In Memoriam Remembering Jack Whitten
It’s hard for me now to write about Jack. I feel his loss in a personal way—it’s almost impossible to be aware of anything other than this loss, and the opportunities that I won’t have to see and talk with Jack.
I met Jack downtown in the early ‘70s and remember seeing his show of large paintings with horizontally marked paint at Poindexter Gallery in 1973. But I missed his show at the Whitney Museum in 1974. I wish that I had seen more of his paintings during those years. Now it's these paintings that are among his paintings that I love the most.
I got to know Jack when Katy Siegel and I organized High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. To get in touch, I called him in Crete, where he resided with his wife, Mary, every summer. Mary went to bring him the phone, and found him working in the garden. When he was back in town, Katy and I went to his storage room in a warehouse west of SoHo to choose the painting for the show. I remember taking the plastic off Siberian Salt Grinder (1974) and leaning it against a cold concrete wall. This same painting was recently installed at the Museum of Modern Art with other paintings from the ‘70s.
HTHT traveled to a number of venues, one being the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. I helped Katy with the installation, Jack and Guy Goodwin came down and gave a talk together. They are homeboys and it was quite something to hear them describe growing up in Alabama. They come from the same culture, but it was a segregated culture. They did not meet until they were both in New York. As boys, they both discovered the Birmingham Museum of Art. Guy’s mother would drop him off when she went to town and he would spend hours looking at the small, brown Baroque and minor Impressionist paintings that fascinated him. Jack wanted to go into the museum but was told that it was not for “people like him.” During an interview in 2007, at the Museum of Modern Art, the curator Connie Butler asked Jack in which museum he would most like to see his paintings. He said that it was the Birmingham Museum and didn’t explain why. Just like Jack.
We did a walkthrough of the HTHT exhibition in Greensboro and Jack said a few words about his painting. He spoke about the dark red clay on the riverbanks in the area where he grew up and how it looked like flesh. This was the source of color coming through under the black in Siberian Salt Grinder. These “slab” paintings, as they are sometimes now called, were done with one movement, from which Jack called his “developer.” This was a kind of rake that he made to move the paint so he could cover the whole painting with one gesture. (He was aware of the connection of this method to photography from the beginning.) The painting was done in one action, but it took careful preparation. Jack used his carpentry skills to make the large platform on which the canvas rested perfectly flat. He then poured out gallons of paint that could be pulled evenly across the canvas. Sometimes he put objects, such as bits of rope or wire clothes hangers, under the canvas to make shapes that would disrupt the flow of the gesture. It’s such a complex process of painting: direct but complete.
What I most remember about Jack is his grace and how hard he worked. I admire him and his unstoppable desire to be a painter.
On the phone, in one of our last conversations, Jack told me that finishing a recent painting was like riding a bucking bronco. I hope that I can find a way to channel his strength and emulate his example. I’d even like to steal a little of his elegance in riding one of those bucking broncos.
February 11, 2018