Robert Whitman, cutting-edge performance artist, dies at 88

Artdaily_ Robert Whitman, a pioneer of performance and multimedia art whose work tapped into primitive, nonverbal human ritual while also anticipating the fractured nature of 21st-century digital existence, died Friday at his home in Warwick, New York, in the Hudson Valley. He was 88.

His death was announced by Pace Gallery, which represented him for many years. The gallery did not disclose a cause.

In the late 1950s, Whitman was among a handful of young New York artists who helped give birth to a new form of temporal art, which became known as the Happening — although most of the originators grew to dislike the term, especially after it became a catchall for almost any shaggily structured countercultural event in the 1960s.

Exploding onto the scene during a frenzied period from late 1959 through 1963, the performance-art pieces of Whitman, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Al Hansen, Red Grooms and Jim Dine grew partly out of expanded ideas about painting, especially the highly kinetic “action painting” of Jackson Pollock.

Whitman, who aspired early to be a playwright, described his first pieces as theater works, aligning them more closely with stage conventions than some of his compatriots did. In 1960, at the Reuben Gallery, in a dilapidated loft at the southern end of Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, he presented his first major performance, “American Moon”: a series of wordless, atavistic actions amid humble materials such as scrap lumber, burlap and crumpled craft paper.

Whitman divided the audience within semi-enclosed tunnels to give small groups diffracted experiences of the action. Among other things, a large plastic balloon was inflated and a man, artist Lucas Samaras, swung on ropes just above the viewers’ heads.

“I wanted something physical, almost painful, passionate,” he later said of the performance, which also involved artist and choreographer Simone Forti. “It had to look threatening, menacing.”

His pieces — which took their place within an avant-garde lineage that included Tristan Tzara, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, John Cage and Merce Cunningham — functioned not to tell a story or even necessarily to explicate a theme. Rather, Whitman said, they were intended to reveal an image over time, “through exposure of its different aspects.”

He saw this not as subverting theater but as returning it to a kind of mythic plenitude that it lost after an Elizabethan swing toward the linguistic. “The plague of Shakespeare is that he wrote good words,” Whitman said in an interview for the 1999 book “Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963,” edited by Joan Marter.

“And all the other playwrights decided that they could get rid of the other stuff and just write good words,” he added. “They forgot that most of the people of the world spend most of their time not talking. They’re looking at things and seeing things.”

Curator Lynne Cooke, who organized a retrospective of Whitman’s work for the Dia Art Foundation in 2003 and 2004, said his pieces distinguished themselves through qualities of “the magical, poetic, luscious and mysterious.” If they were at times exceedingly mysterious, Whitman said, he felt no anxiety in trying to explain them.

“Once in an interview with some scholar, I said, ‘I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to tell you what my work means,’ and the guy said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s my job,’” Whitman told The New York Times in 2011. “That’s how I like to answer those kinds of questions now.”

Robert de Forest Whitman Jr. was born May 23, 1935, in Manhattan to a family that traced its roots to the earliest Huguenot settlers of New York. Among his forebears were painter and designer Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932) and Robert W. de Forest (1848-1931), a president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 20th century and the benefactor responsible for the creation of its American wing.

Whitman’s early years were spent in his extended family’s mansions in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, on Long Island’s North Shore. For much of his life, he kept his family’s history at arm’s length, referring to it rarely and usually with deprecating humor. “They were not impoverished, let’s put it that way,” he said in an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art in 2019.

At the age of 6, he had an experience he described as powerfully formative in his decision to become an artist: a visit to the circus, where he saw the clown Emmett Kelly perform his signature routine, chasing and “catching” a spotlight as it skipped across the floor of a circus ring before finally sweeping it under a rug.

In a 2003 interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Whitman said the gestural brilliance of Kelly and of silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin provided his first inklings of “what magic is.”

His father, Robert Sr., died when Robert was 10, and his mother, Cynthia Tainter (Smith) Whitman, took him and his younger brother, Bruce, to live in Englewood, New Jersey. Whitman studied literature at Rutgers University, where he arrived during a propitious moment for young artists searching for ways to extend abstract expressionism’s energy beyond the canvas into the world.

The faculty included maverick artists such as Kaprow, Robert Watt and George Brecht. Kaprow attended the influential composition classes taught by Cage at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and, inspired by Cage’s ideas about chance operations and unconventional materials, created the first happening event in 1959, “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” at the Reuben Gallery. Whitman was a participant.

Early on, Whitman integrated film and screens into his works, which functioned something like interactive sculpture, making him an originator of what came to be known as expanded cinema. In “Bathroom Sink,” from 1964, a film shows a woman at her morning routine, washing her face and combing her hair. Projected onto a mirror above a plain bathroom sink, the film bounces onto a wall opposite the sink. Viewers become immersed in the film, seeing both the woman and themselves in the mirror, a complex blurring of observer and observed, virtual and actual.

“The price of spectatorship in Whitman’s art is digestion by rather than of the piece,” art historian David Joselit wrote in a catalog essay for Whitman’s retrospective.

In 1965, in “Prune Flat,” perhaps Whitman’s best-known work — conceived for a narrow proscenium stage and eventually presented at several off-Broadway theaters — live performers serve as both actors and bodily screens for sometimes surreal imagery projected onto them and past them.

The next year, Whitman followed his interest in cutting-edge means much further, helping to found the nonprofit group Experiments in Art and Technology with artist Robert Rauschenberg, Bell Labs engineers Fred Waldhauer and Billy Kluver, and Kluver’s wife, Julie Martin. That project, which fostered collaborations between artists and specialists in technical fields, led to some of the earliest examples of computer-related and interactive artworks.

In his own work, Whitman took up such unconventional tools as strobe lights, lasers, telex and fax machines, public access television, radio channels and, eventually, cellphones, the internet and non-fungible tokens, along with decidedly nontechnological elements such as flames and running water.

He insisted, sometimes with frustration, that technology simply provided him with means to ends, not a subject in itself — a self-reading accepted by some critics. “Whitman is, for all his technology, basically a nature poet involved with the four elements,” critic and historian Barbara Rose wrote in New York magazine in 1973.

Although Whitman conceived of pieces specifically so they could be restaged, each production was highly individual, often with extensive audience participation and settings, in industrial spaces or outdoors, that contributed their own unrepeatable elements.

“If nature gives you something,” he said in an interview with conservation expert Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, “you say, thank you.” (A rare restaging of “American Moon” at Pace Gallery in Chelsea last year became an unexpected hit, occasioning lines down the street.)

In the 1970s, Whitman began a close association with the Dia Art Foundation, which bought a former brick icehouse on West 19th Street in Manhattan to devote to long-term installations and presentations of his work. The building, which Dia was forced to sell during financial struggles in the 1980s, is now home to The Kitchen, a center for experimental performance and art.

Whitman’s first marriage, to Mia Ellen Lahanas in 1956, ended in divorce. He married Forti in 1962; that marriage, too, ended in divorce, in 1966. In 1968, he married artist Sylvia Palacios, who now goes by Sylvia Palacios Whitman. She survives him, as do three children, Cynthia Whitman, Karl Robert Whitman and Pilar Whitman; and two granddaughters. A son, Bernardo Castro Cid Whitman, died in 1985, and his brother died last year.

While many of his early-1960s peers moved into sculpture and other object-based work, Whitman remained devoted primarily to performance. That decision contributed to periods of career obscurity, which was not helped by the fact that his work never sat comfortably within either the gallery world or the theater world.

“I was kind of aware of being nowhere,” he said for the oral history interview. “And then they invented that idea called multimedia, whatever the hell that means.”

But flying below the radar seemed not to bother him as long as he could pursue his work his own way — which often meant, even by contemporary art standard, a disconcerting tolerance for everyday happenstance.

“I like the idea of making work that is unregulated and completely undetermined by the way it’s set up,” he said in a 2007 book for a project called “Local Report,” in which participants were asked to use cellphones to transmit sounds and images from their communities.

“My own choice is not to exercise control,” he added. “I like the poetry in democracy.”