“I have always accepted memory as being one of the most powerful elements of human consciousness,” said abstract painter Jack Whitten. “Through memory we reconstruct our past. We honor the dead through memory.” Whitten died on January 20, 2018 at the age of 78. To commemorate his passing, the Walker’s Victoria Sung reflects on Whitten’s legacy through the lens of his retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego), which was on view at the Walker Art Center from September 13, 2015 to January 24, 2016.
Jack Whitten was a brilliant storyteller. At the Walker, we always try to highlight the artist’s voice, and with Whitten it was easy. Visitors to our galleries in the fall of 2015 may remember his traveling retrospective, which showcased some 60 paintings from the 1960s to 2015—the first exhibition to span the full breadth of this extraordinary artist’s career. What was notable about this exhibition from a curatorial standpoint, however, is that every extended label (our term for the interpretative language accompanying select artworks in a show) was simply an anecdote by the artist. He could tell the story better than anyone else. And so in thinking about Whitten’s career as an artist, I find myself drawn to those narratives that punctuated the space in between his canvases.
Though an abstract painter in the fullest sense of the word, one whose commitment to and ingenuity and fluency with the materiality of paint was unparalleled, Whitten also infused his practice with “truth” and “soul” (two words he used regularly when talking about his work). In honoring his legacy, what I propose to do is take a retrospective walk through that exhibition using his own words, as the five decades of painting told the story not just of his remarkable contributions to the medium but also of his remarkable life.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten came of age in the segregated South, as he wrote in his December 2015 Artist Op-Ed:
Summertime in Bessemer, Alabama, is hot, sticky, and muggy. Growing up there, it was forbidden for Black kids to swim in the local city pool, which was reserved for Whites only. The older boys in our community built a dam of mud, tree branches, and stones on Parson’s Creek. The dam made a perfect swimming hole. We even tied a car tire with a rope to an overhead tree limb, which allowed us to swing into the water. It was great fun! One morning our fun ended abruptly after the first kid to jump into the swimming hole came out screaming with bloody feet. Evidently the white people thought that the Niggers were having too much fun and under the cover of darkness threw bushels of broken glass bottles into our swimming hole.
His earliest paintings in the exhibition dated to the 1960s and, with their distilled palette of black and white, produce ghostly images of abstract forms. Always the innovator, Whitten found that stretching a piece of nylon mesh fabric over a painting’s wet acrylic surface would result in the wispy, soft-edged abstraction he was seeking, perhaps blurring what he calls the “distinct separation of black and white”:
I was 21 in 1960, an African American male with an acute need to know myself. The politics of race accelerated my search for identity. Growing up in the South where I experienced racism in its most blatant forms, political boundaries were clearly drawn and based solely upon race. Diverse elements, opposing forces, dichotomy of means, polarities, [and] portraits of psychological space are conceptualizations used in my paintings. All are derived from the nature of politics in America with its distinct separation of black and white.
As a student at the Tuskegee Institute, and then at Southern University, he witnessed the indignities of racism firsthand. It was his direct involvement in the civil rights movement that prompted his move to New York City soon thereafter.
I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, when I was a student at Tuskegee Institute in 1957 during the bus boycott. He remains one of the most inspirational figures I’ve ever met. At Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1959, I had the opportunity to test my beliefs in his teachings. I was one of the students who closed down the school and led a major civil rights demonstration from downtown Baton Rouge to the State Capitol building. As the campus artist-in-residence, I was responsible for organizing and constructing all the signs and slogans used during the march. The visible, visceral hatred and violence, the uncivilized behavior of white people that I experienced during the march changed me forever.
New York proved to be fertile ground for the young artist, who was enrolled at Cooper Union in the fall of 1960. Searching for a painterly language that felt true to him, he experimented with a variety of influences, looking to such artists as Willem de Kooning for his gestural abstraction and Romare Bearden for his narrative-based collages.
I came to New York in 1960 right at the end of Abstract Expressionism; Pop artists were moving in. There were a lot of things in flux. The scene was open. I had the opportunity to know Bill de Kooning and Franz Kline; I had the opportunity to know Philip Guston, Barney Newman, [Mark] Rothko. All these people actually met with me, talked to me. I was just an art student! Okay, all these people were white, but at the same time I met Romare Bearden; I met Jacob Lawrence; I met Norman Lewis. Can you imagine what this meant for me? By being a student—my coming in at that opportune time—I had access to both sides of the divide.
Yet, as much as Whitten admired the older generation of abstract painters, he knew he had to metaphorically “kill the father” in order to create his own unique style. At the beginning of the 1970s, Whitten began to lay down slabs of acrylic paint (often up to a half inch thick) and dragged a 12-foot-long, T-shaped tool (what he called the “developer”) across the surface in a single motion. Ultimately ridding the canvas of any semblance of “relational gesture,” or the notion that one point is created in relation to another, he said: “The picture plane as a single gesture got me around de Kooning’s influence. I was a free man!” (To hear Whitten speak about the influence of de Kooning and others, watch his opening-day talk.)
It was at this same time that Whitten, who was entrenched in the city’s jazz scene, turned to the “philosophy of jazz,” as he called it, to inform the formation of his distinct visual style:
My introduction to New York was Birdland uptown on 52nd Street, the Five Spot downtown on Bowery, the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, and later Slugs’ Saloon—anybody from New York in the ’60s will remember the Slugs. Within the history of jazz in New York City, Slugs’ Saloon was the place to be. A lot of great people played there, including Sun Ra. Sun Ra was a staple there. Down on the lower east side in Manhattan—hell of a place.
After decades of experimenting with the thickness of paint, Whitten began to create acrylic tesserae, the basic unit in mosaics, to build paintings. Still working in abstraction, he began his series of Memorial Paintings dedicated to artists, jazz musicians, poets, politicians, as well as his Black Monolith series. The paintings function as tributes to powerful black innovators from the arts and politics:
I was influenced by Miles. I recognized the conceptual in his music and its connection to soul. His cool, detached hipness appealed to me. I met him for the first time with my brother, Tommy. I used to play tenor saxophone, very much into jazz, made a lot of my extra change playing in dance bands and trying to play like Miles. So he is a figure who had a lot to do with my growing up black in America. When I first came to New York, I went to the Five Spot down on the Bowery and to Birdland to listen to him, to hang out with him. Every chance I’d get, I’d talk with him. He’s played an ongoing role in my consciousness.
One of the final paintings in the Walker’s presentation was Whitten’s Soul Map (2015), which he had completed just that year. “I can state without a doubt,” he said, “that 50 years of experimentation has gone into this painting. It all comes together here.” Indeed, Whitten gave forceful visual expression to his decades-long quest of “structuring feelings,” or as he called it, “mapping the soul.” Through this work, and the entire exhibition, I remember walking away feeling as if I had gotten to know Whitten’s soul.