Detail of “Ancient Mentor I” (1985) by Jack Whitten
A SPECTACULAR PAINTING by Jack Whitten (1939-2018) established a new artist record yesterday evening. “Ancient Mentor I” (1985) sold for $2,235,000 (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York. The new benchmark shattered Whitten’s previous auction high, which was set by “The Ghost of Joseph Beuys” one year ago on Nov. 17, 2017. The 1986 painting sold for $855,000 (including fees), also at Sotheby’s New York.
Carrying an estimate ($800,000-$1,200,000) that was higher than the existing record, “Ancient Mentor I” was positioned to establish a new one. The sale price is more than twice Whitten’s previous record and marks the first time his work has brought more than a million dollars at auction.
Three African American artists established new records at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction on Nov. 14. In addition to Whitten’s “Ancient Mentor I,” works by Jacob Lawrence and Henry Taylor also reached new auction highs.
WHITTEN DIED IN JANUARY at the age of 78. Born in Bessemer, Ala., he lived and worked in Queens, N.Y., and began spending summers in Crete in 1969.
Pioneering and inventive, Whitten’s conceptual practice was always about experimentation. For more than half a century, he was at the center of the New York art scene, but remained largely under recognized. A traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2014, brought more attention to his work and began to yield acclaim that matched the significance of his production.
A traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2014, brought more attention to his work and began to yield acclaim that matched the significance of his production.
In 2016, Whitten joined Hauser & Wirth, a major gallery that represented him worldwide, further amplifying his profile and widening exposure to his work. The gallery continues to represent his estate today.
Lot 36: JACK WHITTEN, “Ancient Mentor I,” 1985 (oil and acrylic on canvas, 66 3/4 by 66 3/4 inches / 169.5 by 169.5 cm.). | Estimate $800,000-$1,200,000. Sold for $2,235,000 (including fees). RECORD
Constantly exploring the possibilities of paint, material and technique, Whitten often spoke of “making” paintings. His methods varied. He made casts of acrylic paint and used the resulting forms or tiles to compose abstract paintings. He used brushes, but more commonly pushed paint with a squeegee, rake, saw blade, or Afro comb. To create the precise grid that defines “Ancient Mentor I,” Whitten utilized a metal grate.
Sotheby’s produced a video about Whitten’s life and work to accompany the lot. Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of the Fine Art division at Sotheby’s serves as narrator and speaks about Whitten’s rigor and innovation and how his detailed approach came across visually in the completed painting.
“When you come upon ‘Ancient Mentor I,’ you really see the physicality of the paint. These fantastic both light-giving and light-taking tiles that are organized in a vague mosaic-like manner. There’s a little bit of trickery of the eye because when you first come upon it, it feels like a field of color. When you get close, you realize the object hood that makes it all the more special,” she said. “There’s probably not a period of Whitten’s work that’s as generous with materials and lusciously composed and spectacularly visually gratifying.”
“When you come upon ‘Ancient Mentor I,’ you really see the physicality of the paint. These fantastic both light-giving and light-taking tiles that are organized in a vague mosaic-like manner. …When you get close, you realize the object hood that makes it all the more special.”
— Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s
Two more notable works by Whitten are being auctioned this week. A pair of 1992 paintings composed of acrylic tiles made in tribute to his parents. “Fifth Gestalt (The Coalminer)” and “Sixth Gestalt (The Seamstress)” are included in Sotheby’s Nov. 15 Day auction. On the reverse they are each signed, titled, dated, and dedicated to his father and mother, respectively. CT
FIND MORE about how artists and their estates might benefit from secondary market sales and the ongoing challenge to establish artist royalty rights
Two volumes about Jack Whitten’s work were published this year. “Jack Whitten: Odyssey: Sculpture 1963–2017” coincides with the first presentation of Whitten’s sculptural works and “Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed” explores the artist’s studio practice through his notes, interviews and other documentation. Released a few years ago, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” documents the artist’s first-ever career spanning survey. Last fall, Whitten’s first exhibition in London was on view at Hauser & Wirth. “More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979–1989” accompanied the UK show of historic paintings.
Sotheby’s offers a portrait of Jack Whitten and a close look at his painting “Ancient Mentor I” (1985). | Video by Sotheby’s
Nov. 15 Day Auction – Lot 460: JACK WHITTEN, “Fifth Gestalt (The Coal Miner),” 1992 (acrylic tiles and Sumi ink on canvas, 44 1/4 by 44 1/4 inches / 112.4 by 112.4 cm.). | Estimate $400,000-$600,000
Nov. 15 Day Auction – Lot 461: JACK WHITTEN, “Sixth Gestalt (The Seamstress),” 1992 (acrylic tiles and Sumi ink on canvas, 44 1/4 by 44 1/4 inches / 112.4 by 112.4 cm.). | Estimate $400,000-$600,000
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