Saul White, Artist and Poet, Dies at 70

By Susan Landauer

Saul White, the poet who with Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen brought Beat jazz-poetry to Los Angeles in the late 1950’s and went on to distinguish himself as an abstract expressionist painter for more than 40 years, died on May 20. He was 70 and lived in San Pedro.

Born in Boston in 1932 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, White moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and attended Fairfax High School, where he befriended artist Wallace Berman, often considered the spiritual leader of the Southern California Beats. In his senior year White developed a serious interest in music and met the songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who wrote Elvis Presley’s “You ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” – contacts that helped land him a position as record librarian at KFWB, one of Los Angeles’ earliest jazz radio stations.

After serving in the Korean War, White abandoned his career in the music industry to become a painter. He studied at the Otis Art Institute on a fellowship in the mid-1950’s and took a storefront studio in Venice Beach on Ocean Avenue, which became a gathering place for artists Berman, Edward Kienholz, and John Altoon.

Venice was then Los Angeles’ counterpart to the North Beach Beat scene, and White began writing poetry and became a regular at Lawrence Lipton’s Sunday evening “literary salons,” where poetry readings and wide-ranging discussions were attended by poets such as Stuart Perkoff, Bruce Boyd, Tony Scibella, and Charlie Foster. White became one of the figures on which Lipton based his best-selling book, The Holy Barbarians (1958), which became a primer for aspiring Beatniks.

In 1957, White was invited to read and record his poetry at Ruth Witt-Diamont’s San Francisco Poetry Center. The rhythms of his jazz-inspired work caught the attention of Rexroth and Patchen, who invited him to read with them in North Beach. Perhaps the height of White’s poetry career was his participation in a series of ground-breaking jazz-poetry performances in 1957 at the Los Angeles Jazz Concert Hall, where he, Rexroth, and Patchen read poetry accompanied by Shorty Rogers’s jazz band. Although White continued throughout his life to write poetry, publishing sporadically, he concentrated on painting and printmaking.

In 1958, he moved to New York, where he befriended the luminaries of abstract expressionism Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline and became a familiar name in Greenwich Village artistic circles. In the early 1960’s de Kooning invited him to live and work with him in East Hampton, where he helped build the older artist’s studio.

It was at this time, under the mentorship of de Kooning, that White became convinced of the permanent viability of expressive abstraction, regardless of the dictates of fashion. In the ensuing decades, even though painting itself became anachronistic in the eyes of the art world, White continued to explore his chosen style. White affirmed his commitment in the late 1990’s when he wrote, “I’ve always felt that the language of Abstract Expressionism is a lot like jazz – open to infinite variety, extension, and refinement.” White is survived by his son Aaron, daughter Rachel, and grandson Ethan.

Services will be private and a public celebration of his art and poetry will be held at the San Jose Museum of Art in August.

Posted: Sun - June 1, 2003 at 02:55 PM