The exhibition of paintings by Jack Whitten at Hauser & Wirth was his first solo show in the UK. I remember a dozen of them, like the apostles or a carton of eggs, but there were fourteen: five paintings from 1979, one from 1984, three from 1986, one from 1987, two from 1988, one from 1989. The decade isn’t represented evenly, but it wasn’t an even decade. In an interview in BOMB magazine from 1994, Whitten described the commercial difficulties he faced, as ‘materialistic thinking’ peaked. But as he says, his work didn’t suffer. There’s a rhythm of urgent discovery to the work collected here, so much so the room can hardly contain it. Though each painting has its own achieved integrity, they’re not discrete works: they work together like a forcefield.
Whitten was born in Alabama in 1939. His mother was a seamstress and his father a coal miner. He enrolled as a medical student at Tuskegee, before deciding to study art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, meeting Martin Luther King and organising demonstrations before leaving the South permanently for New York in 1960. As he put it in an interview in 2009, ‘I grew up in strict, segregated apartheid.’ In New York he met painters, poets, and musicians, was mentored by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Norman Lewis, and started showing his work in the late 1960s at Allan Stone’s gallery on the Upper East Side. After an apprenticeship in the modes of abstract expressionism, he began working with a method of raking or combing acrylic paint, using Afro combs and saws among other tools of his own making. He aspired to the condition of photography: a decisive movement, the single draw of the tool making multiple lines as the teeth sweep through paint.
Whitten’s Asa’s Palace (1973), on show with Homage to Malcolm (1970) at Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern in 2017, exemplifies this technique. Working with the canvas on the floor, he used a tool as wide as the canvas and with a handle long enough to cover the length of the surface in one go. It’s a way of pulling through the paint, rather than pushing it: or letting the half-inch-thick layer of acrylic push itself, left to chance. The method is perhaps most familiar to us now from Gerhard Richter, but Whitten was the originator. In a video on the Tate website he explains that he was thinking of de Kooning, and the way de Kooning used multiple gestures, what Whitten calls ‘relational gestures’. Whitten says by contrast he was interested in non-relational gestures. Looking at Asa’s Palace, gorgeous purple interrupted with olive green, it isn’t easy to figure out how it’s been made. But there’s nothing mystifying about it. It’s just that the artist’s hand isn’t forcing your attention. Other experiments in the 1970s included working, after a grant from the Xerox Company, with dry toner to produce monochrome images. He began going to Crete each summer, where he’d work on woodcarving, sculptures, and drawings. So the paintings gathered in More Dimensions Than You Know come after a decade already of serious work. The earliest pictures here are four from a series called DNA (1979), uniform in size, sixteen by sixteen inches. They’re acrylic grids, which play with a monochrome surface that obscures and reveals geometric colours beneath. Up close they’re almost Op Art, and hurt if you look at them for too long. But from the other side of the room the delicate experimentation shimmers into view. Beryl J. Wright commented in 1990 that:
There is a diagnostic character to Whitten’s abstract paintings in that, by design, they take the viewer through the process of visual perception step by step. The multiple and often disparate associations that rise out of his carefully constructed surfaces are directly linked to the way in which the human eye, as camera, locates objects in space; breaks down their constituent elements; and then enters, analyzes, and stores visual information in a mental bank.
Maybe we can think of the DNA paintings as didactic. They teach us how to see, and how to observe ourselves in the process of seeing. But this doesn’t account for the emotional register of Whitten’s work, the deep feeling everywhere apparent. In truth, the four DNA paintings at Hauser & Wirth, on show for the first time, aren’t the best examples of the series. But Richard Shiff, in the conclusion of his essay for the Hauser & Wirth catalogue, makes a fruitful comparison between these works and photographs of an Egyptian prison, viewed through a chainlink fence. The idea doesn’t get completely worked out, but suggests an intriguing line of thought. For the artist politicised by the Civil Rights movement, how could the mass incarceration of African-Americans, begun in the 1970s and still ongoing, fail to make an impression?
But the real drama of this exhibition comes from Whitten’s move from the floor to the wall. In an ecstatic studio note dated February 12th 1979, reproduced in the catalogue, Whitten writes: ‘I AM FREE OF ART HISTORY. At last I am off the floor, it has been ten years of hard labor on the floor. I can now execute my works on the wall. There is no limitation upon scale.’ This move is as conceptual as it is literal. The larger canvases on display are so densely worked it’s hard to tell where the centre of gravity falls: it seems likely that both the floor and the wall were involved in the composition. The most extraordinary painting on display was Black Monolith I, A Tribute to James Baldwin (1988). It’s one of four memorial paintings on show from 1986-88, including works for Andy Warhol, a young student of Whitten’s named Packy La Belle, and the fashion designer Willi Smith. The painting for Baldwin hangs in the opposite corner from the entrance to the gallery. It’s human-sized: about as wide as spread arms, and a little taller in height. The scale, despite having ‘no limitation’, is precise. These canvases are thick with material collaged on the surface. The lower corners of Black Monolith I are patches of corrugated monochrome with splashes of turquoise, blue-green to the left. There are black columns on either side, patterns drawn from manhole covers cast in plaster of paris. The painting holds the imprint of the city’s horizontal metallic features. It’s uncanny because they’re what we see when we look down: raised chevrons that almost look like tyre tracks. It’s as if when Whitten moved from the floor to the wall he simply brought the floor with him.
This method of collage comes from an earlier phase in his work, before the combed-acrylic work of the 1970s. He has described in an interview with Wright how in the 1960s, he accumulated found objects:
I used to find things in the street. My studio used to be filled with things that I found in the street. I see now that that was a way of finding myself. When you pick up something and bring it home, you see something in that object. We were working on a carpentry job one day and an object fell to the floor. I stopped and picked it up and Jeff [Waite] grabbed my arm and said, “Why did you pick up that one and not that one?” I had never though about it like that. I just always knew that I had to pick this one up because I identified it with something. Now I see, in retrospect, that this was the beginning of my personal aesthetics.
In the method of casting and collaging the street, Whitten reaches back to the emergence of his discerning judgement at the start of his career. But he pulls these objects through the ‘non–relational’ gesture of the 1970s, both preserving and transforming his repertoire of techniques. It’s a graceful dialectic of invention, reinvention, and recovery.
The centre of Black Monolith I is a mass of black paint, with bubble wrap worked in monochrome, so the suggested hardness of the cast metal gives way to the softness of protective wrapping. Bubble wrap absorbs shock, and so here works as part of the act of mourning. But bubble wrap is often also one of the outer surfaces of an object in transit. I can’t help thinking of it as some awful twin to the hold of the ships of the Middle Passage, as recently theorised by Christina Sharpe. In a letter to Henry Geldzahler from 1983, Whitten made clear his own relation to the ‘ART HISTORY’ he was trying to free himself from:
I eventually understood that abstraction as preached in Greenbergian terms was abstraction as an ends to itself. I wanted abstraction to be a means to something else. That something was to be located in ‘black sensibility’ that is translatable into a worldview.
Part of the isolation Whitten experienced in the 1980s was that he was neither displayed in group shows of the new Abstract Expressionism, nor in exhibitions of art with African–American ‘themes’. The sensibility of a painting like Black Monolith I, even as it memorialises the death of Baldwin, insists on salvaging the traces of black life. There’s room for everything: there’s no climax to the composition, only the process of encounter, new thought, new feeling. The bubble wrap, deflated and punctured containers, make up the throat and lower head of Baldwin’s profile. Amiri Baraka’s elegy for Baldwin called him ‘God’s black revolutionary mouth’, but the painting doesn’t have a mouth: it’s all head, the tender focus of the whole face. Really the gallery is too small for this work. I want to approach Black Monolith I from very far away. I mean, from half a mile and see it coming into view. The only way to do this is to think about the painting on your way to the gallery, to hold it in your head until you’re at the doorway, full of anticipation, and you wait until the last possible moment to look – to really look – and there it is.
In the gallery my friend said the work reminded her, strangely, of Agnes Martin, and I could see it, and not only in the grids of DNA. How the dimensions of her paintings imply a body even when what they come to represent is the vanishing point of the horizon. It’s all emptying for Martin and that’s beautiful. But for Whitten, it can all go in: the city, history, the body, the whole erotics of protection and loss and memory and memorialisation. For days after seeing the painting I would feel like I’d lost something. I thought back to the Martin retrospective at Tate Modern in 2015, and particularly the room dedicated to her white series The Islands I-XII (1979), painted the same year as More Dimensions Than You Know begins. It would be easy to say that the apparent serenity of these paintings is the opposite of Whitten’s great and hurting surfaces, the vacation of gesture rather than the reckoning with the non-relational gesture. I remember thinking what it would be like to stare at these monumental depictions of whiteness for hours at a time, as the security guard in the room had to. But there’s a comparable devotion to perception, which the viewer just might catch in the corner of their eye. Yet thinking this way, the non-relational aspects of Whitten’s work give way to the deep grounding in social relations that informs his work. There’s nothing oblique about the politics. It runs from the finished painting to method and back again.
Baraka might help us to locate Whitten more precisely. There’s a recording of a poem from the late 1970s called ‘Against Bourgeois Art’, where Baraka – in his fully-developed phase of anti-revisionist Marxism – denounces the epigones of Abstract Expressionism:
you walk thru a museum all
the colors of the spectrum right there but not one
image, except of checks
passing. Pollockdollarsigns Dekooning fortunes,
Larry Rivers pots at the
end of the rain bow
no heart and soul insides flowing out
no fighting in the street
no children screaming death
no police no state, except it is the state, bullshitting
on the wall
Baraka had been one of Whitten’s early friends in New York, but he’d broken from the white art world in 1964/65, if not earlier. The poem – with its demand for socialist realism, a homophobic jibe at Warhol, and its over-confident judgement on what does and what doesn’t qualify as life – is perhaps easy to dismiss. But Baraka’s analysis of the recuperated aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism are relevant to Whitten’s work in the 1980s. Whitten had to reckon with the end of the heroic age of Abstract Expressionism, and then the much-vaunted death of painting. As the title of a recent exhibition puts it, Whitten and his contemporaries had to reinvent abstraction, and for Whitten I think this involved a reconsideration of the image itself. The move from the floor to the wall was as much about content as it was about form, as the detritus of the city mingles with the detritus of the studio in paintings that frequently mourn black icons. Can we recognise in his paintings the qualities Baraka lists above? People, love, fighting in the streets, heart and soul and police? I think we can, and I think Whitten shows us this struggle taking place on every inch of the canvas.
The most startling detail in Black Monolith I appears beneath the layers of bubble wrap and metallic netting, in the form a single perfect imprint of lace. It’s what I’d call a doily, a black doily, intricate and fine. It sits at heart level on the left side of the painting, level with the viewer’s heart. Or maybe slightly higher: where the heart would be if I was taller. It’s perfect. And right beneath the circle of lace is the imprint of the top of a paint can. Two circles, the lace too delicate to show up in reproductions. You have to go close to see it. And this piece of lace now seems so strong, the point of composition the rest of the paintings turns around. What I want to say is that part of Whitten’s achievement is that he can make this doily hit you with the whole force of turmoil that Baraka wishes for, as improbable as that may sound.
There’s another circle in the show, a painting called Annabelle II (1984) which is really four concentric rings focusing a white-grey surface of oil. Just after Whitten’s escape from art history, a fire seriously damaged his work and living space in Tribeca. This was one of the first works he made after the fire, after a three-year silence. In a way I think of this as another memorial painting, for the lost years of work. Maybe everything in the show is a memorial relative to Black Monolith I: the piece of lace now suddenly a token of his mother the seamstress, the melting black acrylic everywhere like coal from the Alabama mine his father worked in. Whitten said he tried to eliminate metaphors from his work, but maybe these traces are metonymic: the work of mourning seems to demand some form of substitution. But maybe I’m projecting. In the cityscape of The Gift (1988), again built from corrugation and the imprints of the street, I thought inevitably of Grenfell Tower, the skeleton of the building just over the other side of Hyde Park. While Whitten’s method involves layers and layering, it also involves taking things away, and looking at what’s left behind. So it parallels life exactly, the fundamental process of experience.
With Ode: For Andy Warhol (1987), instead of drawing the viewer in we’re almost pushed out to the side. It’s determined by patches of yellow that can only be Warhol’s hair. At the foot of the painting there’s an inlaid square image that almost looks like a photograph of his wig, drained of colour into a melancholy still blue, or not quite blue. There’s joy to this, art as evidence of survival in the face of trials of loss. Now we need to see what came next: his mosaic work in tesserae of treated acrylics, his monumental painting for 9/11, his memorial for Baraka, his sculptures, his unswerving commitment to spirit and matter surrounded on all sides by technology. Whitten, in 2016, described working with three-dimensional light, and maybe that’s finally what his paintings are. He’s more serious than I can say: how he makes light this heavy, because it is heavy, and he did it, and he’s gone.
Jack Whitten died on January 20th 2018.