Joseph White, the painter, lives inside a tent in an old garage in an Adams-Morgan alley. His landscapes sell for $14,000. Overflowing garbage cans stand guard beside his door. Inside, among the flowers, Joseph White is painting with tiny badger-bristle brushes. He is benevolent, bizarre, saturnine, evasive. Part beatnik and part master, part rock star and part hermit, he will not stay in focus. Look closely at the man -- or at his superb paintings -- and the mystery increases as the certainties dissolve.
"Joe White," says painter Mark Clark, a friend of 15 years, "is a professional enigma."
"I see Joe," says Hilary Hynes, the restorer, "as the rock beneath the river. He is fully aware of the commerce going on above, but he sees it from below."
In White's present exhibition at the Middendorf/Lane Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW., sweet scenes of the West, of Grand Teton and the Rio Grande, are displayed beside stark scenes of industrial New Jersey. The viewer who looks closely at his mountains may find within their rocks, as within the mountains of old Chinese scrolls, hints of ghosts and dragons and writhing creepy-crawlies. The glass-sheathed office buildings portrayed in his show pun Washington Color Paintings. He is somehow able to make polluted mud flats appear picturesque.
The strangeness of White's art -- the way it somehow blends the Occident and Orient, the sweet and the disturbing, discipline and freedom -- was not achieved quickly. He has followed a strange path.
Joe White saw the hippies move into the Haight and lived among the Panthers and the pranksters of Ken Kesey. He has danced with Yvonne Rainer and studied in Kyoto, known celebrated painters (Ron Davis, William Wiley) and traveled as a hobo. All of this, and more, is layered in his art.
White's works in their quiet way confront a core dilemma of contemporary painting. For 20 years or longer he invented pure abstractions. Though now he paints the real -- office buildings, bridges, forests and physicians -- he is an abstract painter still.
"I made a choice," says White. "New York art -- or realism. The latter seemed the challenge. Abstraction seemed too esoteric. And too ideological. When politicians yell 'Less government is better,' they sound just like the painters, the head-in-the-sand artists, who go on yelling 'Stripes!' Realism is stranger. Realist paintings are poetic and political; their content is complex. How do you choose a subject? What do you pick to paint? That's the weirdest part of realism. It's entirely surreal."
"Joe," says White's mother, "looks like some saint of El Greco's."
His face is thin, his forehead high, his hair is long and gray. He often may be seen striding through the park, utterly absorbed in some meditation. He paints, too, in a kind of trance. His music might be called Tantric Yoga Rock. It is easy to imagine him as an Oriental sage striding through Tibet, begging bowl in hand.
"Joe took a vow of poverty when he turned to art," says his brother, Lito. "But even when he's broke, he gives his things away."
"I saw him give away his television set," says Michael Clark, Mark's brother. "He gave away his guitar, too. He constantly amazes me. I'm waiting for his Nikon."
"His humor is bizarre," Clark continues. "He sometimes grins at jokes no one else can hear. But if you try to push him just a bit too far, his wit will turn and bite you. He's like one of those Zen masters. He slaps you into seeing."
Something Oriental -- a flashing spontaneity encased in tradition, an oddly layered space -- is apparent in his paintings. They seem to glow with stillness yet in their abstract details are endlessly surprising. In White's speech, and his art, the delicate, the fine, is mixed with the perverse.
White's materials are the finest and his brushes are the smallest. His handwriting, at times, is seen, at other times concealed. The surfaces he's burnished with Q-Tips and fan brushes appear almost flawless, though he also builds his forms with countless calligraphic dots (dots that he insists come from China, not Seurat).
White does not merely portray things, trees or brooks or people. He paints the air between them. His pictures call to mind the God St. Augustine described as "an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference nowhere." Unlike the photo-realists, who paint objects in a vacuum, White halos his with atmospheres, atmospheres composed of countless points of light.
"Landscape is light seen in space; portraiture is character," he says. "Details don't count."
The man is gaunt and edgy, and there is something edgy, too, underneath the quiet of his meditative pictures. Though, at least at first glance, they greet one with great ease, they are not really easy. His paintings seem to flicker. Energies flow through them. They set the mind meandering on unfamiliar paths. His landscapes here are vertical, they're shaped like full-length portraits. Though dense with information -- the skeletons of trees, the softness of brown suede, tangled grasses, stream-washed stones -- their information remains endlessly elusive. Probe it and it vanishes. The real in his art fades into illusion.
He was born in California in July 1938. Accounts of his life suggest a shoebox filled with snapshots that hover in the memory as footnotes to his art.
One shows Joe, aged 10, standing in a rowboat, a boat he's painted since. He is holding up a striped bass bigger than himself. "Wednesday was our father's one religious holiday," says Lito. "Every Wednesday he went fishing." Joe White, every Monday, mixes many scores of colors. His father, when not fishing, raised hybrid gladioli. Joe White grows those flowers in his studio the year round.
Another snapshot of his youth shows him as a National Model Airplane Champion. That affection for the miniature, that mastery of detail and pleasure in the air, is not foreign to his art.
He has also built guitars. He plays the guitar still. Other Washington painters -- Robin Rose, Michael Clark, Kevin MacDonald, Jay Burch and Judith Watson, the restorer -- often perform with his band. It's called the Twisted Teen-Age Plot.
Joe White in his painting trance, working with great speed, under great control, recalls Joe White at the wheel of the hot rods he once raced. He no longer owns a car, but when young he had a huge Ford V8 engine installed in his MG. "I gave it up," he says. "Rock 'n' roll can't kill you."
At age 32, he turned to modern dance. He danced with Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and others. "Modern dance at 32, rock 'n' roll at 42," says White. "Let's swim against the tide."
Washington is White's home now, but something Californian, some affection for the Orient, for moist air and for nature, still breathes in his art.
When first he went to college, he thought he'd be a chemist. Then he turned to art. The painters who instructed him had worked with Clyfford Still, and Joe White was, at first, an Abstract Expressionist, too. His preference for the tiny, for order and precision, early on confronted the spontaneous automatism of the New York School, and that confrontation still activates his art.
For many years he painted made-up abstract pictures in which solid forms of his invention seemed to glow in space. In 1969, he sold a 16-foot abstraction to Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art. He was expected to spend the money on a New York studio. Instead, he bought a ticket and went off to London, Paris, Bombay, Katmandu, Calcutta, Tokyo, Kyoto. The space in his new paintings is a kind of Chinese space. It is stacked as well as deep. In 1974, almost without warning, Joseph White abandoned wholly abstract art.
He haunted the museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips and the Freer and, in New York, the Frick. He imitated masters. He painted careful copies of Piero della Francesca's famous portrait of the Duchess of Urbino, of a bar scene by Picasso and a Raphael Madonna.
"Once I'd made the move," he says, "what I had to learn was how to maintain the abstraction. In conveying information, what must be left out? You can't show every brick, or you might as well build the building. In painting, say, a tree, you have to find some middle ground between painting every leaf or painting a green smudge. Realism offered problems I could crack."
Mirrored at all times in the strangeness of his painting is the strangeness of the man. Joe White the model airplane builder, the aspiring scientist, the orientalist, the dancer, the former Abstract Expressionist, the westerner, the hobo, the alley-dwelling scholar, the writer of strange songs ("Feel That Fear," "Swim Club," "I Don't Want Your H-Bomb in My Campfire") has made himself a filter through which he sieves the unfamiliar poetry that dances in the calm of his always eerie, always atmospheric art. It looks like no one else's. His show at Middendorf/Lane closes Feb. 27.