Jack Whitten gave an interview one year ago, in which he observed, ‘I don’t use the word “to paint” anymore, I use the word “to make”.’ An inveterate traveller, spiritual seeker, and experimental multimedia artist, that conversation happened against the backdrop of a massive show of recent works of paint and mosaic, pixellation and sculptural relief that he called ‘Quantum Walls’. Whitten’s six-decade career culminated in the limelight, but his relentlessly adaptive process – lately concerned with death and entropy – suggested an artist still pushing at the boundaries of form, structure and human perception.
Whitten grew up in small-town Alabama, and after meeting Martin Luther King in 1957, while a student at Tuskeegee University, became committed to non-violent activism. In the spring of 1960, after demonstrating in Baton Rouge, he recalled ‘witnessing evil’ in the form of white hatred. He boarded a bus to New York, where he enrolled at Cooper Union, and explored an oil-based expressionism and loose figuration, reminiscent of apparitions in glass. At that time, the notion of a black artist being collected by the Metropolitan Museum (Delta Group, 1975) or showing at an international blue-chip gallery (Hauser & Wirth) was largely unthinkable. Black artists were then consigned to the margins of a very different art world. Only a generation earlier, the painter Beauford Delaney gained access to the new Whitney Museum of American Art by working as a guard and performing odd jobs. Under the aegis of segregation, black audiences did not have access to some museums at all.
The Civil Rights era in the United States marked an efflorescence of black creative expression closely linked to sustained political activism in the wake of the upheavals of 1968. The Black Arts Movement described a national array of projects informed by internationalist affinities and a shared diasporic history. During this period, Whitten’s relationship to the project of black liberation was indirect, but meaningful. While some artists eschewed the language of abstraction for more popular or polemical forms, Whitten’s engagement with the surfaces of his compositions grew more nuanced. At the same time, the Art Workers’ Coalition began to question the frontier between fine art and the conditions of labour, and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) directly pressured museums to hire black curators and exhibit work by younger artists of colour. The BECC’s advocacy arguably led to a dozen solo shows at the Whitney Museum, by artists such as Alma Thomas and Alvin Loving and, in 1974, Whitten’s own solo institutional debut.
By then, Whitten had arrived at a signature method of building up layers of acrylic paint and drawing a tool across the surface – an afro pick, blade or rubber squeegee purchased on nearby Canal Street. These ‘slab’ paintings challenged the post-painterly currents of the day, suggesting at once the ethereal light of Jan Vermeer or Mark Rothko, and alluding to the ‘process-based’ abstraction of which he was a forerunner. Many will remember the late 1960s as the time when the modernist fever finally broke, when the ever-narrowing pursuit of flatness and optical purity was revealed as a blind alley at best, or a whitewashing fantasy at worst. Whitten seemed to have learned from the debates of the late 1960s but had little patience for their orthodoxies, pursuing his own synthetic vision. Around 1970 he began to describe the material supports of his paintings as ‘developers’, and his disrupted surfaces not so much pictures, but energetic imprints, like a photograph.
Of course, as a black artist painting in acrylic, Whitten was always conscious of colour’s social resonance, maintained that his lived history necessarily emerged in the texture of his work. Recalling his ‘anchromic’ black and white work of the 1970s and ‘80s – striking grey-scale voids and stellar cartographies – he noted that ‘all those high-valued reds, blues, greens carry a lot of psychological stuff that I didn’t want to fuck with no mo’. I wanted to cut it down to the bone.’ But beyond the chromatic, Whitten found something else in painting: a pathway to freedom. The freedom of artistic expression, first and foremost, but also a spiritual freedom, in the procedural and psychic horizons of abstraction.
Curator Kellie Jones has long connected the difficulty and openness of abstraction with the free jazz of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and John Coltrane. In this sense, she has described Whitten’s luminous fluidic layers, like those of his peer Sam Gilliam, as visual ‘sheets of sound. His was, from very early on, painting not as a route to pure artistic form, but as a means of tapping into something deeply humane, something not manufactured so much as elemental. In the end, Whitten thought of his way of painting as ‘white lightning’, and he recently reflected that ‘abstraction is essence. What we do in abstraction is we take the whole of life and we distil it.’
It is unsurprising, then, that for much of the last 30 years, Whitten worked in visionary interstices, building dense layers of burnished, sculpted and tinted modules he called ‘tesserae’. A long-time resident of Crete, a wanderer through Mexican ruins and Italian churches, he thought of these tesserae as indicative of both the problem sets and systems logic that defines our computational present, and also of the radiant spiritual arrays – the energetic amplifiers – that he saw in the art that animates the cathedrals and monoliths of the pre-modern world.
While Whitten will be remembered as a giant of American painting and a singular figure in the creative history of black diaspora, he kept his eye fixed on the deeper currents that connect people across broad cultural divides and vast historical distances. In his life and work, he was something of a beacon for a counterculture that believed that art could be a light in a dark universe and awaken new potentialities in the self. As he put it, ‘the journey is infinite’.
A survey of Jack Whitten’s sculptures ‘Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2016’ will open at the Baltimore Museum of Art in April, before heading to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Main image: Jack Whitten in his studio on 36 Lispenard St, New York NY, 1983. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Jack Whitten; photograph: Peter Bellamy