Center for Visual Music

James Whitney Retrospective

Regular feature films share their narrative impulse with theatrical drama, fiction and history/news. Non-objective films, however, correspond most closely to abstract painting and music, the only commonly practiced art forms which do not usually depict or represent some object or event other than the actual materials and gestures composing the artwork itself.

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'Keefe, 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 dances also offers a fund of analogy of rhythmic patterns in motion. And, like fine pieces of music or an abstract ballet such as Les Sylphides, non-objective films can be 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.

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 re-process 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 air-brushed 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 film 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.

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 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 cut-out 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 shares this spiritual preoccupation, by the way, with Kupka, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko and many other non-objective artists).

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" by 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". 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.

Yantra crystallized into its final form in 1957, [2] 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 Badings' Cain and Abel. James had intended to compose a Yantra II and Yantra III, and some of the footage was edited to accompany Pierre Henry's Haut Voltage at a later Vortex Concert.[3] The images in 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.

James' period of "white wait" (as the Chinese call such creative vacations) yielded a remarkable composure that manifested in the serene 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 sequences 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 effect creators of the later 60s. This equipment allowed James to complete Lapis in two years, which might have taken seven years by hand. 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 relationship 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.

After the remarkable achievement of Lapis, James again creatively rested, concentrating on the process of throwing raku pottery for several years, while he formulated the plans for a trilogy of films which explore a new, richer and more refined territory. 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 symbolized the pure essence of the soul which is boiled volatile and recondenses 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 this 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). 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 so 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.

The two final films of the trilogy, Kang Jing Xiang and Li, were left incomplete when James died 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 Julesz 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.

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 Jing Xiang surges with its own vivid cadences that most often left little doubt of their author's intentions. Kang Jing 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" of 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 invoke 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.

William Moritz


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 fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement 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 I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.



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 dream.
Harindranath Chatterjee
for Ramana Maharshi, 1945

Article originally published in Program catalog of the Canadian International Animation Festival (Toronto), 1984.


CVM Notes:

[1] This is incorrect. The Whitneys won a prize for sound. According to Moritz's other articles and Fischinger's own papers, Fischinger won the Grand Prix in 1949 for Motion Painting No. 1

[2] Subsequent research has revealed that it was actually in 1959 that Belson synchronized the Badings track to Yantra. Yantra in its final form was never screened at The Vortex Concerts in the planetarium. It was first screened with this soundtrack in 1959 at the event called Vortex Presents.

[3] Jordan Belson, not James Whitney, edited some of James's footage into a compilation called Haut Voltage (High Voltage), which was screened at the Vortex Presents event at the San Francisco Museum of Art, but not at the Vortex Concerts. (see Keefer, "Cosmic Cinema and the Vortex Concerts," 2008)

CVM has reformatted the film titles to italics, per the editorial policy of this website. Other formatting from the article remains, with the exception of the T.S. Eliot excerpt which has been broken into poetic lines as published by Eliot's editors (the original Toronto publication altered the poetry to one paragraph without line breaks), and unitalicized. The Eliot quote is excerpted from Four Quartets: Burnt Norton: I.

The original Moritz article was published in English and French; the English version appears here.


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