By William Moritz

Originally published in First Light, Robert Haller, Ed., New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1998.* Illustrations added by CVM for this website, credits below. Images are copyrighted, you must seek permission before reproducing. Image above from Lapis.

One tradition in art, Abstraction (represented by Picasso and the Cubists, for example), sought to represent objects in a refined, simplified calligraphy that rendered their geometric structural elements and changing viewpoints or lighting conditions. At the same time another movement, called variously Non-Objective or Pure Plastic or Absolute painting, flourished, dedicated to creating paintings not representing any objects or external reality, but rather using color and form as the ultimate tools of expression, partly in a pure rhythm and harmonics analogous to absolute music, partly in annunciation of spiritual concepts which have traditionally found delineation in symbolic geometric patterns such as the mandala -- and over several centuries in live performances of "color music" by color organs, from the 18th-century geometric precision of Father Castel's Ocular Harpsichord, to the lushly romantic, flowing colors of Scriabin's Prometheus and Wilfred's Lumia. Parallel with the pioneer non-objective painting of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka, and others, several artists (including the Italian Futurists Ginna and Corra, the German, Hans Stoltenberg, and Paris-based Leopold Survage) made attempts to create a non-objective film, though these films seem to be lost. In 1919 and 1920, Walther Ruttmann created, as an extension of his non-objective painting, a 15-minute absolute film, Lightplay Opus I, which was screened in several cinemas in the spring of 1921, accompanied by a live string quintet (including Ruttmann himself playing cello) performing a score composed specially for the film by Max Butting. Young Oskar Fischinger saw one of these Opus I performances and subsequently devoted himself to non-objective painting and filmmaking. Though traditional mystical symbols like the ouroboros appear in his early films of the 1920s, his late masterpieces, Radio Dynamics (1942) and Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), both based on visions of yoga and meditation rendered in pure geometric rhythms, offer the most perfect linking of his spiritual and aesthetic discipline. Fischinger's presence in California fostered a "school" of color music, which included three young men, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson and James Whitney, who knew Fischinger and each other, each of whom forged a personal style and created a dazzling body of work rich in intricate visual nuance and spiritual expression.

In non-objective films, the design of each image parallels the best of modern painting -- from Kandinsky and Kupka, Mondrian and Malevich, Klee and O'Keeffe, Delaunay and Morgan Russell to Albers and Brooker, Pollock and Rothko, Louis and Borduas, Stella and Vasarely. But there are 24 different images each second of film time, and often each frame is a separate painting! How are they put in sequence? In what manner do they happen? We tend to answer that by analogy to music -- with melodies and counter-themes, fugues and inversions, sforzandos and diminuendos. But in film we deal always with visual equivalents, so that shape, speed, direction, size, color, density, intermittence (flicker) and other optical factors take the place of tone, volume, timbre, legato, portamento, trill, and other auditory factors in music. The choreography of classical and folk dance also offers a fund of analogy for rhythmic patterns in motion. And, like fine pieces of music or an abstract ballet such as Les Sylphides, non-objective films can and should be seen again and again until each haunting, sensuous turn, each lush or dazzling color, each graceful configuration or staccato flicker becomes a part of your fund of imaginative memory.

Visual music enjoys a long and complex history from the philosophical speculations of Aristotle and Leonardo, through the color organs of Father Castel and Rimington, Scriabin's Mysterium, to the abstract animated films of Eggeling, Ruttmann, and Fischinger, the Dada/Surrealist "poems" of Man Ray or the Satie-Picabia-Clair Entr'acte, or the equally "Surrealist" films of Len Lye. This tradition ranges from works of a luxuriant, organic, Romantic dynamism (such as Thomas Wilfred's Lumia) to more spare, strictly geometric and mathematically precise works such as the Bauhaus "Light-show" performances. All of these styles and trends are comprised and transmuted in the works of James Whitney.

FFEstencil Stencilled image from Five Film Exercises, photo by CVM

James Whitney was born December 27, 1921, in Pasadena, California, and lived all his life in the Los Angeles area. He studied painting, and traveled in England before the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, back in Pasadena, James, still 18, began collaborating with his older brother John on non-objective films in 8mm. John constructed an 8mm optical printer, so that they could reprocess basic images shot in black and white, manipulating the variations in size, speed, color, etc. James devised a system of stencils, through which images could be traced or airbrushed onto animation paper, creating hard or soft-edged forms. John had encountered 12-tone music theory through René Leibowitz in Paris, and the first of these 8mm films, Twenty-Four Variations on an Original Theme, was visually constructed by analogy to Schoenberg's serial principles, with a given optical "tone-row" (a "P" shaped configuration formed by an overlapping circle and rectangle) submitted to various inversions, clustering, retrogressions, counterpoints, etc. The films proved not only aesthetically gratifying to the young artists, but also a sensation to the necessarily small audiences that saw it. The silent images performed a cogent dynamic all their own, and the intimate format of the film gave the feel of exquisite chamber music.

JWpend James with pendulum device, scan by CVM

James continued working in 8mm for 3 years, creating a complex Variations on a Circle which lasts some 20 minutes (8mm projectors had variable speed controls). John longed to create a comparable auditory music accompaniment, which would be technically possible only in a larger film format, so he set about building a 16mm optical printer and a unique pendulum device for writing out sound. With this equipment, the brothers created their own remarkable series of Film Exercises between 1943 and 1944. Again these films are visually based on modernist composition theory, but now the carefully varied permutations of form are manipulated with cutout masks so that the image photographed is pure, direct light shaped, rather than the light reflected from drawings as in the traditional animation of the 8mm films. The eerie, sensuous neon glow of these forms is paralleled by pioneer electronic music sound scores composed by the brothers using the pendulums to write sounds directly on the film's soundtrack area, with precisely controlled calibrations. At that time, before the perfection of recording tape, these sounds, with exotic "pure" tone qualities, mathematically even chromatic glissandos and reverberating pulsations -- were truly revolutionary and shocking. The brothers won a grand prize at the 1949 Brussels Experimental Film Competition for the Film Exercises.[1]

After the Film Exercises, John began to pursue technological, theoretical, mathematical, architectonic and musical ideas that eventually led him to his masterful pioneer work in computer graphics. Meanwhile, James became increasingly involved in contemplative and spiritual interests -- Ramana Maharshi, Jungian Psychology, alchemy, yoga, Tao, quantum physics, Krishnamurti and consciousness expansion -- which became the subject matter of the half-dozen films on which he worked for the rest of his life. (James shared this spiritual preoccupation, by the way, with Kupka, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko and many other non-objective artists.)

In 1943, James visited the Frank Lloyd Wright "Hollyhock House" on Olive Hill in Los Angeles (now Barnsdall Park). There he met the young photographer, Edmund Teske, who was artist-in-residence at one of the studios on the grounds. Teske and James became fast friends, and James moved into one of the other studio residences. Both men shared a mystical bent, so they visited the Vendata Center where they met British celebrities Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard. As he studied Eastern philosophies, James realized that certain cosmic principles did not yield easily to verbal explanations, but could be seen and "discussed" through the abstract shapes in his films. Tensions between apparent positive/negative dualities could be particularly felt and resolved in his geometric language.

James was attracted to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, an Indian sage who stresses practical self-realization and the integrity of one's whole life. Ramana taught that one must strive to be fully aware of one's total involvement with all things, for no creature - fern, flea or flagstone - is intrinsically less worthy or possessed of less personality. Over the years, Whitney found these ideas mirrored in the talks of Krishnamurti, the paradoxes and flowing of Taoism, the ambiguities and endless toil of alchemy, the theories of nuclear physics, and the mythic psychology of Jung. The abstract language of his art became "non-objective" in the special sense of its refusal to view "things" coldly as objects. Continually cultivating this conscious awareness of all things involved rigorous discipline. He ate well (largely vegetarian) and worked hard in order to keep himself in healthy preparedness. He rechanneled the energy of his passionate nature into inspiration for his films.

James found a suitable living space with the help of a friend, Ted van Fossen, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, and took an inexpensive, prefabricated plywood house, split it in two, and realigned it into an L-shape to embrace a garden. Huge windows on the inner side provided a continual view of the cycles of nature. Whitney, van Fossen, and Teske finished most of the house by hand, preserving the integrity of the wood grain and reinforcing the structure with brick and rust-colored tiles. If all this seems a bit irrelevant to the study of James Whitney's film career, it is not. It is precisely this spiritual background that makes his films vibrant and exciting; and the fine consciousness of van Fossen's architecture helped James to create a series of brilliant films.

yseries From a series of paintings and studies for Yantra, photograph from CVM's Moritz Collection

For half-a-dozen years after the Film Exercises, James experimented to try to codify an ideographic vocabulary or alphabet for the expression of visual ideas. Finally, he was aesthetically and spiritually satisfied only by the reduction of all building components to their simplest form -- the dot or point. Between 1950 and 1955, James constructed an astonishing masterpiece, Yantra, by punching grid patterns in 5" x 7" cards with a pin, and then painting through these pinholes onto other 5" x 7" cards images of rich complexity and dynamism. "Yantra" is a Sanskrit word meaning "implement" or "machine."

yantra Yantra

It can refer to a variety of systems, from simple meditational aids like mandalas, to the flux of cosmic energy that defines the essential flow of life and reality, or, in the specialized area of alchemy, to the vessel or grail in which the mystical transmutation is bred. But you do not need to know anything about these esoteric philosophies to see directly, and appreciate, the majestic visual transformations that happen in the film -- from gentle flickers between frames of pure white and black with no "image" at all, to seething masses of hundreds of points of light, each seeming to revolve in its own circuit. This range of quasi-musical variations of implosions and explosions, light and dark, hard-edged pure textures and thick, irregular, hand-wrought solarized textures induces a contemplation of the self and reality, identity and universality.

yantra9 Yantra, CVM scan from 16mm negative/HD telecine

Yantra crystallized into its final form in 1957, when it was shown at the historic Vortex Concerts in San Francisco's planetarium, for which James and Jordan Belson synchronized the previously silent images to Dutch electronic music composer Henk Bading's Cain and Abel..[2] James had intended to compose a Yantra II and a Yantra III, and some of the footage was edited to accompany Pierre Henry's "Haut Voltage" at a later Vortex Concert. [3] The images on James' High Voltage betray no weakening of inspiration: the richly-textured solarized mandala patterns, step-printed to heighten their sense of being frozen or imprisoned behind an invisible window, sandwich a dazzling flurry of organic blotches flickering in daring opposition of orientation. But finally James felt he needed a creative rest, so for a few years he devoted himself to sumi brush painting.


Painting by James on rice paper; Photograph by Barbara Fischinger

James' period of "white wait" (as the Chinese call such creative vacations) yielded a remarkable composure that manifested in the sense of balance of stasis and flow in his next masterpiece Lapis. James began preparing the intricate dot-pattern mandalas as he had those of Yantra, planning this film as Yantra II again. But after he had already designed the staggeringly complex sequence of subtle changes, and labored for some time on their hand execution John offered to loan him a new computerized optical printing device he had developed - a pioneer motion control system prefiguring the slit-scan and other famous special effects creations of the later 60s. This equipment allowed James to complete Lapis in two years, which might have taken seven years by hand.

lapis14 Lapis, CVM scan from 16mm negative/HD telecine

Consisting entirely of hundreds of constantly moving points of light, Lapis performs such marvelous transformations of positive and negative space, projected color and after-image, similarity and difference, that the viewer cannot help but contemplate the relationships of the unit to the whole, the individual consciousness to the cosmos, of space to time - and not a dry, forced meditation, but a supremely sensual, purely visual dialogue. Again, "lapis," the Latin for "stone," suggests the alchemical philosopher's stone, but no knowledge of hermetic doctrine is necessary to appreciate the wondrous display - the transmutation occurs directly in the viewer's mind.

JWbowls Photo by William Moritz of James' ceramics. Collection CVM.

Again, after Lapis, James made a "white wait" - this time throwing ceramics of great beauty and practicality - tea bowls, vases, and dishes that he and his friends could actually use in their homes.

Ultimately, James' life itself became an exquisite artwork. He learned to live alone, and not be lonely; he learned to be silent, and not yearn for words. He could sit still for hours contemplating the subtle changes in afternoon light, or observing the social struggles of blue-jays and mockingbirds. If others could not actually share the serenity of his natural life-flow, it nonetheless formed the basis of his brilliant artworks. Asian artists are expected to prepare themselves, spiritually and physically, for a sudden moment of creation. The artist must perform quickly with sure, swift strokes: Readiness and proficiency are crucial, since a trace of ink on rice paper cannot be erased, and hesitation of the brush means a blotch. James brought the distilled energy and vision of his daily being to bear on his films, ceramics, and paintings.

JWgarden James in his garden in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Photo by William Moritz, Collection CVM

His final film project was to have been a trilogy and a prologue representing the four elements, celebrating the principles of the Tao - flowing with the natural grain of things. Two of these ravishing meditative films were finished and a third shot, but not yet edited, when James suddenly fell ill.

When James finally realized that, despite surgery and radiation treatments, he would not recover, he picked up one of his round vases, a thing of cosmic complexity, and smiling his sweet, radiant smile, said "Now I have become this."

dwija Dwija, photos from Moritz Collection at CVM

Dwija is an introduction to the trilogy, a sort of extended logo or preface, establishing the mood. It also stands as a fourth unit, balancing the trilogy in the classic concept of four elements: "Dwija" = fire, "Wu-Ming" = water, "Kang Jing Xiang" = air, and "Li" = earth. "Dwija" is a Sanskrit word meaning "twice-born" or "bird" since the bird is born once inside the egg-vessel and once again when it breaks free into the outer world. In alchemical terminology, this twice-born bird symbolizes the pure essence of the soul which is boiled and volatile and re-condenses into the prime-matter liquid within the grail vessel; only when it has been distilled to the ultimate purity, after countless, hypnotizing cycles of boiling up and condensing again, can it escape from the grail, to freedom in the ether. The entire imagery of the film is generated from eight alchemical drawings illustrating the process, but the message of the film is communicated in a direct photo-kinetic fashion. In the 17 minutes of the film, these minimal 8 images recur again and again (even as the alchemist must repeatedly boil up this matter until the transmutation occurs). [4] But never in the dozens of times the images repeat does exactly the same combination occur, for the film is hand-processed and solarized, causing variations in color and texture, and then re-photographed in several indeterminate layers to that the modulating imagery - like the sounds in John Cage's aleatory compositions - create their own permutations, and unite in magical flame-like juxtapositions that indeed suggest the nebulous world of firing pottery. The effect is dazzling - infinitely complex, yet utterly simple, a process of emptying and filling, creating terminating, and re-creating.

When Dwija has clarified and sensitized the viewer's vision, Wu Ming offers one of the most lucid and rewarding experiences on film. Again 17 minutes long, Wu Ming consists of one simple gesture, one action-reaction: a particle vanishes into infinity and rebounds as expanding waves. The title derives from the Chinese Tao, and means "no name" (from the contemplative passage: "In the un-named is the origin of heaven and earth." Names create millions of things. Without desire, there is mystery; with desire, there are things. Both begin the same, but names make them different). The duality of particle and wave (this basic phenomenon of light energy as we understand it) indeed has no name, just as the paradox of black and white light has no solution (what contains all colors but has no color?). The reduction of the gently halated forms at the beginning, the searing black-on-white after-images of the central section with its deliberate grandeur and audacious simplicity, and the luminous apotheosis of the ending - the whole serene process of emptying and re-filling - is enacted with such austere precision and geometric beauty that the viewer cannot help but surrender, awed, to the relaxing, meditative stance it implies. James described the particle-to-wave action in Wu Ming as being like throwing a pebble into water and seeing the ripples spread out. Like the famous, charged, mysterious haiku of Basho, the clarity, cogency, balance, directness and purity of James' filmic gesture arrays a radiant revelation that echoes and expands inside the spirit into which it is cast through the vision. Like a Zen garden or oriental brush painting, the minute variations of the aetherial particles and the primal radiations become a gentle microcosm, a ceremony of peace and revitalization - and a tribute to almost 40 years of one creative artist's life.

When Wu Ming premiered in New York, Jonas Mekas wrote in Soho News (May 7, 1977): "What a relief, and what a feast, to see a work where one can feel the many years of intense living, feeling, thinking. So that there is always somebody, working almost in total silence, who comes in to restore Cinema with a work that looks like it's made by gods."

The two final films of the trilogy, Kang Jiang Xiang and Li were left incomplete when James died on April 8, 1982, after a brief and unexpected illness. Li, the earth film, was to have consisted entirely of writhing "random" dot fields from which the eye (and mind) would create its own transitory patterns and meanings, as Dr. Bela Julez discusses in The Foundations of Cyclopean Perception. "Li," the Chinese word for "organic grain pattern" as in wood, stone, etc., symbolized for the Taoists the natural, irregular, a-logical, fluctuating order of things. At times, James also called this film Wu Wei ("no-resistance"), the Taoist principle of flowing with the rhythms of nature and chance. It does not seem that a significant portion of this film was animated. [5]

JWworking James at work at his home in Los Angeles. Photo by William Moritz, CVM Collection

Kang Jiang Xiang was completely shot and merely awaited the manifold refinements of the editing process. During his final illness, James arranged the scenes in order and explained to me how they should be edited. His nephew, Mark Whitney, and I have executed his instructions as best we could - nothing could replace the usual year or two that James himself spent in testing, subtle alterations, re-testing, etc. But fortunately, the brilliant imagery of Kang Jiang Xiang surges with its own vivid cadences that most often left little doubt of their author's intentions. Kang Jiang Xiang, "like an empty mirror," is the hardest of James' titles to translate, since it teems with fine, equivocal allusions and implications. "Kang," the "emptiness," also means the "stupor" of a trance or the "ecstasy" of a revelation, as well as the Buddhist term "sanya" which describes the essential "illusion" or insubstantiality of that which may seem "real." "Jing," the "mirror" word, also means "brilliant" (as in clever and wise) and "lustrous" (as in beautiful) and it derives from characters that mean "refined gold" since mirrors were made of polished metal surfaces, but the alchemical reference seems inescapable in this context! "Xiang" denotes "picture," "idol," and "symbol" as well as resemblance. Together, they seem to evoke the Taoist denial of specific truth, eternal logic or inviolable rules. One Taoist sage observed: "Real understanding of the Tao is like an empty sky - no room for right and wrong!" James' film flows in easy alternations: a recurrent image of tranquil, delicate ambivalence (clouds? an ice floe? lily pads? A flame?) entwines with clusters of more dynamic, but intricately layered, equally ambiguous manifestations that, even when they seem clearest, as the splendid scarlet mandala, may dissolve into the white wait of the cosmos.


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been; but cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

In days gone by I used to be a potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay to patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom lately won, that pride has died away.
I have ceased to be the potter and have learned to be the clay.
In by-gone days I used to be a dreamer who would hurl
On every side an insolence of emerald and pearl.
But now that I am kneeling at the feet of the Supreme
I have ceased to be the dreamer and have learned to be the
- Harindranath Chatterjee for Ramana Maharshi, 1945



Illustrations added by CVM, not in the original. Image at top of page from Lapis. William Moritz photographs courtesy of and (c) Center for Visual Music. Please seek permission before reproducing.

* An earlier version of this article, titled James Whitney Retrospective, was published in the Program catalog of the Canadian International Animation Festival (Toronto), 1984.

The Eliot quote is excerpted from Four Quartets: Burnt Norton: I.

Notes by CVM:

[1] The Whitneys won a prize for sound, not the Grand Prize.

[2] Subsequent research has revealed it was actually in October, 1959 when Jordan Belson synchronized the Badings "Cain and Abel" track to Yantra. Yantra in its final form was never screened at The Vortex Concerts in Morrison Planetarium. It was first screened with this soundtrack in October 1959 at a different event in another location, called Vortex Presents. At the earlier Vortex Concerts, only a brief manipulated fragment from an early version of Yantra was shown. (see Keefer, "Cosmic Cinema and the Vortex Concerts," in Cosmos: The Search for the Origins, from Kupka to Kubrick. Arnauld Pierre, Ed. Madrid: El Umbral/Santa Cruz de Tenerife:TEA, 2008. Ex. cat.)

[3] Jordan Belson, not James Whitney, edited some of James' footage into a compilation called Haut Voltage (High Voltage), which was screened at the later Vortex Presents event at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but not at the original Vortex Concerts. (see Keefer, "Cosmic Cinema and the Vortex Concerts," in Cosmos: The Search for the Origins, from Kupka to Kubrick. Arnauld Pierre, Ed. Madrid: El Umbral/Santa Cruz de Tenerife:TEA, 2008. Ex. cat.)

[4] Moritz had also seen and spoke about a long version of Dwija (1974) of nearly half an hour. There appears to have been a revised version done later by James. According to Moritz, recommended projection speed for Dwija is 18 fps, though if James was indeed planning a soundtrack for the film the speed would likely need to be 24fps.

[5] Moritz claimed to have seen only a very short fragment or test of Li. This is believed lost.

Text and images on these pages are protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code). Please seek permission before reproducing. Scans of Moritz images (c) Center for Visual Music. Whitney frame stills and James with pendulums image scanned by CVM, used courtesy Estate of John and James Whitney.


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