Born: December 5, 1939, Bessemer, Alabama, USA
Died: January 20, 2018 (aged 78) At the time of his death, Whitten and his wife Mary resided in Queens, New York.
Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama.Planning a career as an army doctor, Whitten entered pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute from 1957 to 1959. He also traveled to nearby Montgomery, Alabama to hear Martin Luther King, Jr speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was deeply moved by his vision for a changed America.
In 1960, Whitten went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to begin studying art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. Angered by the violent resistance to change he experienced he moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union, graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1964. Afterwards he remained in New York as a working artist, heavily influenced by the abstract expressionists then dominating the art community.
Part of the article "Jack Whitten, Beloved Painter of Abstract Cosmologies, Dies at 78" by Alex Greenberger - January 21, 2018
Whitten was born in 1939 (January 20th) in Bessemer, Alabama. A formative element of his upbringing was the racism he experienced there—he often referred to the segregation he experienced as “American apartheid.” When he went to college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he became involved in the civil rights movement, staging sit-ins on campus and even peacefully closing the school briefly. In 1960, having tired of the South’s racism, Whitten left for New York on a Greyhound bus. He went to Cooper Union and graduated in 1964.
Unlike many artists at the time, Whitten was less interested in gestural abstraction than he was in something he would later term “conceptual painting.” He had in mind a specific phrase: “The image is photographic, therefore I must photograph my thoughts.” His series of “Head” paintings, some of his first mature works, offered wispy forms that look like specters appearing out of the dark. Crafted using a mesh-like fabric, the works confused his gallerist at the time, Allan Stone, who instead showed Whitten’s brushy, chaotically composed abstract oil paintings inspired by the civil rights movement.
Homage to Malcolm
by Jack Whitten in 1970
One work that is strikingly different when seen in person is Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm. Prior to “Soul of a Nation,” Homage to Malcolm had been stored in Whitten’s studio, unsold. In the catalog, Homage to Malcolm appears as a triangular shape consisting of three dark triangles, each one inside the next. In reproduction, you can hardly make out what is clear here -- a sharp contrast between the nearly bare canvas’s cloudy wash in the center and, around it, the thick, deeply scored acrylic paint. These textured lines, inflected with green in the middle and red at the bottom, were made with an Afro comb.
"Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power" is on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through April 23, 2018, after which it will open at the Brooklyn Museum. https://crystalbridges.org/exhibitions/soul-of-a-nation/
Crystal Bridges was founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation as a nonprofit charitable organization for all to enjoy. Philanthropist and arts patron Alice Walton chairs the Museum’s board of directors. The building was designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie and opened to the public on 11-11-11
A gallery view of Homage to Malcolm (1970) by Jack Whitten, left, and Untitled by Virginia Jaramillo (1971), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,
2018 - by Stephen Ironside.(above)
Jack Whitten photographed in his Queens studio on October 26, 2015. (photo by Katherine McMahon - below)
Starting in the early ’70s, Whitten engineered new extrapolations on Abstract Expressionism. For a series known as the “Slab” works, Whitten utilized an unconventional process for which he would lay the canvas on the floor, drag a squeegee across to mix his color, and then let the paint dry. Paint was piled on as much as a quarter-inch thick in many of them, and all of the tones Whitten chose were left visible. With their warped, colorful forms and their unclear geometries, they resemble long-exposure photographs of things in motion.
By that point, Whitten had eschewed using oil, instead opting for acrylic paint, which dried faster. In doing so, Whitten relinquished some control over his canvases, leaving the final results to chance in some respects. To test the ways that time and tools affected the painting process became Whitten’s mandate.
Some of these “Slab” works appeared at a 1974 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York—an unusual fate for a black painter who was relatively unknown in the art world. At the time, Whitten’s style was unfashionable. Much of the New York art world had focused on movements that were believed to have more intellectual heft, like Minimalism, Conceptualism, and, later, the workings of the Pictures Generation. Painting had gone out of style, and yet Whitten continued doing it for his entire career, occasionally making forays into sculpture. (Some of his sculptural works were recently on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York.)
Other works by Whitten made use of unconventional tools and materials. In a series from the mid-’70s based on the Greek alphabet, Whitten placed metal sheets beneath his canvases, on which he applied wet acrylic that he then rubbed with pure powdered pigment. Through the process, Whitten was able to create textured canvases in which gray forms appear to hover.
In later works, Whitten came up with a mosaic-like method for applying paint. He would let acrylic dry, crack it into squarish chips, and then combine it to conjure images of people and objects that were important to him. Sometimes, what was being represented is not obvious: a series known as the “E Stamps,” from the mid-2000s, eulogized figures in Whitten’s life, like the curator Marcia Tucker and the painter Harvey Quaytman, through patterns that resemble postal codes that appear on mailed packages. An ongoing series begun in the ’90s known as the “Black Monoliths” memorialized pioneering African-Americans, like Ralph Ellison and Amiri Baraka, without ever showing their faces.
For much of Whitten’s career, his work went unrecognized to large segments of the mainstream art world. But the inclusion of his paintings in a 2006 exhibition, “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975,” helped occasion a change. In 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, California, hosted his first major retrospective which later traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Walker Art Center. A 40-work survey of his sculptures will open in April 2018 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and will later travel to the Met Breuer.
By the end of his career, Whitten had started exploring digital technology, creating works such as Apps for Obama (2011), which might be considered a vision of Barack Obama’s iPad. The painting made use of Whitten’s beloved acrylic chips—an age-old technique that was here rendered new. Where Whitten’s work might have gone next will continue to intrigue, especially since Whitten himself often didn’t know. He was fond of quoting a sentiment that Stone frequently cited to him: “There’s no destination, it’s only the journey.”