MARK BRADFORD, Detail of “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” (2018).
WHEN JACK WHITTEN JOINED Hauser & Wirth in April 2016, the gallery’s roster claimed two of contemporary art’s most innovative abstract painters—Whitten (1939-2017) and Mark Bradford.
A generation apart, while the African American artists have unique approaches to abstraction, both have largely dedicated their work to examining powerful political and social issues. Los Angeles-based Bradford said he was first exposed to Whitten’s work through seeing it in publications. Represented by the same gallery, the two artists became friends and the connection inspired Bradford to make a painting in homage to Whitten who died in January.
“Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” is featured in “Mark Bradford: New Works” at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles. The exhibition presents 10 new paintings by the artist who layers merchant posters, comic book pages, magazine and newsprint clippings, and endpapers ordinarily used for hair dressing, to build meaning, context, and social commentary in his mixed-media paintings. The new works advance Bradford’s previous explorations of homophobia and American racism.
The exhibition follows a spate of international activities: “Tomorrow is Another Day,” Bradford’s solo exhibition in the U.S. pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale; “Pickett’s Charge,” the 360-degree installation composed of eight paintings that opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in November; and in recent weeks, the installation of a 32-panel, site-specific work at the new U.S. embassy in London that incorporates the entire U.S. Constitution.
The Hauser & Wirth presentation is his first with the gallery in Los Angeles and his first at any commercial space in his hometown in more than 15 years. Last week, Bradford talked Carolina A. Miranda of the Los Angeles Times about the exhibition and Whitten.
“I met Jack’s work through the pages of very obscure art journals and through a few artist catalogs here and there. I was trying to find other African American abstract painters besides Norman Lewis. I saw Jack as this kind of incredible statesman. …He’d say, ‘Mark, it’s about the work.’ He would always go to the studio and make work. He was uneven like every good artist. But what I saw was a man who was completely interested in the journey and the process of making abstract paintings,” he said.
“I got to know him when he came to Hauser & Wirth. It was comforting because I could look at a lineage. There stood a man who was African American and an abstract painter.”
“I saw Jack as this kind of incredible statesman. He was always so sure. He never doubted. …what I saw was a man who was completely interested in the journey and the process of making abstract paintings.”
From left, Jack Whitten in front of his painting “Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant,” 2014. | Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by John Berens; Mark Bradford. | Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Sean Shim-Boyle
WHITTEN HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE, finding a path, guidance, and inspiration from those who came before him. Born in Bessemer, Ala., he sought to find his artistic voice as the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding. In 1957, he met Martin Luther King Jr., at the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was a ROTC student at the Tuskegee Institute and attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he participated in a 1960 march to the state capitol protesting segregation and the arrest of students who staged local lunch counter sit-ins.
Then he arrived at The Cooper Union in New York City, where he was the only black student in a classroom full of whites. Robert Blackburn, managed the print room at the school and took an interest in Whitten, introducing him to other black artists.
“Romare Bearden introduced me to Norman Lewis in 1962; Norman had no commercial representation when I met him, Bearden was just beginning to show his first black-and-white collages. Bearden was very instrumental to me, because I met Bearden early on through Robert Blackburn who worked in the printmaking workshop of Cooper Union. I was the only black kid there, and Bob grabbed me,” Whitten said in an interview with curator and critic Robert Storr published in the exhibition catalog for “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting.”
“He grabbed me and literally bodily took me to Romare Bearden. And then Romare immediately said, ‘Well, you gotta meet Jacob Lawrence.’ He sent me to Jacob Lawrence, he also sent me to Norman Lewis. I used to go uptown to see Norman Lewis. That was really my introduction to the older generation of black artists.”
At a time when African American artists were expected to explore the African American experience through representation, figuration, and narration, the practices of Bearden and Lawrence—their mastery and ownership of that realm—freed Whitten to chart his own path.
“Whitten’s progenitors effectively allowed him to pursue abstraction,” Kathryn Kanjo writes in the “Five Decades” catalog. She cites the artist’s comments to Tyler Green on The Modern Art Notes Podcast in September 2013:
“‘I mean there [was] no need for me to try to be a better narrative painter than Jacob Lawrence or to be a better narrative painter than Romare Bearden. …So I didn’t have as much pressure, let’s say, on me to do narrative work as someone like Bearden did or Norman did or someone like Lawrence did.’”
“I mean there [was] no need for me to try to be a better narrative painter than Jacob Lawrence or to be a better narrative painter than Romare Bearden. …So I didn’t have as much pressure, let’s say, on me to do narrative work…” — Jack Whitten
Installation view “Mark Bradford. New Works,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2018. “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” is at far right. | © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Joshua White
AN INVENTIVE ABSTRACT PAINTER, Whitten constantly evolved his conceptual practice, relying on materiality and spirituality to represent content. He explored technology and metaphysics and took on milestone events such as King’s assassination, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Arguably overdue, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” (2014-16) was the artist’s first career survey. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in the sunset of his career, it traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. By contrast, Bradford’s first survey was mounted a few years prior, in 2010, relatively early in his career, appearing at five venues, including the Wexner, the organizing institution.
Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art who co-curated the Venice Biennale presentation, conducted a conversation with Bradford for the catalog published to coincide with “Tomorrow is Another Day.” In recalling his first survey exhibition, which Bedford also curated, the two have a poignant exchange about the significance of the opportunity and what it might portend for others:
- Bedford: …I think about the future that that show helped to create for the past. By which I mean, through your painting you forced a reconsideration of art history. I think that’s more significant than the space you created for yourself…
Bradford: …When you told me all these museums had said yes to our show, and then you told me you knew this type of tour doesn’t happen often for an African American, I was surprised. …That was the first moment when I realized it was more important than just me putting up some paintings; this was a big opportunity to look at abstraction in a very different way, at who was able to participate and who was not.
Bedford: One major consequence of that survey show, which I think we’re only beginning to see bear fruit, is roughly as follows: yes, your career has become more extraordinary; yes, the paintings have become even better, as the pavilion will demonstrate; and yes, you’ve been able to spread your wings in terms of social practice, but you’ve also forced a wedge into the history of art that has revealed afresh your genuine predecessors: Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, Alma Thomas—these people have become differently visible as a consequence of the need among museums and art historians to account for where you came from.
Bradford: The interesting thing for me was, I never had much family and I certainly had no male figures in my life, very few. So to meet Mel Edwards, to be able to have a conversation with Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam, these were all African-American men doing what I have done, and they were older. Therefore, for the first time in my life I saw my genealogy. I’m not talking about my family genealogy; I don’t know much about my family. I saw my artistic genealogy. For the first time I saw myself belonging to a group of people. For me, it wasn’t essentializing. They were all painters but they were all black. This was something I had never experienced before.…
“…you’ve also forced a wedge into the history of art that has revealed afresh your genuine predecessors: Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, Alma Thomas—these people have become differently visible as a consequence of the need among museums and art historians to account for where you came from.” — Christopher Bedford on Mark Bradford
MARK BRADFORD, “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten,” 2018 (mixed media on canvas, 96 x 96 inches). | © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Joshua White
WHITTEN OFTEN GAVE REVERANCE to African American intellectuals and cultural figures in his work, including his mentors for whom he made “A Salute To Norman Lewis in Red, Black, Green” (1980), “Spiral: A Dedication to R. Bearden” (1988), and “Black Monolith IV For Jacob Lawrence” (2001). In 2007, Whitten painted “E-Stamp IV (Five Spirals: For Al Loving),” two years after the death of Loving, a fellow abstract painter. Now Bradford has made a memorial painting for him.
“Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” has a dark charcoal ground with moments of purple and a concentration of black spherical mark making on the lower half of the canvas which is otherwise overwhelmed with blue striations that course rhythmically in various directions. Evidence of both hand and tool is apparent in the execution. Visually, the work reminds one of the improvisation of jazz music, which Whitten loved (into the early 1960s, he even thought he “had a shot with [his] tenor saxophone”), and his penchant for change and reinvention over the decades, exploring new styles and content, experimenting with new tools and techniques.
“I was working on that painting when I got the text that he had died. I just got real blue and it was this gentler feeling,” Bradford said in the LA Times. “I was thinking about him while I made it. I knew Jack would say, ‘Now, Mr. Bradford, you finish this painting and you make it the best it can be.’” CT
TOP IMAGE: MARK BRADFORD, Detail of “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten,” 2018 (mixed media on canvas, 96 x 96 inches). | © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Joshua White
“Mark Bradford: New Works” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles through May 20, 2018.
“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. “Mark Bradford: Tomorrow is Another Day” was published to coincide with his solo exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Officially published today, “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” complements the artist’s installation at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum—Bradford’s largest work to date, and his first-ever exhibition in Washington, D.C.
Installation view “Mark Bradford. New Works,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2018. “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” is at center in far background. | © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Joshua White
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