Excerpt from interview by David Pagel, June 3, 2010
David Pagel When did you figure out that you wanted to be an artist?
John White After the first three months of art school, where I had gone for all the wrong reasons.
DP What were some of those reasons?
JW The main one was to get a job. I was a brewer, making beer in a San Francisco brewery. My dad was a brewmaster. I’d flunked out of Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University], San Luis Obispo, and I went up to San Francisco State [University], played on their golf team, and flunked out of there, too. So, I was a mess. My dad said, “Let’s get you back on track. You’ll become a brewmaster like me, and I’ll help you out. But you have to go to school, okay?” He was real disappointed that I was flunking out because he wanted me to be the first one in the family to get a college degree. Anyway, I traced a bunch of drawings, a skier from a ski magazine, a golfer, things like that, and put them up in my dad’s room. He didn’t know I traced them and thought I had talent. So he said, “I’ve got somebody from Allied Industries, a chemical corporation, and they’d like to meet you because they’re hiring. They’re looking for a guy who’s white, knows how to play golf, has had some education, and knows the brewery business.” So I met this guy and he said, “You’ve got the job. But you have to go to school and learn single-line drawing because one of your jobs will be to draw the floor plans of breweries you visit in Argentina and places like that. You’ll have to walk in to the brewery, draw its floor plan quickly, and then be able to take everybody out to play golf, lose to the bosses, and schmooze.”
DP That was in 1962?
JW In 1961 or 1962. I was twenty-four or twenty-five. So I open up the yellow pages, and it says “The Patri School of Art Fundamentals, For the Absolute Beginner.” I call this guy up and he says, “Bring your portfolio down Wednesday, and I’ll see what you’ve got.” This was Monday, so I called a couple of girlfriends and I told them my situation. They said, “Let’s all meet tonight over at Judy’s house.”
DP And they made your portfolio?
JW I paid for the pizza and the beer and had a portfolio by the end of the evening. On Wednesday I walked into the Patri School. Giacomo Patri was a well-known illustrator, trained by [László] Moholy-Nagy of the Chicago School of Design [now Illinois Institute of Technology] and the Bauhaus before that. He looked at my portfolio all of five seconds and slammed it shut. I had gone out and bought a nice heavy one. And he said, “Did you do this?” I said “Well, that’s my portfolio.” He said, “I don’t need to see it. Sit down and start drawing.”
DP And you were hooked?
JW It was a wonderful place. I lived there from 1962 to 1964. I said to hell with the brewery job. My dad stopped talking to me. I got an AA degree. By my last year, I was teaching drawing at the Patri School.
DP You fell in love with the scene?
JW Boom! I fell in love. I had no fucking idea what was going on. But it was just that you could smell it. I just felt it. I just sensed it. I gave up everything and moved in. I met these drunk guys who would paint for three days and then collapse in their rooms. They took me in! I was this raw material. Monday was sketching, Tuesday sculpture, Wednesday big drawing, Thursday design, and Friday you take all that and make something out of it. And Patri ran all the classes. Absolutely fantastic.
DP Then you went to Otis to get your BFA?
JW My BFA and MFA, from 1965 to 1969.
DP How was it different?
JW At Otis, students were channeled toward academic drawing or the design department. It was nothing like the Patri School. It was actually more old-fashioned, rigidly structured. Performance was not taught. But that school was good for me because I had everybody hating me—the students, the teachers. It made you tough with your own ideas and you had to fight for yourself. All in all, it was a way of knowing what I didn’t want to do. So in some odd, ass backwards way, it worked as an education.
DP You had assignments?
JW Yes. I made paintings that I thought were acceptable for Otis, and I did my own work for myself and my friends. I’d go home at night to do them, or I’d wait until after the faculty had gone home and then paint what I wanted at Otis.
DP Your secret work.
JW Yes, which wasn’t so secret when it came time for my MFA thesis show. On hollow-core doors, I did floor plans from the brewery, schematic drawings that I’d made into big paintings. Down at the bottom I had written various phrases, like “performance notations” and “dance notations.” I brought these works down to the gallery for my thesis exhibition and Wayne Long, the lead faculty member on my committee, said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s about performance art.” But I was told, “No, this is not art, this has to do with theater. You’re not going to get away with this for your master’s show!” He fucking freaked out!
So I had one of those devices retail stores use to affix price stickers to merchandise. It was called a Dymo. I printed out “Untitled #1,” “Untitled #2,” and so on, and stuck those tags over the words at the bottom of my paintings. That placated the faculty. And then, the night before the show opened, I snuck in through the basement with my studio mate and we tore off the stickers. By the time the faculty saw them, too many people were already at the show. They couldn’t do anything. My timing wasn’t bad.