admits. So he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a brewmaster for Regal Select, made by the General Brewing Company, in San Francisco.
After nearly seven years in the business, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. The brewery wanted to expand internationally, and “They were looking for a good-looking guy with one year of college who knows the beer business and likes to golf,” White explains. White’s job was to be interfacing with prospective clients by playing (and losing) golf and proposing brewery floor plans. But first, he had to get a solid year of college under his belt. So White’s father suggested art school, where White could get an “easy” education and learn how to make single-line drawings for blueprints.
White selected the Patri School of Art Fundamentals, run by Giacomo Patri out of his three-story house in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Some of the students even lived on site. “It was a perfect fit,” White recalls.
In order to be accepted, however, he had to produce a portfolio. White up until that time had never produced any art, and had nothing to show. So he turned to one of his girlfriends for help. Her solution was to throw a party, telling White, “You furnish the beer and pizza — we’ll put something together.”
With the help of his friends, Abrams art books and tracing paper, “By 2 a.m., I had a portfolio 3 or 4 inches thick.”
The shrewd Patri wasn’t so easily fooled, however.
“He looked at it for eight to ten seconds, and says, ‘You didn’t do any of this, did you?’ ”
Even so, Patri allowed White to take one sketching class for free. He wasn’t an exceptional student at first, but Patri saw something in him. And White immediately realized he had found his calling.
“I gave up the brewery business — dropped it dead-cold in a week,” he says. “Something about the art and the people living in that three-story place . . . something just took over.”
He moved into the third floor of Patri’s house/school (his rent was $40 a month) and spent the next two and a half years immersed in art. The program ran the gamut — sketching, sculpture, drawing and painting Monday through Thursday, “And on Friday we put it all together,” White recalls. “Almost like collage.”
“He turned my whole life around,” he says of Patri. When the venerable art teacher passed away in 1978, White spoke at his memorial.
“WE’RE NOT A DANCE SCHOOL”
After graduating with an associate degree from Patri’s school, White headed to the Otis College of Art and Design. Los Angeles was an exciting place in the 1960s, but Otis could, at times, be a little staid for the iconoclast White. “Abstract Expressionism was about where Otis had stopped,” he says.
Luckily, he caught the attention of Joan Hugo, the librarian, who had an exceptional understanding of art and a forward-looking approach.
“She was so hip,” White says with near-reverence. “Really hip to New York styles. She’d take one or two students from each class and introduce them to another way to see art. She re-educated me. She introduced me to performance art.”
Hugo was a fan, but according to White, Otis brass didn’t share her sentiment. Four of his seven pieces in the 1964 graduate art show were line drawings titled “Performance Floor Plans.” The work itself did not raise eyebrows — just the naming convention.
“We don’t show that,” the gallery director told him. “We’re not a dance school.” White was also told that he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate.
Luckily, White had a friend who both knew how to access the gallery after hours and had a label maker. The night before the show, the two snuck into the gallery and changed all the nameplates on White’s pieces to “Untitled.”
“The gallery director was furious,” White says with a chuckle. But he graduated with honors nonetheless.
GETTING AWAY WITH IT
White spent the next decade and a half working as a visiting artist and guest lecturer at a number of institutions across the United States. He also helped develop the performance art scene in Southern California, working with the likes of Bill Bartlett, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. In 1982, he began teaching performance art at the University of California, Irvine.
“Everything is going to be live, so your body is a piece of art. It’s site-specific — find a place on campus to do something for five minutes,” he would instruct his students. “Try to use props in a different way — take it out of context.”
He also emphasized the importance of spontaneity. Looking back, White estimates that only about 75 percent of his students’ performance art pieces were rehearsed, leaving ample room for chance. He feels it’s necessary that artists “are still figuring it out” during the performance.
“Think of it as a five-minute mystery,” he taught. “You’re just one step ahead of the audience.”
Through his reputation and connections, White was able to bring other notable performance artists to Irvine: The Shrimps (a group that consisted of “huge, big guys — they’d throw boulders”), the percussion group STOMP (“They were doing stuff we had done 10-15 years before”), the comedian Gallagher. Laurie Anderson was scheduled to make an appearance, but, as White recalls, “She couldn’t make it. So she sent Annie Sprinkle instead.”
He and his students would often utilize spaces on campus after hours, where there were no outside witnesses to their sometimes wild antics. And some of his students were as comfortable challenging convention as their teacher. White recalls one man who intentionally peed his pants during a piece and a woman who brought traffic screeching to a halt at a busy intersection by holding up a sign stating, “I F*** for Free.”
“I taught there for 17 years,” White reflects, “and got away with everything.”
ARTIST OF EXTINCTION
With a career as illustrious as that of John M. White, it’s no surprise to local art lovers that he was named this year’s Artist of Distinction. But it came as a surprise to White himself.
The day he got the news, the artist was sitting in his Westside studio, drawing, with his phone on a table next to him. When ArtWalk officials texted him about being named “Artist of Distinction,” a pen obscured part of the message. White thought it said, “Artist of EXtinction” — which he found both hilarious and somewhat appropriate, considering his irreverence for the conventional.
Decades of witnessing the vagaries, politics and machinations of the art world have left White somewhat jaded, even as he has been lauded internationally for his contributions to it. Nevertheless, he feels a certain pride in being honored at this year’s ArtWalk.
“I just got it. It’s one of the purest distinctions that I’ve ever got, because I didn’t do any hustling. The work did it. That’s important to me.”
John M. White’s studio at 110 N. Olive Ave., unit N, Ventura, will be open during ArtWalk, which takes place Oct. 6-7. For more information, visit www.johnmwhite.com. For more information on ArtWalk, visit www.artwalkventura.org. White’s next 5 x 5 x 5 series will take place at Art City on Oct. 12.