Revealing Jack Whitten’s Secret Self
Jack Whitten, who died in 2018, was known as an abstract painter, but figuration continued to lurk around his work. His remarkable experiments are brought to life in “I Am The Object”, one of the best shows in town, but unfortunately it ends on Saturday at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea. It’s worth seeing because these works shed new light on how the artist’s work might be viewed.
Here Whitten’s landmark 1995 painting “Memory Sites” reveals carefully woven skulls scattered across the canvas. The tubular shape in “Totem 2000 VIII: For Janet Carter (A Really Sweet Lady)” resembles a cross-sectional structure of slave ships. And “Natural Selection” has a clear human shadow in the foreground of the canvas. Perhaps, beyond abstraction, Whitten really wanted to capture the essence of black life or the personality he often referred to as “soul” in his interviews.
Whitten was born in Bessemer, Ala., In 1939 and met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1957 Montgomery bus boycott. King’s teachings on nonviolent ideas reinforced the ideas Whitten had grown up with, and in 1960 he had moved to New York to escape mounting racial tensions in Baton Rouge, La., Where he had enrolled in art school. Whitten became the only black student in his class at Cooper Union in Manhattan. But New York immediately offered him a world in which anything was possible: he saw John Coltrane play live in Brooklyn, flirted with the feminist writer Kate Millet, met modern masters like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, and often met Der on the street great abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning who, before giving him any advice, said, “Hi boy, how are you?”
These influences were helpful at first, but he soon felt trapped. In the 1960s he could not escape the gestural style of de Kooning and Lewis, which was characterized by expressive brushstrokes that emphasized the swing of the painter’s arm or the movement of the hand. Whittens own impressive, rough, picturesque spots in the “Martin Luther King’s Garden” of 1968 did not distinguish him from artists whom he regarded as father figures. An innovation was required, his method of “plate painting”, in which he drew a tool, which he called a “developer”, over the surface of the acrylic paint in a single movement to achieve “touch”, his term for painterly gestures escape in European art history. He developed techniques based on geometry: “Homage to Malcolm X”, a 1970 painting of dark, concentric, equilateral triangles, announced in “My Argiroula: For Argiro Galeraki 1981-1995” what kind of shapes he would eventually invent . a piece from 1995 in which metal and acrylic form concentric circles.
However, Whitten’s big break came when he came across the work of scientists, including Benoit Mandelbrot, on fractal geometry and began introducing pebbles – small blocks of stone, tile, or glass used in the construction of mosaics. “It was inevitable, I had learned that this was the only way to get to the point,” Whitten said in 2015, describing how the process helped him focus light into his painting. It does not seem intuitive that his deep interest in abstract mathematical concepts of replicable fragments marked the origins of the subtle figuration in his paintings.
His mosaics also provide a powerful metaphor for the core of his life’s work: trying to create art that connects personal and collective memories.
“In the Black Community, part of our survival is, let’s say we have a soul,” he said, explaining how he came up with his ‘DNA’ series of paintings in 1979, made from small blocks of acrylic that resemble digital grids on top of one Computer screen light up. “That allowed us to get through some serious repression.”
Just as the title “DNA” suggests that entries in the series reflect a person’s genetic makeup, his elegiac sculptures could also be viewed as portraits. A decade later, in 1992, he created one of his most eye-catching pieces, “Homecoming: For Miles”, in a similar fashion to jazz musician Miles Davis. Tiny dark blocks collide with sparks of light to form a galactic sphere. Dotted white lines run across the painting and bisect a circle on the left that encompasses 80 percent of the frame. You immediately get the feeling of a compass floating in the room and pointing home. “I saw the concept in his music and its connection to the soul,” said Whitten.
A common thread through Whitten’s work is his collection of small units of material into a whole, as if he wanted to recreate a persona from the experiences that make up a life. “Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994” remains one of Whitten’s most famous pieces for good reason. The artist centered a silhouette on the painting that was thick around the neck and consisted of colored stones. Occasional red lines drip around the shape like blood from injuries. Upon closer inspection, the orange tiles suggest that the figure was set on fire and burned from within.
Kerry James Marshall – influenced by Ellison’s “Invisible Man” – caused a similar sensation in 1980 in “A Portrait of the Artist as Shadow of His Former Self”, a black figure on a black background, “present and yet absent from the.” at the same time, ”noted a Los Angeles Times critic. In Marshall’s “Shadow” the power lies in a self-confident grin, in Whitten’s “Homage” in the wound.
References to figuration as part of Whitten’s artistic practice were first revealed when his sculptures, which are over 40 years old, were shown at the Met Breuer in 2018. “I Am The Object” cemented this term, but complimented even more conversation by proving that the artist’s main concern, whether sculpture or painting, was memory.
Whitten expanded his memory work beyond portraiture to include events that affected his community. Possibly his most figurative work, “9-11-01” from 2006, a huge piece about 20 by 10 feet, was worn from his experience during the September 11th terrorist attack on New York City where he lived Time. He lights the base of a large black triangle, the edges of which are colored like a fading photo. “It’s built in there,” he said when asked if works of art could embody memories. “My optimism is that other people will see it.”
In Montgomery, Whitten realized early on what impact a single life could have. When he came to New York, he learned that beyond art, community was important. If a room were to be filled with Whitten’s art, it would not be his innovative abstraction that immediately noticeable, but the Rolodex, which he created from great individuals and events that changed the course of world history.