Revealing Jack Whitten’s Secret Self

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.”

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.

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