When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see.
Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 43
Forty-five years ago, or some say more, Glenn Whitehead rummaged through children’s toys at Duckwall’s five and dime – it was still Duckwall’s then – and with no goal in mind, he gathered up odd items for a piñata party on College Hill. This was a way of distracting himself from the gray thoughts that lurked in damp places and led him to question bureaucratic nonsense in meeting rooms, dull artspeak among critics and colleagues, or hollow feelings that crept up as he drove through the streets of his home in the center of the country. Far from the familiar Left and Right Coasts, he was indeed in the center of the world itself, if
you looked in his bathroom at the Mercator map that hung over the tub, where a carefully-lettered “You Are Here” sign was placed above an arrow which curved down to point at Wichita, Kansas.
But that day was not a dreary, overcast November of bureaucratic toil or annoying administrators. There were no meetings to bore one, or time to contemplate how far he was from the “centers” of the art world. Summer birthdays loomed in sight and there were children to delight and puzzle. With a thoughtful nod or two and the eye of a ten-year old connoisseur, he walked down the store aisle and gathered up a bundle of kitsch...a bubble-packed Peelers bulldozer, a peek-a-boo telescope with pin-up girl laughing and tossing her hair back, two plastic dolls with different dresses and identical faces, a Travel-Mate pocket game – impossible to do in a car - where you tried to get all the BBs seated in their holes, and a package of puzzle tricks, those metal loops in odd shapes that would never seem to come apart or go back together. Understanding that children were made to aggravate parents and “uncles” were put on earth to facilitate that torment, he put a drum in the cart. That was followed by a metal clapper with a brightly-painted clown’s face, a truly loud and annoying item, and he grinned at it. With a flick of the wrist, a wooden ball mounted on spring steel slapped the face repeatedly beside the right
eye, which was closed. Whapping it was like playing a Tibetan drum or a Oaxaca wedding bell,1 only it was ironically violent and unbearably tinny to the ear. Decidedly unmusical, it was perfect. After the party, Glenn kept it for himself. He quietly tucked it away and took it to his office, thinking it might be of use in a faculty meeting. He removed the ball and spring, made a few sketches, then paintings on paper, and soon the face of the former clown clapper became a motif that would occupy Glenn for several years. He called it a Winking Clown.2
This was a classic modern painter’s
gambit, the choice of a repeated motif which, in
setting aside the necessity of choosing a subject, became the occasion for endless variation and experimentation.3 After a few preliminary sketches,4 Glenn’s
Winking Clowns became an exercise in color and treatment of the surface...red- faced, blue faced, red-lipped, blue lipped, white faced, black faced. Some are untitled and undated. Some are titled simplyWinking Clown; a few are dated.5
Some Winking Clowns carry
associative titles. In 1974 the Wichita State
University studio faculty developed an
exhibition of lithographs as a fundraising
project; Glenn’s contribution to the
“Faculty Portfolio Series, No. One” was a
Winking Clown, so titled in cursive writing
in the image, with “Only You” in designer
script overlaid.6 This was the first of the
clowns to carry a secondary title. It is
enigmatic and bordering on the absurd, yet
for someone like Glenn, who was a teenager
in the fifties, the hit song Only You, by The Platters, seems a likely reference.7 At a
distance of twenty years it may have seemed saccharine enough to carry some irony. Also that year he put provocative, humorous titles on some
Winking Clowns, suggesting that they were images of American presidents. “Somewhere along the way I linked the clown to those ornamental presidential dinner plates, and a series of clowns bore careful script lettering,The Twenty-First Winking Clown of the United States of America, and so forth.”8
The Twenty-Seventh Winking Clown of the United States of America, mixed media on paper, 1973
Winking Clown (Only You),
Thus, like the plates, the Winking Clowns became a series. Each clown’s face was painted broadly and differently; a few had the title written in cursive handwriting but most had script lettering. Although he claimed that these were not political satire, stating that “it was more about ridiculous grandiosity visited on the winking clown...,9 his claim of art for art’s sake was written partly tongue in cheek at a time when the country was obsessed with the scandal of Watergate and the downfall of President Richard Nixon. To further suggest that they were not intended as social commentary, they carried the marks of art history...the sensitive, corrected-on-the-spot drawings of Degas, the bravura brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, the Pop Art choice to re-appropriate common non-art objects. In his notes he mused on the union of these disparate elements: “In trying to honor both Degas and the Keystone Kops I’m trying to fuse serious mood (poetry) and luscious surface and contemporary topical subject matter and blatant (intentionally mislay - narrative qualities...”10
Winking Clown, ink on paper, 1974
However, there is one of Nixon which is stylistically different from the rest, an aggressive portrait likeness signaled by a rough beard-like crosshatching, suggesting his infamous “five o’clock shadow.”11 Glenn’s notes indicate that he was fully aware of the topicality of The Thirty-Seventh Winking Clown of the United States of America.12
The Thirty-Seventh Winking Clown of the United States of America, mixed media on paper, 1974.
Such external references in the Winking Clowns appear several times, as in ones done in the “style” of famous artists like Marcel Duchamp or Pablo Picasso. These may read as parodies, but they are not overtly humorous. A clown face drawn on top of a reproduction of the turning figure in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina is intentionally humorous, the clown’s face providing a winking “fig leaf” for the nude figure. A consummate and highly talented draftsman, Glenn makes the clown “fit” the style of Michelangelo’s drawing as if the Renaissance master had done it, and the result is an homage and a mocking gesture played off one another.13
The “presidential” series does not seem
to have an intentional structure and it was
not conceived to be a “complete” listing from
Washington to Nixon. With the exception of Nixon, the exercise of matching the paintings with actual presidents reveals no hidden intention. The image itself simply became a framework for an improvisatory form of detached work. In his notes, Glenn mused:
“...the picture itself is rather ordinary, a dull, obvious “solution” --- a pasting together... I look at it and realize it could just as easily be a kangaroo standing on the freeway...there is no visual, structural, formal necessity of the parts... So by indulging myself I have not become involved at all – I am detached, objective...the picture betrays too little interest in the picture and a great deal of interest in my ideas as “things”...14
Indeed, like so many painters of his generation, his attention (and his claims about art) are directed toward the non-objective act of making a picture, not depicting a subject, yet the shift in artistic practice in the sixties required that a “subject” be chosen, yet picked out as gratuitously as possible, like the idle choice of a clown noisemaker, and the marks on the surface are meaningless in regard to any conventional visual syntax. In rejecting “personal” ideas, Glenn explains this metaphorically, equating painting and writing. “A picture then become(s) a list of my involvements and interests, like a list of words – verbal substitutes and
illustrative symbols are easier to handle than intense, involved, fusion and development of visual ideas... 15 Glenn was a careful writer, never satisfied with a draft, always searching for precise words. He once wrote a humorous letter with a “conversation” about being stranded on an island, and what book one would choose. After a few exchanges and rejections from his questioner, he’s told that it must be
“...a book that will stimulate and inspire you, a book that explains everything, a book you can turn to over and over again. What I’m talking about is a book for your sanity, your mind, your very soul.”
“Okay, okay. I know just what it would be.”
“Good. So what book would you want with you on that island?”
“A good dictionary.”
The letter concludes with the comment that “People who really love words think of the dictionary as a huge, well-stocked refrigerator. I keep opening the door to see what’s in there.”16 One has to remind oneself that most of the Winking Clowns are pictures with words.
It is tempting to see the Winking
Clowns as inherently
because this was not
the first time Glenn
was known for a
“series” of images that were droll and a bit absurd. In 1965 he began working for Bill Helmer as an illustrator for The Texas Ranger, UT’s
student humor magazine. Glenn drew an armadillo in
the corner of the new logo and soon each issue
contained marginal drawings of armadillos doing all
manner of un-armadillo-like things...dancing, roaring,
lying on a couch in therapy, sneezing in the face of a
chemistry professor, standing idly in a cowboy hat with an arrow shot through it. As an undergraduate, before he went off to graduate school at Stanford, and before Jim Franklin commercially popularized the armadillo as a Texas icon,17Glenn was the “armadillo man,” as Glenn’s friend Helmer explained.
He personally identified with the armadillo (he eventually admitted) because of its myopia, stupidity, harmlessness, defense mechanisms, overall design, and anachronistic presence in a biologically advanced and
dangerous world---where it obviously had to have something going for it just to survive. In short, the armadillo could cope, and for this reason, if no other, Whitehead admired the critter.18
As armadillo imagery became ubiquitous in Texas in the 1970s, Glenn regretted the rise of the armadillo’s popularity.
He worries the at this somehow compromises the armadillo’s integrity, feels partly responsible for its loss of
innocence, and takes comfort in the
knowledge that armadillos are both too
stupid and self-secure to care one way
Glenn’s wry description of the armadillo as
myopic and anachronistic, yet a critter who
“could cope,” parallels his sometimes self-
deprecating humor.20 One senses in Glenn a
strong identification with the armadillo, and it opens a window onto the Winking Clowns.
Clown. The clown is an archetypal and transcultural figure...jester, fool, and trickster. Made impersonal behind the mask, he is a reservoir of bipolar energy, silly and serious, creative and destructive, known universally, his identity is hidden (or faked). He is mischievous and annoying, and he smiles while his heart is breaking. He is Pierrot of the commedia dell’arte, forever pining for the love of Columbine and
always rejected. He
trusts, and is the
victim of pranks.
He is the circus
clown of Glenn’s
the Clown, the
but sad Jimmy
Stewart, a good
doctor hiding his
painted makeup in The Greatest Show on Earth. He is the jester in the court of kings, speaking truth to power, and he is the dreamer of grand schemes who trips over his own shoes. He is the eternal pratfall. We laugh at him, and with him, taking a moment in time to cover our own sorrows, for he holds a mirror up to all of us. He is us.
Wink. In the Oxford English Dictionary, a wink is defined as “a glance or significant movement of the eye (ofen accompanied by a nod) expressing command, assent, invitation, or the like.” But more complex meanings also layer onto the word...a short nap, a moment in time, the slightest amount, one two- thousandth of a minute, a blink. The act
itself, the movement of an eyelid, can be an
act of knowing something in common, or
knowing something you do not. It is
inherently contradictory and only the context
In one, The Thirty-Fourth Winking
Clown of the United States of America, the
word “WINK,” shoots up from the eye in bold
caps, with cartoon “movement lines” for
emphasis. But Glenn surely cared little that
one thinks of Eisenhower. In spite of the
inscriptions on the paintings, it is best not to
associate the Winking Clowns too quickly
with a presidential wink indicative of
cynicism, privileged knowledge, or
condescension, for the wink is universal. Like
the humble armadillo, who “could cope,” the
Winking Clowns are “Everyman,21 uncertain, conflicted, but carrying on.”22
Bill Helmer concluded his laudatory article anointing Glenn as the armadillo man of the sixties by briefly commenting on the winking clowns, which he saw in 1974.
At that time he had long since abandoned the armadillo and was painting winking clowns. Only winking clowns, in fact. Nothing else. He showed me a picture of one of his paintings---a classic children’s happy clown in billowy polka-dot costume, bulbous nose and cone-shaped cap, laughing and cavorting. But winking at you. A
knowing wink that, the longer you looked at it, became an increasingly cynical, contemptuous, deprecating, patronizing smirk.23
Did Helmer miss the point? As clear-sighted as he was on the armadillo matter, was he taken in by the clown’s duality? As Glenn’s friend he knew him well, and there was an element of truth in his comment that Glenn’s “wit and twinkling Irish eyes concealed a soul that was a monument to melancholy.”24 If he saw that, why did he miss the mark in understanding the clowns? Perhaps it is simply that the clown is elusive.
Glenn, setting the record straight, so to speak, wrote to a friend (or to himself)25 in answer to a question:
Matt --- Here’s something for your files on me. I think you will find it interesting. Helmer (the writer) is one of my long time good friends, and in this article he is so kind and complimentary (sometimes, when I’m feeling low, I have to read again all those nice words in the last paragraph of the first page), but he got the clowns all wrong, I am not cynical, and the clown’s wink is, in fact, a painful wince.26
Here Glenn reveals the dark side of his feelings, and the dark side was there.
There is one titled The in the middle of the night Winking Clown, and even The Nightmare Winking Clown. But looking again at the tin clapper, with the ball hitting the clown next to the eye, the “wince” seems a straightforward and accurate description. So, a wince becomes a wink, and then the wink becomes a wince. Things are what they seem, and they are not what you think they are. The clown laughs, the clown winks, the clown winces, and behind the clown is Glenn.
Glenn, the lover of words and a good dictionary, liked to write dialogues with himself about art and life, thoughts about artists he admired, odd games he’d invented, and lists. Papers left in neat stacks and piles of disarray, for others to sort through. And he wrote lists of one-liners.
“Let barking dogs lie.”
“Don’t face your future. Fake it.”27
James Moore, October, 2018
1 Glenn held a fondness for the art and culture of Oaxaca.
2 “Winking Clown” is a name Glenn gave to the object. Made by the Kirchof Toy Company, it was one of many tin lithography noisemakers, novelties, and household goods that date back to the nineteenth century and still served the niche party goods market. It had no “name,” but was one of their “Life of the Party” series.
3 This became commonplace in the late 19th century and through the 20th, as painting parted with the notion of conventional academic subjects meant to educate, enlighten and ennoble the viewer. Degas’ ballet dancers, Cezanne’s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Monet’s Haystacks, Bonnard’s series of his wife, Marthe, down to Motherwell’s many paintings titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic, to the Pop Art appropriations of Warhol in painting Campbell soup cans or self-portraits.
4 There are at least two pen and ink studies.
5 The dating is inconsistent, although they first appear in 1973 and continue until 1976. Most date from 1973-1974.6A copy of this lithograph is in the collection of the Wichita Art Museum, a gift of Dan Rouser, where it is titledWinking Clown, and subtitled “From the Faculty Portfolio Series, No. One.” The artist’s proof carries the handwritten title Only You Winking Clown. In addition to Glenn, the participating artists were Steve Berman, David Bernard, John Boyd, John Fincher, and Robert Kiskadden.
7 Only You (And You Alone) was a pop song written by Buck Ram (Samuel Ram), who wrote under various pseudonyms for many years for Broadcast Music, Inc. Ram produced all the recordings for The Platters (and played piano on Only You), and when Mercury initially pressed Only You on their purple “race music” label, Ram protested and Mercury relented, releasing it on their regular black label, giving it far greater radio play. It held number one on the R&B charts for seven weeks, and number five on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for thirty weeks. It has been covered numerous times over the years and continues to be covered today. Neither Glenn nor any teenager in the fifties would have known the recording’s history, but it was, and remains, an iconic musical milestone of the fifties.8 Glenn Whitehead papers, undated.
10 Glenn Whitehead papers, undated. Glenn had the habit of “correcting” himself as he wrote (he never typed or wrote on a computer), rejecting, or trying out different words, much as he would “try out” and overlay different lines in drawing.
11 The first televised presidential debate pitted Nixon against John F. Kennedy. Kennedy looked young and tan, while Nixon, recovering from a leg infection, looked haggard, and he decided not to shave or use make-up, opting for a product called Lazy Shave. Under the bright lights of the television studio he sweated through the pancake make-up and his five o’clock shadow was visible. This was often cited as a reason for his loss; the important point was that on television, appearance was as important as the content of the debate.
12 Glenn Whitehead papers, op.cit.
13 Collection of the author. Michelangelo’s project for The Battle of Cascina was lost or never finished, but is known from engravings after the cartoon, and from surviving drawings. The drawing of the turning figure in the center of the composition is in the British Museum. The overt humor of this drawing is something of an anomaly.
14 Glenn Whitehead papers, op.cit.
16 Letter to the author, Autumn, 1996.
17 https://en.wikipedia.orgwiki/JIm_Franklin (artist)
18 Bill Helmer, “Tracking the armadillo,” The Texas Observer (December 29, 1978) 21-23. Helmer’s article was written expressly to set the record straight about the origins of this phenomenon in Austin and Glenn’s role in it. This is also discussed in Jennifer Lyn Richmond, Iconographic Analysis of the Armadillo and Cosmic Imagery within art associated with the Armadillo World Headquarters, 1970-1980. MA Thesis, University of North Texas, December 2006.
19 Ibid. 23.
20 Regarding work shown in the Austin Museum of Art’s annual auction, he wrote: “I laughed at how that museum normally would have nothing to do with me, would certainly never exhibit my work, embarrassed as it is by my old-timey pictures, and dedicated as it is to being hip and fashionable, but of course might stoop to approach me when it needed to raise money.” Letter to the author, Autumn, 1996, op.cit. After painting in a high modernist mode in graduate school at Stanford, when Glenn finally moved back to Texas he settled into a life of painting
landscape, still life, and figure compositions, essentially in admiration of his favorite nineteenth century painters and trying to see nature as they did.
21 The reference here is to the anonymous 15th century morality play, The Summoning of Everyman, required reading in many college English Lit classes in Glenn’s undergraduate years. The play addresses the calling of every creature to death and to give account of how they have lived. Everyman, who represents strength, can convince none of his friends to go with him, except for Good Deeds.
22 Glenn Whitehead papers, undated.
23 Helmer, op.cit. 23.
24 Ibid. 22. Helmer goes on to say “He was/is the man who invented despair.” Glenn expressed mixed feelings about the article. He was tremendously flattered to be brought out of the shadows as the creator of the armadillos in The Texas Ranger, but rejected some of Helmer’s rhetoric as too stereotypical, lacking in subtlety and perception, particularly regarding the clowns. Conversation with the author, 2016.
25 Glenn had a habit of writing notes or letters to friends and then destroying them, or never sending them.
26 Glenn Whitehead papers, undated. Note to Matt Swanson.
27 Glenn Whitehead papers, undated.