William A. Fagaly, Assistant Director of NOMA

“1975 Artist Biennial Winners” (New Orleans Museum of Art)

  Edward Whiteman has invented, like Alfonzo and Girouard, his own system of signs and symbols which are incorporated into his irregularly shaped constructions that are pushpinned to the wall. Whiteman’s imagery, however carries no specific message other than expressing his admiration and celebration of visual methods of communications developed by archaic and primitive cultures. He appreciates hieroglyphs, pictographs, and cuneiform writing, and admits to being influenced by Oriental calligraphy, Germanic runic alphabets, and the textured surfaces of bark paintings by aboriginal Australians. He enjoys a deep fascination and even passion for ordinary, discarded things, such as broken implements and crushed cans, which, for him, take on a suffering life of their own. To generate sources for his imagery, a treasure-trove of discarded and rusted garden edging wire has been clipped, bent and tied to form small, pleasing configurations. These new linear studies are subsequently sketched on tracing paper and the drawings overlapped in myriad combinations to find abstracted forms that could be incorporated into larger constructions. Other shapes are discovered by partially blocking out large printed letter forms in magazines or altering the grid designs of crossword puzzles or the dozens of maps of Mardi Gras parade routes published each carnival season in New Orleans’ newspapers.

    As a student, Whiteman admired the work of Graves and Tobey, Marca-Relli and Burri. Perhaps the strongest influence on his work has come from experimenting with the frottage technique practiced by Max Ernst. For Whiteman, the process of rubbing graphite, crayon, or a brush loaded with paint over any textured surface (screening, leaves, tree bark) to produce an image is appealing for its rich modeling and unpredictability, like automatic writing. In turn, his constructed paintings develop through a lengthy, complex process of manipulating pieces of paper and canvas on the floor. These odd bits and scraps are soaked, torn, crumpled, pounded, stained, painted, rubbed, collaged, and patched. This texturing results in an image with its own topography, complete with lines, paths, and veins. The ground, rather than a traditional support, is inseparable from the media and the subsequent image with which it interacts. Like contemporary archaeological icons or rediscovered ancient pennants, Whiteman’s painted constructions serve as modern cultural and spiritual metaphors.

All images © Edward Whiteman

• Reviews

• Private CollectionsED_WHITEMAN_-_PRIVATE_COLLECTIONS.htmlED_WHITEMAN_-_PRIVATE_COLLECTIONS.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0

Terrington Calas, New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts

“The Unlovely Metaphor” (New Orleans Art Review, 1982)

  Edward Whiteman challenges the hedonism, the luxury of gesturalist abstraction. And he does so, paradoxically, while profiting from some of its wieldy conventions. There is little in his work that might be called beautiful in the sense that we might call Mark Rothko or Richard Diebenkorn beautiful. Indeed, one perceives a witting attempt to eschew such aestheticism, to make an abstract art that speaks through layers of raw, even crude, surfaces - that establish a personal variety of “beauty”. For Whiteman this is a matter of manipulating - no, violating - paper in every manner: soaking it, crumpling it, embedding it with color, collaging it, and ending with a new object that approaches the level of ancient debris. In this way he accomplishes something that Abstract Expressionism accomplished after World War II: a situation in which the viewer is startled into curiosity about the art’s possible allusions, despite its unequivocal abstractness. What I mean here is that until Abstract Expressionism became a confirmed tradition and our aesthetic tasted was finally enlisted to relish its painterly abandon, it generally appeared ugly. But that ugliness attracted us; its conviction and authority proved irresistible. And once we were there, interrogating the potency of those unlovely canvases, meanings began to emerge, pour forth. Whiteman’s apparent regard for unconventional surface appeal, deeper than his stated regard for the materials that can provide that appeal, is something old-fashioned, distinctly anti-modernist: metaphor. I can elucidate this by reference, once again, to the New York School painters. Not, however, by reference to their celebrated heyday in the 1950s. Rather, it is clear that Whiteman shares a certain passion of theirs from the formative years, the 1940s. That is the passion of primitivism...

Sam McMillan

“Profile: Edward Whiteman” (The Arts Journal - Asheville, NC, 1979)

  Whiteman’s interest in the ironic contradiction between paper’s apparent fragility and its proven durability through time is manifest in his work. The Patched Constructions appear to have undergone a battle with the elements, as if they were rained on, wind-whipped, run over by a car, and aged in the open air. They look weather-beaten, the colors faded from a bright and vivid hue to a washed-out gray and mauve. Whiteman finds his inspiration in ‘what happens to things with the elements, with aging... Things that are new, that have no real history, are a bore to me.’ Whiteman surrounds himself in his studio with old, elemental objects: pieces of bark, rusted tin cans, nature’s detritus, civilization’s antique effluence. But rather than incorporated these found materials into his work, Whiteman is after something else. ‘These old objects are exciting to me in an inspirational way, but when I make the thing itself, something else seems to be added to it. It is something original, not like a piece of bark, or the surface of concrete. It has its own identity.’

The identity Whiteman’s paintings and constructions possess is the result of a painstaking, tentative progression toward and end product that is often the result of a sudden discovery or an accident along the way. ‘I really believe in the laws of chance, rather than trying to figure out something. The best things that I do I never feel responsible for. They are just lucky accidents.’

  ...Whiteman is able to keep is work alive through a careful balance between his devotion to a laborious technique and his receptivity to the happy accident.

Terrington Calas, New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts

“Whiteman: Vicarious Regions”  (New Orleans Art Review, 2014)

   TO BE SURE, Gorky is a worthy forebear. Perhaps his decades old statement asserts an all-too-encompassing conclusion, but it was plainly a fitting one for a painter of his sensibilities - a painter devoted to the high modernist ethos, but bent on an art of purely subjective materials. Gorky’s ultimate resolution, now mythic, was indeed a “dream” aesthetic. He fashioned a surrealist-abstract conflation that yielded a trove of fantastical images and symbols - a conjured iconography of the unconscious. And even now, from the eye-line of 2014, those images - biomorphic, sinister, at times erotic - continue to beguile.

   This is partly because of their agelessness. More significant, they seem so absolutely fundamental. So fundamental to any era. They resonate for us with a sense of the primal. These are configurations one might envision on ancient walls, on resurrected scripts, on middle eastern textiles. In this connection, Gorky acknowledged pictorial sources in the village art of his Armenian heritage: “I owe my debt to our Armenian art. Its hybrids, its many opposites. The inventions of our folk imagination.” Related to this, arguably, is a defining hallmark of his imagery - the condensation of form. As in most folk and primitive idioms, he produced lean, epigrammatic motifs, not explicit representations. Beyond this, those motifs seem strangely animated; they reference life-world experience, encapsulate it, keenly underscore it. When you look at them, you perceive a human gesture or incident, or a phenomenon of nature. You feel a signaling of life’s crises. Somehow, in their simplicity, those motifs manage to radiate something poignant and transfixing.

   FOR WHITEMAN, THE notion of fundamental form verges on understatement. It is perhaps the very fulcrum of his art. At times, his enormous pictographs feel like primal hymns, casting an air of ungraspable history. Every facet of his work, including its physicality, suggests this. You sense it, most notably, in his approach to individual symbols. Like Gorky, he abridges them to simple essences - but more so. And they become classic and allusive signs. In earlier work, this implied a unique cultural fabrication, as if he, by artistic will, had established his own “village” heritage. A dream heritage. A culture with an imagined folk art he would mine and interpret for his own purposes. With such a strategy, Whiteman seemed less attuned to Gorky’s surrealist impulse and more to a kind of neo-symbolism. It was a flight of aesthetic fancy. And he submitted that fancy as a conduit to large human considerations.

   That is still true in Whiteman’s new work. But now the cultural links are specific - Egypt, India, Native America - and from those traditions, he manages to formulate images that transcend obvious or glib aesthetic associations. These images exist in a hieratic stillness that suggests something more.

   His extraordinary The Nile is an example. If this work is about cultural history in any way, it is about an interior, oneiric one. And that, it would seem, betokens another significance. On first encounter, you’re struck by its beauty - a sumptuous expanse of umbered color and ruggedly elegant glyphs. It then reads as a potent metaphorical emblem. The sense of Egypt is incontestably present - and suitably generalized. But Whiteman has manipulated the formal and thematic elements in a way that overreaches any single culture. The painting consists of rows of glyphs, alternately “figural” and geometric. Initially, this suggests a measure of detachment, of intellectualizing. But the enunciation of form - wielded with a markedly sensitive calligraphic style - humanizes the whole. Whitemans shifting line-quality mitigates every shape, enlivens firm abstractness into a palpable energy. There are intimations both of struggle and celebration. The sense is a kind of timeless humanity. Figure-like undulations dance like a Matisse, but the diffident line scarcely describes them. It more or less insinuates them. The image seems less a dance than a universal sign of unremitting life.

   There is, furthermore, the question of surface, a crucial component of Whiteman’s enterprise. His employ of “reconstructed” paper, which involves layers of collage and every manner of manipulation, shrewdly sports with the late-modernist notion of objecthood, the tangible autonomy of the artwork. (This alone is a compelling feature of everything he does.) In The Nile, it also results in a seductive, artfully punished surface - coarse, scumbled, and irregular - evocative of an ancient, implausibly-scaled palimpsest. This setting decisively impacts the humanized symbols. Mostly, they appear blunted or semi-effaced, embedded in a field of earthen pigment but also emerging from it - and retaining a patent grace. What Whiteman has created here is a Baudelairean Eden, but one that is toughened and occasionally dire. It is the site of a sturdy humanity, subject to peril, yet ultimately unassailable. The inference, perhaps, is a deep longing for the balanced reality that civilization could be. This fantasy terrain stands for it.

   In other works - say, Egypt or Indigenous 10 - the terrain modulates, yet retains its singular, abstracted humanness. The chief distinction relates to pictorial syntax, Whiteman’s technical strong suit. And he takes risks in this regard. He toys constantly with happenstance, tempts chaos. This is an approach to composition that salutes the contingencies and vagaries of the real world. Egypt, for instance, is almost anti-rhetorical. The painting is a sweep of terse ideograms - allusion-rich, but all the while flouting the very idea of design hierarchy. Its design meanders.

  ...Whiteman’s art plumbs the imagination. Indeed, he is a connoisseur of the imagination and of its peculiar flights. He seems to savor such flights. Any artist of his sensibility might well embark on small journeys of discovery, but he is like a conjurer of unearthed domains. The primary condition of his art is the poetically constructed voyage. Each painting registers as a self-contained voyage, the pictorial embodiment of Baudelaire’s “fever which grips us in moments of chill distress, that nostalgia for some land we have never seen...a land that resembles you, where everything is sumptuous...authentic...where life is sweet to breathe.”

   Whiteman’s pictographs are staggering reveries, imagined Edens. It is not impossible to see them as metaphorical elusions of contemporaneity - as pursuits of a solacing world, pursuits of a plateau where today’s anxieties are calmed. If this were so, his work would be an apt antidote to most current vestiges of politically charged art. The feel of these works, however, is more intimate - this, despite their august physicality. Whiteman’s construction of vicarious regions is a visual lyric, not unlike every dreamer’s Cythera; and its implied aim is to rapt viewers in contemplation. Dreams are inevitable.

  “DREAMS FORM THE bristles of the artist’s brush...I probe beyond the confines of the finite to create an infinity...Living Dreams.”

   Arshile Gorky’s words, in 1942, at the start of his late, most eloquent phase. The quote occurred to me during my initial visit to Edward Whiteman’s new exhibition of abstract pictographs (recently at Arthur Roger); it returned during my second. In paintings like The Nile and Indigenous 10 - indeed, in most of this new suite - that leap into dreams is what I feel. In this instance, that means a certain air of suspended reverie and, at the same time, an envie for worlds apart. It is an aura quite unlike anything in Gorky’s art. And yet, formally, technically, there are distinct analogies. Whiteman is, beyond question, among the South’s two or three most significant painters in any mode. And the notion of his link, however remote, to the progenitor of American abstraction is an irresistible one.