Revealing Jack Whitten’s Secret Self

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Yinka Elujoba for The New York Times. I very much admire Jack Whitten‘s work and have learned a great deal from him as I continue with my own exploration of how acrylic paint can give reality to nonobjective images. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

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The current exhibition “I Am The Object” proves that, whether through sculpture or painting, the artist’s primary concern was capturing the essence of Black life and communal memory.

Jack Whitten, who died in 2018, was known as an abstract painter, but figuration continued to lurk around his work. His remarkable experiments come to life in “I Am The Object,” one of the best shows in the city right now but one that is unfortunately closing Saturday [January 23, 2021] at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea. It is worth seeing because these works shed new light on how the artist’s oeuvre might be considered.

Here, Whitten’s landmark 1995 painting, “Memory Sites,” reveals carefully woven-in skulls distributed across the canvas. The tubelike shape in “Totem 2000 VIII: For Janet Carter (A Truly Sweet Lady)” resembles a cross-sectional structure of slave ships. And “Natural Selection” has a clear human shadow at the forefront of the canvas. Perhaps, beyond abstraction, Whitten really wanted to capture the essence of Black life, or personhood, which he often described in his interviews as “soul.”

“In the Black community part of our survival is, we say, we own soul,” Jack Whitten has said. “That allowed us to get through some heavy-duty oppressive stuff.”
Credit…John Berens

Born in segregated Bessemer, Ala., in 1939, Whitten met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1957. King’s teachings on nonviolence reinforced ideas Whitten had grown up with, and by 1960 he had moved to New York to escape the increasing 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. Yet New York immediately offered him a world where everything 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 on the streets, he frequently ran into the great abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning who, before giving him advice, would say, “Hi kid, how are you doing?”

These influences were helpful at first but he soon began to feel trapped. Through the ’60s he couldn’t get out from under the gestural style of de Kooning and Lewis, characterized by expressive brush strokes emphasizing the sweep of the painter’s arm or movement of the hand. Whitten’s own impressive, rough, painterly swabs in “Martin Luther King’s Garden” from 1968 didn’t set him apart from artists he considered father figures. It took an innovation, his “slab painting” method in which, in a single motion, he dragged a tool he called the “developer” along the surface of acrylic paint, to help him escape from “touch,” his term for painterly gestures in European art history. He went on to develop techniques based on geometry: “Homage to Malcolm X,” a 1970 painting with dark, concentric, equilateral triangles, heralded what he would eventually invent for shapes, in “My Argiroula: For Argiro Galeraki 1981 — 1995,” a 1995 piece in which metal and acrylic form concentric circles.

Installation view of “I Am The Object” at Hauser & Wirth. “These works shed new light on how the artist’s oeuvre might be considered,” our critic says.
Credit…Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth

But Whitten’s big break came when he encountered the work of scientists, including Benoit Mandelbrot, on fractal geometry and began to introduce tesserae — small blocks of stone, tile, or glass used in constructing mosaics. “It was inevitable, I’d learned that it 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 seems counterintuitive that his deep interest in abstract mathematical concepts of replicable fragments marked the origins of the subtle figuration in his paintings.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Yinka Elujoba is a Nigerian writer and art critic currently finishing up an MFA in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, New York. His texts have been published in different journals, magazines and exhibition catalogues and have also been part of exhibitions at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Krakow, Poland. He is currently the Director of Publications at Invisible Borders Trans-African Organization.

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