“I have always accepted memory as being one of the most powerful elements of human consciousness,” says painter Jack Whitten. “Through memory we reconstruct our past. We honor the dead through memory.”1 For Whitten this idea motivated a series of paintings that memorialize people and events prominent both in his life and in American culture. From US Senator Barbara Jordan to Martin Luther King, Jr., many of these homages focus on black artists and innovators. Others reflect on prominent historical events, such as the the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. “Abstraction, as we know it, can be directed towards the specifics of subject—a person, a thing, an experience,” he says. “My goal is to use painting to build abstraction as a symbol.”2
One of Whitten’s most recent memorial paintings was made in remembrance of the shooting that killed 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. (He discussed the topic in his recent contribution to the Walker’s Artist Op-Eds series). In light of the three-year commemoration of this tragedy, we offer Whitten’s perspective on that painting and a selection of other memorial paintings featured in the exhibition Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting.
Martin Luther King’s Garden (1968)
The earliest memorial painting in Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting is Martin Luther King’s Garden, from 1968. Whitten saw King speak several times and says that King “remains one of the most inspirational figures I’ve ever met.”3 Part of the “Gardens” series from the late 1960s, this painting is the first of Whitten’s pieces that addresses memorialization. In her essay “Facing Abstraction,” exhibition curator Kathryn Kanjo argues that the “colorful, abstracted landscapes pay tribute not only to places, but also to family members and civic leaders.”4 In this work, Whitten uses this abstracted garden to symbolize MLK himself.
Martin Luther King’s Garden exemplifies a larger stylistic struggle played out in Whitten’s work of this period. Kanjo notes that the “Gardens” were “manifestations of the Abstract Expressionist lineage Whitten has both identified with and wrestled with throughout his career.”5 In his memorial paintings, for which he creates a composition “allegorical” to his subject, Whitten is “getting out from under”6 the influence of Willem DeKooning’s formally-based gesturalism. Nonetheless, the gestural brushstrokes and the abstract nature of the piece do situate Martin Luther King’s Garden within the context of Abstract Expressionism.
Norman Lewis Triptych I (1985)
“I came to New York in 1960 right at the end of Abstract Expressionism; Pop artists were moving in. … I met Romare Bearden; I met Jacob Lawrence; I met Norman Lewis … I had access to both sides of the divide.”7 Norman Lewis was a painter who transitioned from a figurative style in his early work to Abstract Expressionism in his late work. Lewis’s early work dealt with political and racial issues. His switch to abstraction was an effort to distance himself from racial language in art. In Whitten’s Norman Lewis Triptych I, reds, greens, blues, and white evoke “both the US and Pan-African flags.”8 As a result, Whitten’s work simultaneously echoes the political and racial themes of Lewis’s figurative work and the small moments of color that Lewis used frequently in his abstract work.
The horizontal orientation of Norman Lewis Triptych I signals Whitten’s interest in history. “This is my idea of history: traveling in a straight line like my horizontals,” Whitten says. “I catch a piece of it, but it’s going on forever.”9 This invocation echoes Whitten’s reflection on the significance of meeting Lewis while witnessing the end of one artistic era and the beginning of another.
Mask of God I and II, for Joseph Campbell (1987)
Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American comparative mythologist interested in the human spirit and experience as influenced by cultural phenomena. Whitten, too, examines “the human experience,” but through the lens of consciousness. Both valued encounters that go beyond the thinking mind. In Campbell’s words, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.”10 Of his own work, Whitten says, “I like the idea that people are suspended while asking questions about process. I like the idea that the viewer might be frozen by wonder, trying to understand what they are looking at, or how the painting was made, or even what materials I am using. That search might generate an emotion that takes us beyond the intellectual.”11
Mask of God I and II—which are titled after Campbell’s four-book series The Masks of God, on global mythology—mark the beginning of Whitten’s use of collage in his memorial paintings. The introduction of this medium exemplifies Whitten’s interest in creating an “experience beyond the intellectual” through his work. Whitten’s collages are some the some of the most “mysterious” of his work, given that his process for creating the compositional objects is an unexpected one. In the 1980s, Whitten moved towards collage by assembling slivers of acrylic paint into mosaic-like compositions. Later in the ’80s, he began using objects as molds for acrylic paint (“ready-nows,” as he dubbed them) which he then incorporated into his compositions. Both techniques are present in Mask of God I and II.
Spiral: A Dedication to R. Bearden (1988)
Jack Whitten met Romare Bearden, the legendary collage artists best known for his depictions of African American life, while studying at Cooper Union. “He was one of my major inspirations in giving my whole soul to painting,” he recalls.12
“Collage more than any single element defines the history of modernism,” Whitten says. “I understood the the importance of Romare Bearden’s collages as narratives celebrating black identity, but I wanted something more radical. I wanted something that operated abstractly without the use of narration.”13 In Spiral: A Dedication to R. Bearden (1988), Whitten honors Bearden’s involvement in Spiral, a New York artist cooperative, through his use of a “topographical swirl”14 composed of molds on top of a more rigid grid pattern.
Whitten describes his approach to painting and abstraction as creating an analogy to the physical world, an idea that’s frequently apparent in his memorial paintings. “My friend Alan Uglow … said, ‘We’re not dealing with metaphor here, we’re dealing with analogy.’ An analogous situation is not one that is metaphorical. Painting shares that quality.”15 In his memorial paintings, Whitten creates works that he sees as allegorical to their subject, and Spiral could be seen as “allegorical” to Bearden’s collages: it evokes without replicating them.
Homecoming: For Miles (1992)
“I was influenced by Miles,” says Whitten of cool jazz legend Miles Davis. “I recognized the conceptual in his music and its connection to soul. … He is a figure that had a lot to do with my growing up being black in America. He’s one of the figures that had some bearing on how you conducted yourself. It is about being hip, being cool.”17
In this piece, Whitten employs a creative process that can be seen as analogous to jazz. “Jazz musicians have learned to program themselves, to purely conceptualize it. When it comes time to act, through improvisation, all of that thinking is set aside,” he says. “You don’t let it interfere.”18
Whitten’s use of prepared acrylic tiles evokes a similar interplay between planning and improvisation. As he selects the specific tiles to use he says he’s “guided by the call and response to extremely sensitive molecular signals of light emanating directly from the nervous system. This is where color structure is born.” For Whitten, improvisation can’t exist without an element of planning: Achieving “freedom to act is what I’m talking about. It has to be programmed. It has to be set up. That’s what allows for spontaneity.”19
Black Monolith II:
Homage to Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man (1994)
“Invisible Man was the first time that anyone had put into print, for me, the exact dimensions of being black in America.” This painting, part of Whitten’s “Black Monolith” series, honors Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, a book that parallels a story of a young black man’s search for identity with “the struggle of the nation to define itself in the tumultuous years of the early Civil Rights Movement.”20
In a rare use of representation, Whitten employs a human silhouette to recall the “force” of the author’s presence and “to capture [Ellison’s] complex identity.” In memorializing an author who explores a search for identity, perhaps this silhouette has a dual function—to make the unseen seen and to use the concept of representation itself to bring into light what is underrepresented. Another element of symbolic representation is at the center of this work—a razor blade near the figure’s mouth. Whitten says it references “the double edge of black identity: it cuts both ways.”21
Vibrations for Milt “Bags” Jackson (1999)
Vibrations for Milt “Bags” Jackson (1999), is another case in which Whitten honors a jazz musician through a memorial painting. Master of the bebop style, Jackson is considered to be one of the most significant vibraphone players of his time. Though nonrepresentational, Vibrations recalls Whitten’s experience attending Jackson’s funeral: “He was laid out in a magnificent dark mahogany coffin lined with creamy white satin, surrounded by flowers. His hands were folded and held two brightly colored mallets. The painting Vibrations came from this experience.”22 Here, as in the case of his Ralph Ellison homage, Black Monolith II, Whitten’s effort to represent visual elements of his experience comes in the form of a stark separation between figure and ground. Though still abstract, the work edges toward the representational.
“I’m intensely looking for things that go beyond politics, go beyond race, go beyond gender, anything that follows that category, including anything that goes beyond the notion of self.”23^
Jack Whitten has lived in New York City since 1962, so his experience of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was deeply personal. “I’m a person who can say that I saw [the towers] beginning to end. I watched it go up step-by-step, and I watched it go down step-by-step. … One of the most powerful accounts we have when something horrible goes down in history, is the fact that somebody witnessed it.”24 In 9-11-01, a monumental work measuring 20 x 10 feet, Whitten transcends the personal or the “notion of self” and divisions of individual identity, to a collective consciousness—history.
Cultural Shift (Let’s Celebrate Lena Horne)
A.K.A. The Lena Horne Jubilee (2010)
In this work, Whitten honors Lena Horne, a prominent performer and Civil Rights activist. Horne, “arguably [the] most illustrative of the NAACP’s attempt to construct respectable images of African American femininity,” 25 was featured multiple times as the cover girl for the NAACP’s publication Crisis. Horne was chosen for her talent, allure, and, problematically, for her light skin, which was seen as acceptable to white audiences. However, Horne bucked conventions of femininity while creating her own “version of respectability,” and in so doing, “did not passively accept her characterization as a token of black, middle class-gentility.”26
In Whitten’s piece, Horne’s role in shifting views of African American femininity is mirrored by a shift in the role of the medium in establishing the figure/ground relationship. In his words, “we must not separate the idea from the act. Form develops through process and form is what makes the subject actual. Any evidence of substance is in the form.”27 Whitten’s collages from the 1980s deny a separation between figure and ground. In the 1990s, Whitten concertedly separates figure and ground through color, as is evident in Black Monolith II and Vibrations. In Cultural Shift, Whitten goes a step further, separating figure and ground by using acrylic elements formed through different techniques. He uses his acrylic “tiles” for the ground, and the more three-dimensional, colorful “ready-nows” for the figures. In unifying subject and medium, Whitten is able to make his subject “actual.”
Nine Cosmic CDs: For the Firespitter (Jayne Cortez) (2013)
Whitten’s interest in jazz and social innovation is apparent once again in this memorial to the late poet, musician, and activist Jayne Cortez. In Nine Cosmic CDs, Whitten uses a strongly horizontal composition to explore history and movement through time. The orientation speaks to the reason why Cortez merits memorialization in Whitten’s eyes: her disruption of history. In this work, Whitten’s use of “ready-nows” takes a representational turn.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to make a statement about Jayne Cortez except through the idea of music,” he says. “In that painting, I’ve made cosmic CDs. They are not regular CDs—I don’t expect anybody to try to take them off and put them through a CD player. They’re out there in the Cosmos. There’s a fantastical mystical edge to that painting. I would like to think that the political statement is totally in the painting.”28
Sandbox: For the Children of Sandy Hook Elementary School (2013)
This work memorializes the tragic December 14, 2012 shooting of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Simple in composition, this piece is more meditative than Whitten’s other works. As the title suggests, this piece evokes children’s toys in a sandbox.
Sandbox embodies yet another shift in how Whitten approaches figure and ground. The ground is formed not by acrylic “tiles” or a large slab of acrylic but by a painted surface. As is the case in Nine Cosmic CDs, “ready-nows” are still present in a relatively representational capacity. Written notes: “I have always accepted memory as being one of the most powerful elements of human consciousness. Through memory we reconstruct our past. We honor the dead through memory.”29 Through the evocation of toys in a sand box, Whitten in turn suggests the past of childhood innocence that existed before the shooting. The “toys” in this work function much the same way as the “cosmic CDs” in Nine Cosmic CDs. Returning to Whitten’s conviction that painting is analogous to life, perhaps this work can be seen as a way for that alternative, peaceful past to be “out there in the Cosmos.”
Black Monolith V: Full Circle, For LeRoi Jones
A.K.A. Amiri Baraka (2014)
As the full title of Black Monolith V suggests, at the end of five decades, Whitten’s memorial paintings have come full circle. In Black Monolith V: Full Circle (2014), Whitten honors the writer Amiri Baraka, whose work addresses topics like black liberation and white racism.
In this work, Whitten’s recombination of techniques also comes full circle. He employs multiple approaches to the figure/ground relationship, recalling his personal history of painting. As in Sandbox, the figure of the circle and the black ground are separated starkly through the media of which they are composed, and by the clean border which separates them. Around the edges of the large circle in this piece, Whitten has applied acrylic “tiles,” recalling works like Black Monolith II. These are positioned next to “ready-nows,” as is the case in Cultural Shift. In the inside of the circle is a collage of “ready-nows,” evoking his collages from the 1980s. As the viewer’s eye works inward from the edges of this composition, they are moved back in time through Whitten’s technique. On the importance of re-applying previous techniques, Whitten says, “I have not been interested in the modernist concept of progression, the avant-garde notion of advancing in time. My position has been closer to that of a cosmologist. In the words, we learn by going back in time.”30 This idea is one which has informed Whitten’s approach to technique, composition, and memorialization. Put elegantly by Kanjo, “the artist’s time travel has brought him full circle.”31
1 Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2015), wall text.
2 Alexander Gray, “Jack Whitten in Conversation,” Jack Whitten (Alexander Gray Associates, LLC: 2013), 3.
3 Jack Whitten and Stacie Lindner, “About the Subjects,” Jack Whitten: Memory and Method, Stuart Horodner (Atlanta Contemporary Art Center: 2008), 59.
4 Kathryn Kanjo, “Facing Abstraction,” Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2015), 24.
5 Ibid., 22.
8 Ibid., 32.
9 Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2015), wall text.
10 Joseph Campbell Foundation website (www.jcf.org), accessed December 7, 2015.
11 Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 2015), wall text.
13 Jack Whitten and Stacie Lindner, “About the Subjects,” Jack Whitten: Memory and Method, Stuart Horodner (Atlanta Contemporary Art Center: 2008), 54.
14 Five Decades of Painting wall text.
15 Gray, “Jack Whitten in Conversation,” 3.
16 Kanjo, “Facing Abstraction,” 33.
17 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 52.
18 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 52.
19 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 58.
20 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 56.
21 Kanjo, “Facing Abstraction,” 29.
22 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 58.
23 Five Decades of Painting wall text.
24 Jack Whitten and Stacie Linder, “About the Subjects,” 52.
25.25Representations of African American Femininity, 1941–1945,” American Periodicals, Vol. 16, No. 2(2006): 210.
26 Megan E. Williams, “The ‘Crisis’ Cover Girl,” 213.
27 Five Decades of Painting wall text.
28 Alexander Gray, “Jack Whitten in Conversation,” 5.
29 Alexander Gray, “Jack Whitten in Converation,” 3.
30Five Decades of Painting wall text.
31 Kanjo, “Facing Abstraction,” 38.