A Conversation with Richard Whittaker: Berkeley Treasures
by Robbin Henderson, Jan 22, 2018
August 23, 2006
I'm Robbin Henderson, the director of the Berkeley Art Center. Richard Whittaker is the editor and publisher of works & conversations magazine. Richard came to the Art Center several years ago and suggested that he'd like to do some collaboration with us. One of the things he suggested was to do a series of conversations with artists. We did several and then Richard came up with the really excellent idea of calling them “Berkeley Treasures.” I thought it was a great title and, in fact, stole it for a series of shows we've been doing here, too. I also thought it was a great premise to bring artists to the Art Center audience who might or might not be well known but who, as Richard felt, contribute something to public discourse and the vibrancy of the arts community.
So we started this Berkeley Treasures series and Richard interviewed several people who are vital to the art scene in Berkeley. Recently we were casting around for who would go next and I said, 'Well, Richard, you're a "Berkeley Treasure." Why don't you let me interview you?' He was a little reluctant. But he generously agreed and so we're going to turn the tables on Richard tonight and let him be the interviewee. So you'll get to feel what it's like in that seat.
Richard: That will help my sensibility evolve, I'm sure [laughs].
Robbin: We've heard a little about your background, but can you give us a brief bio?
Richard: Well by the time I was twelve, I’d lived in twelve different places in the east and southeast. My family moved out to Southern California when I was twelve. My dad drove us here on Route 66 like thousands of others. Growing up near Los Angeles, I went to various schools and finally, miraculously, got a BA from Pomona College. Then I moved to San Francisco in 1966. So I've lived up here for 40 years. I feel like a Bay Area native almost.
I didn't have a head start artwise in the sense of growing up in an artistic family. But there certainly was some creative thinking on my father's side. My father was extremely strong about not accepting conventional views automatically. He felt it was important to find out for oneself what might actually be the case.
To elaborate a little on my own art history, I was working for the University of California as a lab tech in a lemon grove, of all places. It was part of a study being conducted by UCR on the effects of smog on citrus trees. Mr. Moffitt was the owner of the lemon grove and he struck me as the quintessential western man with all the positive aspects you could imagine in this role. He had a wonderful, direct personality and was a friendly, manly man. He knew his way around, all the back roads. One morning I came into work and was told this Mr. Moffitt had committed suicide the night before.
It was just a great shock. That night I sat down at my desk and started to write. In a way, that was my first experience of what I would call the transformative power of creative expression. I didn't know what I was doing, but all this left a deep impression on me. It helped me.
Robbin: I think one is particularly impressionable at that age. I think young people that age think a lot about life and death and the meaning of life and that sort of thing.
Richard: Yes. It reminds me that one night, I was probably about fifteen, I sat down at my desk. I remember having a blank page in front of me and sort of gathering myself. My aim was to explain everything I understood about existence up to that point in my life.
After about two sentences things began to get so complicated. What exactly was it that I knew? But that impulse toward meaning you're talking about, that's an important impulse. What is it that causes that impulse to get buried or trained out of us?
Robbin: I think that age is an incredibly complicated time of life. You're really in between a lot of things, but your mind is really starting expand.
Richard: You're speaking from your own experience, right?
Robbin: I think so, and also as a parent watching my children go through that. The whole beginning of questioning existence starts a lot younger than we usually think. Some kids can be very young and start thinking about life and death and the meaning of all of it.
Robbin: You mentioned to me some time ago that you had done ceramics at one time. When was that and how did you get involved with that?
Richard: That happened just before I got into Pomona College. I had a girlfriend at Scripps. She was taking ceramics and Paul Soldner happened to be her teacher. She took me into the ceramics studio one evening and there he was. I got a demonstration of throwing on the wheel and I wrestled around with the clay a little myself and Soldner gave me a few pointers. The whole thing was really quite exotic being there on the Scripps campus with this beautiful young woman and then with Paul Soldner, who himself had a remarkable quality. Of course he's a very well known potter.
After that I took a course at a nearby Junior College. If any of you have ever tried working with clay you probably know what a seductive experience it is to have your hands on the clay. It kind of captured me. So I did that for a while and, in fact, was still interested in ceramics when I moved up here in 1966. I built a couple of kilns and I had a little studio. But I found that working with the clay really wasn't for me. I loved building the kilns more than struggling with the clay and trying to throw a good pot. So it didn't go very far. But I did have some real experience with all that.
Robbin: So do you think the tedium of production pottery was just not engaging enough.
Richard: It wasn’t. I'm kind of impatient. Anyone who has tried working with clay knows that impatience doesn’t go along very well with clay. And I didn’t have an ideal of a pure craft object, either, where I might be searching for the pure cup or something. And it was a lonely activity. Coming from Pomona College with a degree in philosophy I was full of existentialist ideas, and sitting in the studio alone was all too existential.
Robbin: But writing is a lonely activity too, and you spend a lot of time doing that.
Richard: That's true, but writing can give you an immediate reward. Finding the right sentence, or even the right word, can be transformative and happens in a way that I was not finding with the clay. I should have been a better writer a long time ago, but the truth is I didn't really write that much. I did get a lot of strokes for some writing I did at Pomona College. I was on fire with poetry, but the obstacles that stood in the way were too much. It's amazing how some people, right out of the chute, seem to know what they want to do and they go right through life and achieve great things. That was not the way it was for me. I was really quite lost, I would say.
Robbin: That's hard to believe now.
Richard: I'm a late bloomer.
Robbin: Sometimes it just takes a long time for the flower to open.
Richard: Well, it does for some people. Maybe I can be an encouraging example. According to me, it can happen fairly late.
Robbin: What are some of the interests that engaged you along the way.
Richard: I used to read a lot. Some books were a real help, actually—more by way of showing possibilities I recognized inside, but hadn’t been able to bring out. Like so many others, I loved Herman Hesse, for instance. Probably the thing I've pursued the most in the last twenty-five years would be photography.
Robbin: And you still do that.
Richard: Yes. That began for me in 1976. But other interests? That's a hard question. I dabbled. I couldn't find anything that I could really, wholeheartedly engage in. I worked in the post office when I came to San Francisco, the worst job I ever had. And then I got fired. It was a good resolution.
Robbin: [laughs] I know so many people who had jobs in the post office in the sixties and seventies.
Richard: I painted houses, too. I know a lot of people who did that. I worked for this Irishman, a real character. Climbing up these tall ladders and painting the side of a house in the Outer Mission or Glen Park or Oceanside and looking out across the city—it was pretty great. And listening to my boss, Sean McCaughn, telling stories about his adventures as a horse rider and nightclub singer in Ireland. That was fun.
Robbin: So when did you start writing really seriously. Did that start along with the photography or were they two separate activities.
Richard: They were separate. When I got out of college in 1966 I really thought I was going to be a poet. Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot were my models. I came up to San Francisco and was writing poetry, sending things out, getting rejection slips. I'd read at the “I and Thou” on Haight St. and that was a big thing for me, but I wasn’t really getting out there. Then one evening sitting at my desk, I sort of came to myself while I was trying to write some very poetic thing. Suddenly I asked myself, what about my actual life? What was my actual life?
I was living with roommates in a flat in the inner Sunset scraping by in a job I hated. I had no prospects for any career and didn't really know what I was going to do. Was poetry really it? There I was trying to create a great piece of wisdom for the ages and I suddenly saw myself, this sort of lost person. It was an unbearable contradiction. In those moments, I resolved that I wouldn't write anymore until I was able to have a body underneath myself. I would really have under-standing. My wonderful vision would have to reach all the way down through my feet to the ground. I would have to inhabit myself. There wouldn't be such a gap between this grand vision and the fact of my actual life.
So I didn't write for a long time after that. I've only slowly begun to write again in the last fifteen years. I don't really consider myself a writer. I don't know what to call myself since I give myself permission to do whatever I feel like doing—that is, without being stupid about it.
Robbin: It strikes me that one of the things you've done, and that you do very well, is the interviews you conduct for the magazine. Maybe that's a way of kind of engaging again without having to necessarily pull it all out of yourself, but instead elicit it from others and then incorporate it, make sense of it somehow—because you do shape the interview, and you are very engaged. That's one of the things you do so well in these interviews; you’re very curious about the person you're interviewing, and you ask searching questions. It seems to me that's a way of getting back into it without having to pull it all out of yourself.
Richard: That's very astute, Robbin. It’s true, what you're saying, and I'm actually quite aware of that. I'm thrilled when a person I'm interviewing puts something into words that’s profound and wonderful—and true. It’s not one hundred percent different from my having said it myself. If I’ve had a hand in helping to bring about the articulation of something deep and true, I'm just absolutely delighted with that. It's what I hope for in an interview.
Robbin: Well that really is the nature of conversation, isn't it? It's not about two people sort of taking turns doing a monologue, but it's shaping something else between the two of them.
Richard: Yes, in the best sense. But how often does that happen in ordinary exchange?
Robbin: But it's such a delight when it does!
Richard: It’s not unusual when I talk with an artist and ask probing, possibly “stupid” questions, the artist tells me “no one ever asks me things like that! My artist friends and I never talk about these things!” There’s something paradoxical about that. I think that in order to have a real exchange people actually have to cross a line, even a little bit, into sincerity. How often does that happen? My experience is that it doesn't happen too often, actually.
Robbin: But don't you feel that it does in the magazine?
Richard: Well, yes! It’s what I look for to put in the magazine. Getting down to what’s really meaningful. Absolutely.
Robbin: To get back to the photography a little bit, can you say anything about what attracted you to taking pictures or what you hope to do with that?
Richard: I was living in San Francisco and was crossing the Bay Bridge one fall afternoon. The sun was setting behind me and I could see the reflections of the sun in the windows of houses in the East Bay Hills, these little jewels of light. It was one of those late afternoons—maybe the windows were rolled down with the marine air coming through. With the quality of light with maybe a little haze sometimes I’d get such a feeling just being alive in such a world of beauty. And that was how I was feeling when, out of the blue, I wondered, “What would happen if I took a photograph of this? Later, looking at the photo, would some of this same feeling come back? So that question actually propelled me to get a cheap little camera. I remember looking through the viewfinder and instantly understanding why people needed different lenses. That was in 1976 and this idea was the beginning of my getting involved with photography. I started taking photos see if I could capture an image that could bring back a feeling I might have had.
Robbin: Do you feel that you have from time to time?
Richard: Yes. And I found that, at times, looking would become almost a religious experience. Simply encountering the beauty that I would sometimes find.
Robbin: You mean at the time you were taking the picture?
Richard: Sometimes I’d see something, and then I’d head towards it. As I got closer sometimes I’d run into something so beautiful this incredible feeling would be called forth. I would have to find the composition as I was looking through the camera and moving around. But all the time, I’d have entered into this extraordinary state; sometimes there was almost a feeling of desperation from being so much in the grip of wanting to capture what I was seeing. These things didn’t happen that often, but often enough.
Then when I’d pick up an art magazine and read these intellectualized things – this was back in 1980, the early 80s - I really couldn’t take them seriously. So one of the main impulses behind starting the magazine was to help get something into circulation that I wasn’t seeing in the artworld.
Robbin: And yet you are interested in ideas. You mentioned that you have a degree in philosophy. You still are very involved in philosophical issues and ideas.
Richard: Well you could say so. What's interesting to me are ideas that have some resonance with the questions we face being alive in this mysterious existence.
Robbin: Well, where do you see your interest in art and philosophy intersecting? When you talk about having an ecstatic moment where you see something that is really, really beautiful and profound, I mean, in itself, you wouldn't have to explain that any further. That's a phenomenon that needs no explanation.
Richard: Yes. Regular people all understand that. Most people, when you ask them about art, use words like “beauty” and “truth.” And it’s clear they haven’t been to art school. But I think they’ve got the right idea. So where does art and philosophy meet? It’s like the question where do ideas and experience intersect?
Richard: They meet in the realm of experience. This is actually the realm we all live in. But strangely enough this is always being missed. Somehow we’re convinced that we live in the realm of things. We're convinced that the rock-bottom truth of the world is matter. But matter exists, first of all, in our consciousness of it. And the problem with the realm of experience, or consciousness, is that it's not quantifiable.
In psychology fifty, sixty-eighty years ago, the idea of the unconscious was a big thing thanks to Freud. And to deal with the unconscious was an art, not a science. The art of meeting and recognizing the unconscious took place in the realm of experience through sensitivity and interpretation. Maybe a lot of that is now shifting to things like brain scans, neuro-chemical studies and so on. Mostly what psychiatrists do nowadays is try to figure out what pills to prescribe. And where does philosophy fit with all this? Hard to say. Hedigger wrote about how the advent of science was the end of philosophy. I don’t think he believed it was really the end of philosophy.
But I'd say that art, at its best, is operating in the realm of experience, and maybe more specifically in the realm of feeling. There’s something we need there and maybe feeling can even be an avenue to knowledge. Music is all about feeling, and everyone is feeding themselves with iPods. But I can’t find any interest in the visual artworld about this realm of experience, especially the realm of feeling. It doesn’t have any weight nowadays. Maybe it’s just sentimentality.
Robbin: I don't know if you'd agree with this or not, but I see around us the cell phones, the iPods, the individuals driving alone in a car and, too often, I am one of them. One thing that strikes me about this in relationship to art is that it seems the participation in art—whether looking or listening, or actually engaged in making it—has, in the past, been much more of a communal experience than it is now. It used to be that you’d go to concert and there would be actual human beings there.
It seems to me that something different happens when you're listening to a live performance instead of to a recording. It seems that even in the visual arts there used to be these enterprises that many people would be engaged in—for instance in western art, in making a cathedral. Much of that is lost to us now.
Richard: Something is happening there, for sure. That's a very interesting and troubling question. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I think it's interesting when Jean Baudrillard says that art is no longer able to perform a vital function in this culture. I don't say that to demean anything in this room, and I'm doing an art magazine myself, after all, but I feel there is something to that.
I interviewed Paolo Soleri, the amazing visionary architect, several years ago. He's still alive, probably close to 90 now. Late in his life he came around, for some reason, to the acceptance of the proposition that computers and artificial intelligence will lead to the next step in evolution; humans will be left behind. As he put it, maybe humans will be like pets for the new, higher silicon life forms.
Robbin: Because of the computer?
Richard: Yes. I found it pretty disturbing that Paolo Soleri had embraced this belief. Everything I'd learned about him seemed to point in an opposite direction. Yet there's a world of people completely serious about this proposition that some kind of cyber intelligence will replace us on the ladder of life.
So one of the things I wonder about is how do you bring, let's say, a moment of the numinous to life when a lot of people are embarrassed even to ask deep questions nowadays? I tell this story I heard from Jacob Needleman. He was asked to teach a philosophy course for high school seniors. He met with the class for the first session, all very bright kids, and he said, “Imagine I'm someone you can ask any question of and I’ll be able to answer it.” He gave them ten minutes to write their questions down and pass them up to the front. No names attached.
He got the papers back and the questions were mostly trivial except in the margins and sometimes going over on the back of the page. It was like after the trivial questions had been written then some real questions began to appear. “Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” “Is there a purpose?”
The deep questions were literally marginalized. Today, who needs them? We have plenty of entertainment. It seems as though we're beyond all that deep stuff.
Robbin: Well, it's interesting. You say that you're mistrustful of the New Age and I tend to agree with you, but what is it that's so disturbing?
RW: That's a good question. There's something that Chogyam Trungpa called 'spiritual materialism'' the idea that I'm an enlightened consumer, that I’m empowered somehow to consume the higher aspects of life – things that, in the past— and in all the traditions, have been regarded in an utterly different light. There would never be any confusion between buying a new car and trying to open oneself to the realm of spirits, let’s say.
We seem to have gotten used to the ubiquity of hype. It just seems to be part and parcel of this world of lies that's constantly washing over us. Like everyone else, I’m used to it. When I hear someone say, “It’s the greatest” I figure, well, maybe it's halfway good.
Robbin: And you know it's going to cost you money. But getting back to the magazine. How do you make decisions about who you’re going to interview or what the topics will be in each issue of the magazine? I'm impressed by how cohesive each issue seems.
Richard: I always say, “it’s an organic process.” I might have one or two pieces at the beginning, an interview or two. It's like going through your day. You never know exactly what's going to happen. You pass all kinds of people on the street. You listen to the radio and, who knows? you might hear something you didn't expect. It’s how I ended up interviewing Godfrey Reggio. I heard he was in S.F. So I called the station. It’s almost miraculous that I got to spend an hour and half with him the next day.
Each issue is like a blank canvas. I never know what the theme will be in advance. It just appears out of what I encounter and what resonates. Somehow I always manage, after six months, with another issue.
Robbin: So it takes you six months to develop an issue?
Richard: Yes. It used to take nine months [laughs].
Robbin: [laughs] That's a nice biological period. But is there anything that you can tell us about the kinds of things that strike you or capture your interest. I think there are a lot of artists here who would like to know.
RW: I can give you an example of something I'm going to publish and how it came about. Ruth Braunstein wants to do a book on Richard Shaw and asked me to interview him for the book. So several weeks ago some of us met at Ruth’s gallery just to brainstorm about what might be involved. But before we really got into it, Shaw’s daughter, Alice says to Ruth, 'You should have seen where I took my dad before I brought him here to the meeting.' I could only hear some of what she was saying and several conversations were going on at the same time. But she described “this amazing park' where some fellow, who works for the city, makes great things.' I was trying to make it out because it sounded interesting.
So a few weeks later I pieced a few clues together and finally found this place. It’s on Cayuga Street. Nobody was around so I walked all over the place and was amazed to find all these wooden sculptures tucked in here and there. I counted them and there were at least a hundred - all outsider art. I’d never seen anything like it, especially in a public park. so I just took a lot of photos.
I saw why Alice had been enthusiastic. And I thought I’d heard her say something about “a little Asian man.” So I went back a second time. This time I saw a little man pushing a broom over in a corner. He didn’t look like someone in charge. But who knows? I had to find out. So I went over and asked him a few questions. Turns out he takes care of the whole park. So I asked him, “Are you the one who has done all these sculptures?” He looked down sort of embarrassed and said, “yes.” [laughs] Demetrio Braceros. He was so incredibly humble. I knew right away I wanted this in the magazine and I hoped he'll let me take his picture. I mean this was just a magical, pure thing. I did a whole article about him. And how did it happen? Just because I’d overheard something. So there's one example.
Robbin: That sounds like amazing serendipity. A few minutes ago you said something I found very depressing, that art didn't function the way it should anymore. But I don't think you really believe that, because why would you devote your life to bringing an art magazine to fruition twice a year if you did? So maybe you can give us something of a more positive nature, why art is important. Why it might be important.
RW: When I said that I was quoting Jean Baudrillard and I said I understand why he says that. I think there’s some truth in what he says, but I don't think it is the absolute truth. But why is art important? I'm really old-fashioned because I remember the phrase, 'art, philosophy and religion.' When I was in my twenties you’d run across that phrase. I haven’t heard it in ages now. There are a lot of very sophisticated things that go with art today. It’s become kind of academic, I’d say. The schools handing out MFAs have to have something to justify all the money. So you can become 'an expert' and talk semiotics and tropes and valorize cultural relativity, gender politices and so on.
Art used to be more widely regarded as a possible pathway to the numinous—something that comes from another level. Richard Shaw was telling me about his experience of looking at a painting a few days ago in a Portland museum. There was something about it, he said, that was so alive. Something about it just hit him, it moved him. He's still thinking about this painting. This is an example of what art can sometimes do. It can be a magical thing, but this magic is not easy to reach.
If I happen to have a moment where I'm touched in this way, it immediately gives me the real experience that there’s more to living than this kind of day-to-day business. I forget that all the time. We all forget that there's something like another level—these amazing moments where we feel suddenly much more alive. A moment like that brings meaning. It's hard to put this into words. One is reminded how this is actually mysterious, this world, and that I am here alive.
I think that art sometimes touches one on this level. It's rare. It's beyond anyone’s ability to just turn out a piece of art like that. I love the way Agnes Martin writes about art. She says that the life of the artist is a life of suffering. It’s because the artist can’t achieve that. There’s failure after failure. But then somehow, something magical happens. As Agnes Martin puts it, it's a “moment of perfection.” As she puts it, suddenly “the road ahead is clear.” There’s order. There's meaning. But it only lasts a little while and then it's gone. The memory of it keeps you going. So that’s an example of something that can happen in the arts.
Robbin: I was reading a quote that is attributed to Beethoven. He said, please let me just live long enough to have a moment of pure joy. That seems to express, in another way, what Agnes Martin is talking about. Beethoven!—one of the most sublime composers of all time. So what is it that artists do?
RW: That’s an essential question. What could that pure joy be? It occurs to me that there’s no career path for becoming one's real self like there is for becoming a lawyer or a doctor. My hunch is that on some deep level artists feel a hunger—consciously or unconsciously—for something like that. With writers there's the understanding about the importance of finding one’s own voice.
So what would that be, finding one’s own voice? I think the artist has that same essential search. There's no job description for how to get there. You don't get paid for it. And one of the big confusions in art is around money and this other thing.
Of course, there are many different directions people can go in the arts, but to me the most interesting thing is how it relates to this essential search. So what about this part of life one has read about? Pure joy? People have experienced miraculous things. I think the artist feels some sort of instinctive hunger for a real life, let's put it that way. A real life.