On ViewHauser & Wirth
November 5, 2020 – January 23, 2021
Jack Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939, at the height of the Jim Crow era, and his limited involvement with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, while he was still a student at Tuskegee Institute, was enough to convince him that relocating to the relative safety of New York was, in the final analysis, a matter of survival. Whitten’s studies at Cooper Union coincided with the tail end of the Abstract Expressionist era, and his exposure to the mural-inspired scale employed by painters as unalike as Jackson Pollock and James Rosenquist set a high-water mark that he clearly aspired to achieve, and perhaps surpass, in his own work.
While the case has been made that Whitten never intended for his work to be apolitical, it seems equally true that he was uncomfortable being pigeonholed as an activist by the mostly white art establishment. Historical circumstance places him among an artistic generation of the late 1960s and early ’70s that prioritized the procedural integrity of studio activity over the goal of polished work—they went where their techniques took them. For Whitten, the pivotal moment came with his discovery that a thick slab of acrylic paint, once dried, could be sliced up into smaller shapes and chunks, and those pieces reassembled, mosaic-style, into a compositional whole. His distinctive approach gained him steady respect from his fellow artists beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through his first museum retrospective at the MCA San Diego in 2014, which enabled observers to fully appreciate his accomplishments as an innovator in abstract painting.
Since Whitten’s death in early 2018 at the age of 78, a new and welcome focus of attention has been brought to his achievements. A genre-defying Met Breuer survey—ostensibly centered on his sculptural work—that followed shortly after his death was nothing less than revelatory for the exposure it brought to the non-abstract dimension of his oeuvre. This current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, I AM THE OBJECT, adds to the revelatory feeling one had at the Met survey, to such an extent that even a seasoned viewer could be forgiven for thinking that despite a steady history of exhibiting locally across a six-decade career, New Yorkers are only now beginning to perceive the fullness of Jack Whitten’s work.
The Met exhibition made a compelling case that Whitten’s work improved dramatically as it increased in size, with particular emphasis on the far more referential “Black Monolith” series that he began in the 1980s and continued through the rest of his life. This revelation also signals the point where race re-enters the story, since Whitten’s most ambitiously scaled works also tend to be those that address aspects of Black life in the US. The “Black Monolith” works were a celebration of the lives of venerated African American creatives such as Ornette Coleman and Maya Angelou. Examples of this series are joined in the present exhibition by works from the “Totem and Mask” series made to memorialize people of color who died young, whether by tragic accident (Ronald Brown, Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Commerce) or at the hands of the police (Amadou Diallo).
The largest of these works—Memory Sites (1995), at 10 1/2 feet high—projects a compelling, iconic presence that belies the fact that it was created a quarter century ago, but is being showcased for the first time. Memory Sites takes the form of a looming architectonic shape that shimmers from a distance, but on closer approach begins to emit more ghostly overtones, as if from the rubble of a destroyed public site (the work is a tribute to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin). Its shape is a blocky, uneven rectangle with ragged edges, whose sides appear to slowly collapse into the center, lending it an air of both great mass and inherent instability. The more vertically oriented Natural Selection (also 1995) is centered on a human-shaped “shadow” that appears to gradually disperse itself outward, as if dissolving into the impersonal outline of a crime victim on a city sidewalk (it is also an eerie foreshadowing of hooded CIA torture victims from Abu Ghraib a decade later).
What this exhibition makes clear is that Whitten’s most powerful and resonant work remained mostly under wraps until now. In the year of George Floyd’s killing, as we are reminded once more of the systemic iniquities in our law enforcement and justice systems when it comes to fellow citizens of African ancestry, Whitten’s art appears akin to a Trojan horse that crossed the closely guarded ramparts of the NYC art world in the guise of abstraction, only to reveal its deeper humanitarian objectives once it was safely inside the gates.