IT WAS ALWAYS ABOUT EXPERIMENTATION. For more than half a century, Jack Whitten (2018) pursued the possibilities of paint, material, and technique. While constantly evolving his conceptual practice, he remained proudly political, committed to exploring weighty issues, and intent on lifting up the legacies of fellow African American artists and cultural figures by paying tribute to them in his work.
A pioneering and inventive abstract painter, Whitten died Jan. 20 in New York. He was 78. His death was confirmed to Culture Type by a representative of his gallery, Hauser & Wirth, and the following statement was provided from Marc Payot, partner and vice president:
“It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Jack Whitten. He was a remarkable man—an artist of endless inventiveness, originality, and honesty, as well as a wonderful friend. His intelligence, compassion, and love for life have influenced all of us who knew and worked with him. Our hearts are with Jack’s family at this time.”
“[Jack Whitten] was a remarkable man—an artist of endless inventiveness, originality, and honesty, as well as a wonderful friend. His intelligence, compassion, and love for life have influenced all of us who knew and worked with him.” — Marc Payot, Hauser & Wirth
Opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” (2014-16) was the first exhibition to survey the artist’s entire career and consider the depth of his practice. The traveling show presented more than 60 works dating from the 1960s.
“As an abstract painter I work with things that I cannot see. We can only feel its presence. That’s why I say art runs parallel to religion. It’s an act of faith,” Whitten said, when “Five Decades of Painting” was on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “All art is about perception. My paintings teach me how to live. It forms the structure of my world view. That’s what abstraction does for me.”
“As an abstract painter I work with things that I cannot see. We can only feel its presence. That’s why I say art runs parallel to religion. It’s an act of faith.” — Jack Whitten
Five Decades of Painting – Jack Whitten: “Art runs parallel to religion. It’s an act of faith.” | Video by Walker Art Center (2015)
WHITTEN JOINED HAUSER & WIRTH in April 2016. His first exhibition with the gallery was presented last year in New York (Jan. 26–April 8, 2017). The show featured new work created between 2015 and 2017, including tessellated paintings from Whitten’s Quantum Walls series and works from his Portals series.
The gallery mounted Whitten’s firs solo exhibition in London last fall. “More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979–1989” offered a historical look at “a period of intense experimentation for the artist and reflect his intellectual engagement with contemporary changes in science and technology.”
The UK presentation overlapped with “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Tate Museum. Two paintings by Whitten appear in the group show: “Homage to Malcolm X” (1970) and Asa’s Palace” (1973). “Soul of a Nation” debuts stateside at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art next month.
In 2011, Whitten made “Apps for Obama,” a mixed-media painting on a hollow core door. The image envisions an abstracted touch screen. Five years later, President Obama honored Whitten with a National Medal of the Arts. Presented on Sept. 22, 2016, at the White House, the medal citation read: “Jack Whitten for remaking the American canvas. As an abstract artist, he uses ‘casting,’ acrylic paints, and compounds to create new surfaces and textures, challenging our perceptions of shape and color. His powerful works of art put the American story in a new light.”
President Obama presented Jack Whitten with a National Medal of the Arts in 2016. He was honored for “remaking the American canvas” and “putting the American story in a new light” with his powerful canvases.
Jack Whitten, Artist studio, 36 Lispenard St, New York NY, 1983 | Photo by Peter Bellamy, © Jack Whitten Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
BORN IN BESSEMER, ALA., Whitten was a pre-med student and Air Force ROTC cadet at Tuskegee Institute before he moved to New York and graduated from The Cooper Union in 1964. Whitten lived and worked in Queens, N.Y., and began spending summers in Crete in 1969.
Over a period of five decades during his time on the Greek island, Whitten explored various aspects of sculpture made with a variety of materials. An aspect of his practice that was never shared publicly, a presentation of these sculptures is planned for April 2018. Last month, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2016,” an exhibition of 40 sculptures co-organized with the Museum of Modern Art. CT
TOP IMAGE: Jack Whitten in his studio. | Photo by Katherine McMahon. © Jack Whitten Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
A comprehensive examination of his practice, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” masterfully documents Whitten’s practice. Published on the occasion of his first career-spanning exhibition, the catalog features a lengthy interview with Whitten conducted by Robert Storr. Several other catalogs have been published over the course of his career, exploring his work and coinciding with various exhibitions.
Five Decades of Painting – Mapping the Soul: Jack Whitten discusses his techniques, the possibilities of paint, and plasticity. | Walker Art Center (2015)
JACK WHITTEN, “Dead Reckoning I,” 1980 | Courtesy Studio Museum, Harlem NY and Hauser & Wirth, © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
JACK WHITTEN,” King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream),” 1968 (oil on canvas, 67.88 x 51.75 inches). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
JACK WHITTEN, “Apps For Obama,” 2011 (acrylic on hollow core door). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
JACK WHITTEN, “April’s Shark,” 1974 (acrylic on canvas). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
JACK WHITTEN, “Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man,” 1994 (acrylic and mixed media on canvas: molasses, copper, salt, coal ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
JACK WHITTEN, “Cherrypicker,” 1990 (acrylic on canvas). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
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