Jack Whitten, who died in 2018, was known as an abstract painter, but figuration continued to lurk around his work. His remarkable experiments come to life in “I Am the Object,” one of the best shows in the city right now but one that is unfortunately closing Saturday at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea. It is worth seeing because these works shed new light on how the artist’s oeuvre might be considered.
Here, Whitten’s landmark 1995 painting, “Memory Sites,” reveals carefully woven-in skulls distributed across the canvas. The tubelike shape in “Totem 2000 VIII: For Janet Carter (A Truly Sweet Lady)” resembles a cross-sectional structure of slave ships. And “Natural Selection” has a clear human shadow at the forefront of the canvas. Perhaps, beyond abstraction, Whitten really wanted to capture the essence of Black life, or personhood, which he often described in his interviews as “soul.”
Born in segregated Bessemer, Ala., in 1930, Whitten met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1957. King’s teachings on nonviolence reinforced ideas Whitten had grown up with, and by 1960 he had moved to New York to escape the increasing racial tensions in Baton Rouge, La., where he had enrolled in art school. Whitten became the only Black student in his class at Cooper Union in Manhattan. Yet New York immediately offered him a world where everything was possible: He saw John Coltrane play live in Brooklyn, flirted with the feminist writer Kate Millet, met modern masters like Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, and on the streets, he frequently ran into the great abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning who, before giving him advice, would say, “Hi kid, how are you doing?”
These influences were helpful at first but he soon began to feel trapped. Through the ’60s he couldn’t get out from under the gestural style of de Kooning and Lewis, characterized by expressive brush strokes emphasizing the sweep of the painter’s arm or movement of the hand. Whitten’s own impressive, rough, painterly swabs in “Martin Luther King’s Garden” from 1968 didn’t set him apart from artists he considered father figures. It took an innovation, his “slab painting” method in which, in a single motion, he dragged a tool he called the “developer” along the surface of acrylic paint, to help him escape from “touch,” his term for painterly gestures in European art history. He went on to develop techniques 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.”
Just as the title “DNA” suggests that entries in the series reflect a person’s genetic makeup, so too could his elegiac sculptures be thought of as portraits. A decade later, in 1992, in a similar fashion, he created one of his most striking pieces, “Homecoming: For Miles,” after the jazz musician Miles Davis. Tiny dark blocks collude with sparks of light, forming a galactic sphere. Dotted white lines run across the painting, and, on the left, bisect a circle encompassing 80 percent of the frame. One instantly gets the sense of a compass floating in space, pointing toward home. “I recognized the conceptual in his music, and its connection to soul,” Whitten said.
One thread that runs through Whitten’s work is his aggregation of small units of materials to form a whole, as if he was trying to recreate a persona from bits of experiences that make up a life. “Black Monolith II: Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994” remains one of Whitten’s most celebrated pieces, with good reason. The artist centered a silhouette, thick around the neck, built out of multicolored tesserae, in the painting. Occasional red lines drip around the form like blood from injuries. On closer look, the orange tiles suggest that the figure was set on fire, burning from inside.
Kerry James Marshall — who was influenced by Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — created a similar sensation in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” from 1980, a black figure on a black background, “present yet absent at the same time,” a critic observed in The Los Angeles Times. In Marshall’s “Shadow” the power is in a self-assured grin, but in Whitten’s “Homage” it is in the wound.
Clues to figuration as a part of Whitten’s artistic practice first came into the open when his previously never seen sculptures spanning over 40 years were shown at the Met Breuer in 2018. “I Am the Object” cements this notion, but adds even more to the conversation by proving that, whether sculpture or painting, the artist’s primary concern was memory.
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.