“Howcan I talk about it?” asked John Whitney Sr. in 1975, pondering how best to verbalize an essentially ineffable visual experience, one that, like music, organizes patterns of space and time into immediate emotional affect. His only recourse was analogies to music. The moving-image abstract art form he and his brother, James Whitney, helped pioneer became known, rather unremarkably, as “audio-visual music.”
The artwork of these L.A. brothers was anything but unremarkable, however. Over the course of 50 years, the Whitneys crafted a handful of stunning abstract animations using a bevy of increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques. Their films are dazzling, hypnotic affairs featuring gyrating patterns that, at times, sweep over you in waves of intense visual pleasure; at other moments, they are enthralling puzzles of pattern and repetition, moving mandalas of complexity, sometimes made only out of the movement of thousands of tiny colored dots.
One of the brothers’ first inventions, used to make FiveFilmExercises(1943-44), incorporated 30 pendulums whose swaying motion was recorded directly onto the soundtrack of motion-picture film; in other words, rather than recording sound, the Whitneys recorded motion, which was transposed into sound. Then they synced the sound to images made with a stenciling system.
The pair completed the final Exercisewhile living in one of Aline Barnsdall’s houses (in what’s now Barnsdall Park). A student had squatted in the abandoned house and, after getting permission to stay, invited the Whitneys to join him. After fixing the place up, they hosted parties and screened films. Man Ray was among the revelers, as was Bertolt Brecht. The pair also participated in L.A.’s early underground-film scene by helping other filmmakers and by attending screenings at the American Contemporary Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard.
In 1950, James Whitney, who had studied painting in England, began work on a film called Yantraby punching tiny holes in cards. The resulting patterns were then made into stencils, which were painted onto more cards, photographed and then optically printed to create shifting fields of dots. After seven years, he completed the film, which, with its nod to Eastern metaphysics, was a precursor to subsequent “expanded cinema” projects.
Meanwhile, John Whitney, who had studied musical composition in Europe, began constructing mechanical drawing machines, but decided it was silly to draw on individual animation cells, which would then have to be photographed; what if he replaced the drawing device with a light, which could “draw” directly onto the film? Each passage of the light would compile layers of patterns for each frame of film. Then the film would advance, the patterns would repeat, and, with slight deviation, the design would evolve.
Too busy inventing animation devices, John didn’t have much time in the 1950s to make anything but brief cinematic exercises. But in 1961 he compiled several examples of his techniques into the seven-minute film Catalog.Two years later, John moved on to creating a more elaborate device, an early motion-control camera, which James used to make his tour de force, the nine-minute Lapis,which took three years to finish. The film begins as a gray circular field on a white background and gradually transforms into pulsing patterns of colored dots. The patterns move inward, and then expand outward, and at times the entire field of patterns shifts in a pleasantly dizzying circular motion.
John’s work, in the meantime, began to intersect with computers. He received a grant from IBM in the mid-1960s, which afforded him access to the advanced computer facility in the health-sciences department at UCLA. Using the computer, he created the first composing program, which he used to make Permutations,in 1968. Utilizing spinning circles of dots that alternately lie flat and then rotate outward in a melon shape, the film plays with the tension between flatness and depth, growing progressively more complex as multiple spiraling circles intersect and diverge. Other films followed, including one by his son, John Jr., who used similar techniques to create the powerfully immersive three-screen SidePhaseDrift(1965).
John Whitney was the first to admit that what he and James were doing was not unique. However, the Whitneys’ investigations led increasingly toward computers, and John’s ultimate goal was to create a computerized drawing tool that would afford individual artists the freedom to create their own visual music. Unfortunately, James passed away in 1982, and John died in 1995, just as personal computers and easy-to-use animation software were becoming readily available. As a new generation of artists experiments with the possibilities of abstract visual music, the Whitneys are deservedly being re-discovered; now we just need to find words to describe what they did so beautifully.