The five-decade Jack Whitten retrospective at the Walker Art Center explores and recounts the artist’s most labor-intensive painting and studio processes that have yielded the 60 works on view throughout the exhibition. The display is housed in the Target and Friedman Galleries in the Walker labyrinth-like space. The intentions of the curators, it seems,is to encourage minimal distraction from Whitten’s works ,with nearly blinding white walls and floors, serving as the only break from the artist’s diverse palette of paintings. The retrospective reflects the artist’s valiancy to explore new lab-type methodologies blurring lines between artist practice and systematic inquiries. Being a witness to a trajectory of such works can evoke a curiosity of laboratory elements used to produce such works, more so than the spark of interest in the final product.
Jack Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama. His studio lab painting processes could be tied to his initial studies at Tuskegee University where he studied medicine before switching his direction to the arts. Whitten was quite embedded in the Civil Rights Movement during his early adulthood?, yet the constant unrest and social injustices in the south influenced him to move to New York City where he enrolled from Cooper Union. Whitten’s form of abstraction is distinct, but rooted in the interest of German Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionism, looking to artists such as William de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock for direction of gesture.
The stimuli behind much of Whitten’s work are the brutalities of racism and social injustices in America. This is a subtle recurring theme throughout the retrospective. It is made clear in the Whitten retrospective that his paintings are quite vast in aesthetic and technique, yet the topics remain consistent, and are stealthy subtle responses to contemporary events. This is reflective in his earlier work Head IV Lynching (1964), a ghostly portrayal of Black body lynching’s in America during the 1960’s.. Similarly, Whitten responded to the 9/11 tragedy in 2006 with 9-11-2001, an unofficial continuation of his memorial works to Dr. Martin Luther King from the 1960’s.
Contrastingly, Whitten migrates between political responses in his work and abstract experimentations as reflected in his ‘Slab and Drag’ series from the early 1970’s. In it, Whitten transferred the canvases from upright positions parallel to the wall, and placed the works on the floor, where he poured paint evenly over the canvases and dragged various tools and objects across the two-dimensional surfaces, including sponges, rakes, and afro picks.
The wall texts accompanying art in museum exhibitions, especially retrospectives can be heavy, overstated or in contrast, underwhelming and not explicit enough. However, the texts provided by the shows curator, Kathryn Kanjo, are juxtapositions of notes on Whitten’s process and quotes from the artist himself. These texts include perspectives on the methodologies of his works in real time and in retrospect which are quite refreshing. This contributed to the interpretation of the easy flow throughout the chronological exhibition. The Philosophy of Jazz, as Whitten refers to it, inspired the meditative technique of the drag and slab series, and in a wall text provided by the museum Whitten references a work in commemoration of his friend and Jazz musician, John Coltrane:
Coltrane told me how he equated his sound to sheets: the sound you hear in his music comes at you in waves. He catches it when it comes by, and he’ll grab at as much of it as he needs. I think that, in plastic terms, translating from sound, I was sensing sheets, waves of light. That’s why I refer to these paintings as energy fields. I often thought of them as two poles that create a magnetic field in which light is trapped. That’s energy. (The Walker Art Center)
After this period, Whitten returned to a more refined and systematic technique of production. Inspired by his time spent in the Greek Island of Crete, Whitten created a series of primarily monochromatic color (paintings?), with subtleties of colorful hues, which included works identified through an ordering system defined by the Greek alphabet. In this series, Whitten slightly alters abstract forms by dragging a serrated tool across the canvas creating fine horizontal lines throughout the composition.
The exhibition ends with Whitten’s most recent works which include a return to his desire to memorialize lives lost in civil unrest and tragic accidents such as Sandbox: For the Children of Sandyhook (2013). A painting of acrylic molds, a matrix of colorful candy-like pieces of round textured symbols is scattered throughout the composition. During the end of the millennium and well into the 2000’s, Whitten commemorated others in addition to those affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy throughout several tile like opuses, including Black Monolith IV For Jacob Lawrence, Flying High For Betty Carter, , and Apps for Obama, (2011), similar in design to the composition of the artist’s Sandyhook memorial.
Although abstract in gesture, Whitten has remained consistent with his initial works of representation and topical figuration throughout his career, addressing political concerns subtlety, with a keen respect for the process it requires to achieve resilience beyond such narratives, both in and outside of the studio.
Taylor Renee is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK