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The works of dozens of artists are represented in “Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900,” the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden exhibition that opened Thursday. But unlike Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Thomas Wilfred, Joshua White isn’t just on the wall or in the catalog. He will also be in the museum’s courtyard on Saturday, June 25, from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., creating a light show with Gary Panter.
Panter, an underground-comics artist and the set designer of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, is probably better known than White. But White played a crucial role in the evolution of the psychedelic light show, providing the flickering, fluid environment at Manhattan’s Fillmore East every weekend for two years from 1968 to 1970, moving on to do work for bigger acts at Madison Square Garden.
Now 62, White began doing light shows in 1967 and abandoned them three years later. What killed his interest was Woodstock, where his Joshua Light Show worked in 1969. “We were performing on an enormous screen,” he recalls, “and it had no impact on the audience. They were just busy looking at each other. I realized, right then and there, it was over.”
There were—and still are, White notes—four elements to most light shows. “One was liquid projection, what everyone remembers, the oil-and-water variation. Another that was equally important was lumina, a process by which we bounced light onto the screen. This was based on the work of Thomas Wilfred; it had a northern-lights-like effect. We also used direct light; it was very pure, color and form.
“The fourth leg of the light show was films and slides, meaning concrete images. All of that stuff we do now with video. [The Hirshhorn] show will have three or four video projectors.”
From video, White went to TV, becoming a director. “And that has been my career. I have good credits. I did [an episode of] Seinfeld.”
White kept thinking about light shows, but only if he could do them on his own terms: live and improvised. “I realized that one of the problems I was always going to have was that I couldn’t take direction. You can’t tell me to make it more blue. I just don’t react well to that. So rather than be angry or crazy, I just decided, I’m not going to do this.”
About four years ago, he met Panter. “I started helping him come up with a new, more flexible version of what he was doing. We had totally different backgrounds, but we both had a passion for working with light.”
White and Panter have by no means turned to light shows full-time; the Hirshhorn performance will be only their 11th together. The show, marking the opening of “Visual Music,” will draw people to the museum’s courtyard. Inside the building, which will be open until 2 a.m., 99 Hooker and Rev.99 will offer a multimedia homage to another visual musician, filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
His performance with Panter, White says, will be accompanied by “a series of recorded mixes that honor [the acid-rock] era. Then, as the evening goes on, we have prepared some other tracks that are more experimental.’’
The duo has also worked with live music, and White says, “I have no problem with that. The thing that I’m not trying to do is to get back to the Garden. I do not want to go out on tour with Stevie Winwood and do the light show. What we want is to bring the lights forward.”