Today, on Thursday September 22, President Barack Obama will present artist Jack Whitten with a 2015 National Medal of Arts. Whitten is being honored for “remaking the American canvas,” alongside other distinguished honorees such as Philip Glass and Sandra Cisneros. When the announcement was made last week, I felt elated. We were fortunate to host Jack Whitten at the Blanton Museum on February 22, 2015 for a conversation with Kellie Jones, one of the curators of the brilliant exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, organized by the Brooklyn Museum. In addition to Whitten’s award, it was also announced yesterday that Jones is the recipient of 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Whitten and Jones’ discussion remains one of the most powerful, intelligent, and moving dialogues I have ever been privileged to observe.
At his Blanton lecture, Whitten shared that as a child growing up in the segregated South, he was not allowed to set foot inside his local Birmingham Museum of Art. To think that he will now be recognized in the White House by the first African American president of the United States has a historical weight that is worth a collective pause. It also illuminates the value of curatorial work in recuperating artists’ careers and legacies. Seeing Jack Whitten’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego last year affirmed to me that he is one of the great experimental abstract painters of our time. It is thanks to exhibitions like Whitten’s retrospective, Witness, and other recent shows that Whitten is now being recognized for a pivotal practice that was far too long overlooked. Jack Whitten, we salute you on your National Medal of Arts and are honored to have presented your work in Austin.
For anyone interested in learning more about Jack Whitten’s art, below is an essay I wrote recently for Vitamin P3, a roundup of the best contemporary painting, to be published soon by Phaidon Press.
Paintbrushes are conspicuously absent from Jack Whitten’s Queens studio. Covering the walls are tools of every shape and size—many of which are homemade concoctions. Fridges and industrial freezers are stocked with muffin tins, pans, and molds of all kinds, all filled with acrylic paint. Part carpentry shop, part scientific laboratory, the artist’s studio reveals his fifty-year commitment to rigorous experimentation with materials.
Whitten first dispensed with paintbrushes in the early 1970s to produce what he calls his Drag paintings—which are made, rather than painted. First pouring gallons of acrylic paint in different colors onto canvas from an elevated scaffold, Whitten then drags various homemade tools—which he calls “developers”—fashioned from rakes, rubber squeegees, carpenter saws, and two-by-four pieces of lumber, across the still-wet surface of the paint. The process is intensely physical (Whitten has concluded work by letting out a karate-like wail) but the results are sensuous, elegant paintings embedded with striations of color. In an early exhibition review, an art critic described a painting as “a picture of appearing and disappearing colors.” The Drag paintings simultaneously conjure a blurred photograph and a geological formation, suggesting an instant in time and an epic event all at once.
It is perhaps important to note that this experimentation occurred well before Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) began using a homemade squeegee to produce his iconic abstractions in the mid-1980s, but it also paved the way for new directions in Whitten’s own work. The residue of his physical process yielded dried remnants of acrylic color that excited the artist, who saw in them potential building blocks for new work: “I discovered that paint could be used as collage.” A breakthrough for Whitten, this realization also helped usher a tradition associated with drawing and photography into the precinct of painting.
Since the 1990s, Whitten has harnessed this vocabulary of cast-off acrylic units, transforming them into jewel-like tesserae of abstract contemporary mosaics. The tiles of paint range from opaque and translucent to marbled. They also come in an unexpected array of shapes, from squares to leftover shards and irregular forms that are the residual byproduct of other work. Whitten has also collected acrylic paint in trays, packing containers, and the bottoms of empty plastic bottles, casting the paint to produce forms he calls “ready nows” —a riff on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. While these contemporary collage paintings hark back to ancient forms (Whitten spends his summers on the Greek island of Crete and has closely studied European mosaics), in them, he charts new territories and worlds.
Often as large as 20 feet wide, his most recent paintings are predominantly black and silver. This blackness summons Whitten’s history as an African American artist born and raised in a coal mining town in the segregated South, while also invoking starry night skies and invented cosmoses. Suggesting landscapes that have been reduced to rubble and then rebuilt, they collapse the past and the future. They also mimic the process of their very making, which Whitten characterizes as “construct, deconstruct, reconstruct.” The artist recently observed: “Experimentation is the key. I believe there are sounds we have not heard. I believe that there are colors we have not seen. And I believe that there are feelings yet to be felt.”
Veronica Roberts is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton Museum of Art.