Jack Whitten, who died in 2018, was often known as an summary painter, however figuration continued to lurk round his work. His outstanding experiments come to life in “I Am The Object,” top-of-the-line exhibits within the metropolis proper now however one that’s sadly closing Saturday at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea. It is value seeing as a result of these works shed new gentle on how the artist’s oeuvre is perhaps thought-about.
Here, Whitten’s landmark 1995 portray, “Memory Sites,” reveals fastidiously woven-in skulls distributed throughout the canvas. The tubelike form in “Totem 2000 VIII: For Janet Carter (A Truly Sweet Lady)” resembles a cross-sectional construction of slave ships. And “Natural Selection” has a transparent human shadow on the forefront of the canvas. Perhaps, past abstraction, Whitten actually needed to seize the essence of Black life, or personhood, which he usually described in his interviews as “soul.”
Born in segregated Bessemer, Ala., in 1939, Whitten met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the course of the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1957. King’s teachings on nonviolence bolstered concepts Whitten had grown up with, and by 1960 he had moved to New York to flee the growing racial tensions in Baton Rouge, La., the place he had enrolled in artwork college. Whitten turned the one Black scholar in his class at Cooper Union in Manhattan. Yet New York instantly provided him a world the place all the pieces was doable: He noticed John Coltrane play dwell in Brooklyn, flirted with the feminist author Kate Millet, met fashionable masters like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, and on the streets, he regularly bumped into the nice summary expressionist Willem de Kooning who, earlier than giving him recommendation, would say, “Hi kid, how are you doing?”
These influences have been useful at first however he quickly started to really feel trapped. Through the ’60s he couldn’t get out from beneath the gestural model of de Kooning and Lewis, characterised by expressive brush strokes emphasizing the sweep of the painter’s arm or motion of the hand. Whitten’s personal spectacular, tough, painterly swabs in “Martin Luther King’s Garden” from 1968 didn’t set him other than artists he thought-about father figures. It took an innovation, his “slab painting” methodology through which, in a single movement, he dragged a instrument he known as the “developer” alongside the floor of acrylic paint, to assist him escape from “touch,” his time period for painterly gestures in European artwork historical past. He went on to develop strategies primarily 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 glass form concentric circles.
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.
His mosaics also offer a strong metaphor for what seems to be the crux of his life work: trying to make art that connected personal and communal memories.
“In the Black community part of our survival is, we say, we own soul,” he said, explaining how he came to his 1979 “DNA” series of paintings made from the small blocks of acrylic shining like digital grids on a computer screen. “That allowed us get through some heavy-duty oppressive stuff.”
Just as the title “DNA” suggests that entries in the series reflect a person’s genetic makeup, so too could his elegiac sculptures be thought of as portraits. A decade later, in 1992, in a similar fashion, he created one of his most striking pieces, “Homecoming: For Miles,” after the jazz musician Miles Davis. Tiny dark blocks collude with sparks of light, forming a galactic sphere. Dotted white lines run across the painting, and, on the left, bisect a circle encompassing 80 percent of the frame. One instantly gets the sense of a compass floating in space, pointing toward home. “I recognized the conceptual in his music, and its connection to soul,” Whitten said.
One thread that runs through Whitten’s work is his aggregation of small units of materials to form a whole, as if he was trying to recreate a persona from bits of experiences that make up a life. “Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994” remains one of Whitten’s most celebrated pieces, with good reason. The artist centered a silhouette, thick around the neck, built out of multicolored tesserae, in the painting. Occasional red lines drip around the form like blood from injuries. On closer look, the orange tiles suggest that the figure was set on fire, burning from inside.
Kerry James Marshall — who was influenced by Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — created a similar sensation in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” from 1980, a black figure on a black background, “present yet absent at the same time,” a critic observed in The Los Angeles Times. In Marshall’s “Shadow” the power is in a self-assured grin, but in Whitten’s “Homage” it is in the wound.
Clues to figuration as a part of Whitten’s artistic practice first came into the open when his previously never seen sculptures spanning over 40 years were shown at the Met Breuer in 2018. “I Am the Object” cements this notion, but adds even more to the conversation by proving that, whether sculpture or painting, the artist’s primary concern was memory.
Whitten extended his work of memorialization beyond portraiture to events that affected his community. Possibly his most figurative work, “9-11-01,” from 2006, a giant piece of about 20 by 10 feet, was borne out of his experience during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York City, where he was living at the time. He sets fire to the base of a large black triangle, the edges of the frame colored in the manner of a fading photograph. “It’s built in there,” he said when asked whether artworks could embody memories. “My optimism is that other people see it.”
In Montgomery, Whitten saw early on the influence a single life could have. When he came to New York, he learned that beyond art, what was important was community. If a room were to be filled with Whitten’s art what would be instantly striking is not his innovative abstraction but the Rolodex he managed to create of great individuals and events that changed the course of world history.