Over the past fifty years Jack Whitten has developed a rigorous personal vocabulary within abstraction, linking ancient mosaics with contemporary process painting. His first solo exhibition with Hauser & Wirth is currently on view (22nd Street, through April 8, 2017). Additionally, you can currently see his monumental painting Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014) at the Museum of Modern Art, and Delta Group II (1975) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He met with Jarrett Earnest in his Queens studio to discuss The Idea of the Holy, The Shape of Time and abstraction as white lightning.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): For decades you’ve spent summers on the island of Crete, where you have a house. What first brought you there?
Jack Whitten: It was something personal. My wife, Mary, is of Greek descent. Her parents were born on the Peloponnese. She was born in New York and had never been to Greece, so in 1969 we planned a trip. For both of us it was the first time in Europe, period. Two nights before leaving, I had this amazing dream of a tree standing in a clearing. The limbs were cut off, pruned, and the dream was a command: When you go to Greece you are to find this tree and carve it into a totem. It freaked me out, to say the least. I’ve always carved wood in the summer months; before we started going to Greece I worked upstate in the summers. And I took my carving tools looking for this tree. We ended up in a cheap hotel in Athens, in the neighborhood of Pláka, which is right at the foothills of the Acropolis—in the ’60s it was gorgeous, real bohemian, with cafés and cheap hotels. We set up shop in Pláka and traveled around to all the different sites. After a month or so our money was running out and people advised us to go to Crete because it was cheap. They put us on an overnight ferry to Heraklion, the northern city. I went straight to the tourist police who said, young man, the cheapest place on this island is the south coast. They put us on a public bus that went across the island down to the south coast, to a village called Agia Galini, which was a little fishing village with no electricity. When the bus pulled into the harbor I saw the tree out of the window.
Rail: Exactly as in the dream?
Whitten: Yes. In a clearing. I got permission from the owner of the property with the tree on it to carve it.
Rail: Was it still rooted in the ground? Like Odysseus’s bed?
Whitten: Yes. It’s still there, still rooted in the ground.
Rail: You realized you were home!
Whitten: And to say Crete was “cheap”—the first hotel we found was one dollar a night. The two of us could live there and eat what we wanted for four dollars a day! So we stayed and I carved that tree.
Rail: Was the carving figurative or abstract patterns? How would you describe it as an object?
Whitten: It’s a totem pole, with images from the sea. There is an octopus wrapped around, fish, waves, there is the head of a fisherman looking out from the sea—all the fishermen were saying, that’s got to be me!—an homage to the Cretan fisherman. At the top is a large fish that thrusts into the air and off to the side a kind of peace sign. By the time I finished I was a celebrity in the town; everybody knew me as the guy that carved the tree. Every time I was working it was like theater—people would come watch, kids would be sitting around me on the ground. When I finished the tree we came back to New York. At that time I had two lofts. We’d sublet the lofts, getting the money in advance—three or four hundred dollars—which translated to decent life in Crete, so we went back the next summer.
Rail: In terms of these new paintings, Quantum Walls, I see the art historical connections to everything from Byzantine mosaics to the Ishtar Gates of Babylon; is there also something in them that recalls the surface of the ocean?
Whitten: That is there, I’ve spent so much time on the sea. And you’re right, the technique I’m using in these paintings goes back to ancient mosaics, what we call direct method. The direct method used pieces of stone, marble, precious metal or glass—which are called tesserae—and the thumb of the master would set it in such a way that it would hit to govern light and reflect light. I’ve studied mosaics all through Italy, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. I had a beautiful experience once in Mount Sinai, in the oldest monastery there called Saint Catherine’s. We went there for the Greek Christmas under the old calendar. In the apse of Saint Catherine’s is a Justinian-era mosaic—one of the best you will see in the world. The services are lit by candlelight from huge chandeliers, six or seven feet in diameter with four or five tiers. The monks walk around with these lighters on long poles. As the service progresses they light each tier and the place gets brighter and brighter. About midway through the service that mosaic starts coming alive. It was built to put you in the presence of God.
Rail: It’s a structure, a form, for holding that particular experience.
Whitten: It’s like cathedrals in Europe—if you walk into Notre-Dame you’ve got to be stupid if you don’t feel what is happening there, with the light coming through the stained glass. And this experience at Saint Catherine’s was effective. Each one of the tesserae was put down in such a way that it collects the light and throws it off very specifically.
Rail: How did you arrive at this technique of creating tessera out of layers of paint, building your paintings like a kind of visual masonry?
Whitten: Imagine, on one side you have gesture—a mainstay of painting. Then, on the other side, is process. I have managed to fuse those two things, which gives me the unit. The tessera is the unit. It’s the same as what people who work in particle physics are after, how do we reconcile the theory of relatively with the theory of quantum mechanics? We have the equivalent of that in abstract painting. What I am calling the unit is also what today we call the byte—all the information is in there. With that I can do anything I want to do with it—if I want to push that more into the notion of the spiritual, I can, which I like to do because there is a deficiency of it now.
Rail: One of the problems with seeing you as a progenitor of contemporary process abstraction is that it fails to acknowledge the human content of your work—the emotional, psychological, and spiritual content—which most contemporary painting is devoid of.
Whitten: I’m not a Greenbergian. I didn’t drink that Kool-Aid. When I first met Greenberg I didn’t have enough knowledge to argue with him, but I listened closely to what he had to say and I learned a lot. Formalism for me is a step toward something. It’s a means—and that is all it is. Speaking personally, for someone to take it as an end unto itself is bullshit. The formal is a way to get to something else—in my work that something else exists off in a more meditative, contemplative, and spiritual domain. The essence of it is metaphysical in the original meaning of the word, which in Greek is metá physiká—that which comes after the notion of matter. When we talk about metaphysics, especially for me being a black person, I have to talk about it coming from different sources. For example, Mr. Heidegger wrote a book called the Introduction to Metaphysics where he starts from the Greeks and walks down through western civilization. I read that and learned a lot from it. But still I had to go off on my own and find out that there is more than one root for what he’s talking about. The ancient Chinese knew this, the ancient Africans did too—it’s just because the way that spheres of influence have worked, politics and power, that it gets presented as being totally Greek, and that’s a mistake. I have a big painting hanging now at the Museum of Modern Art, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014): over ten feet by twenty feet, a memorial painting. I knew him personally. He understood this root stuff—finding other roots and directions—but he had a different concept, rhizomes.
Rail: How has the spiritual dimension of your work evolved over your life?
Whitten: Oh, it was there right from the beginning. What I mean when I talk about materiality, as opposed to simplistic concepts of narration, is that the content of what we are dealing with is in the material. I can’t sit and do a drawing of you in terms of a portrait, but I can capture you in the material. When I found out that it can be in the material, that gave me an enormous freedom, a way to escape—because paint is matter—that is where the metá physiká comes in. The questions is then, what do you want to use that for? A lot of my sensibility comes out of the South. I grew up in the church, the Christian Protestant fundamentalist church. There I saw the working of the metaphysical through people’s bodies—that is where it started. When you have that kind of background, you don’t get away from it—that informs who you are. They were praying to a Christian God but any fool knows that what is operating goes way beyond Christianity. Way back, coming out of the primal. That primal force is what I’m interested in, if you want to talk about spirituality. I have confirmed this many times through travel—I’ve been to archeological sites throughout Europe, down in Mexico, Egypt, on Crete—ancient sites where you realize people thousands of years ago were there praying, worshiping and breaking bread. It has convinced me that there is something out there much larger than what we call Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist belief systems. You’re dealing with something that has been on the planet way before we were.
Rail: How do you see the spiritual as it relates to physical materiality?
Whitten: I had one hell of an experience at Saint Catherine’s monastery. One was with this young monk—a beautiful young man. We had a special introduction from an archbishop in Athens, and this young man was our guide. He brought us down into the ossuary: room after room after room of bones, of every monk who had served at Catherine’s. One room would be only skulls, another only arms and hands, another would be legs and feet or ribcages. This monk said, I understand you are a professor. I said, yes sir, humbly so. And he said to me, here, pointing to the bones, they are the professors and we are the students.
Rail: That is a lesson in spirit and matter!
Whitten: Big time. That guy was placing emphasis and value on those bones—being taught by them—which took me back to an early sculpture that I did in Greece called The Phoenix that was done “for the youth of Greece.” It has bones in it, big protruding bones, and there is a note that I wrote in Greek that I put inside it. That note said, “Using the bones from the past, we can understand the present and foresee the future.” When the monk said that I went to that sculpture in my mind. I felt what he was saying, like it was already in me.
Rail: In the 1960s you made those smokey grey paintings, like the one called Christ (1964). How do they relate to this?
Whitten: Those “Ghost Paintings,” as they were later dubbed by the curator Kathryn Kanjo, look like fuzzy abstract photographs. In retrospect, I think the background to those paintings comes from trips to my father’s hometown in Mississippi. On the way we’d pass through a town with a courthouse where people would point to a window up on the second or third floor to a ghost image in a window—a fuzzy grey image of a man. The story was that a local black man had set fire to a church. They arrested him and a mob of white people were coming to lynch him. As he was waiting there looking at this mob scene, a thunderstorm came out of nowhere and a bolt of lightning struck through the window and etched his image into the glass. I had to be about three years old, and the story alone is enough to make a big impression on a little kid. The story says that even when the white folks removed the glass, the image came back. I think that is where those “Ghost Paintings” started. They caused problems too—people would come to the studio and start talking about what they saw, like a cinema. It got too freaky. My dealer, Allan Stone, was not interested in them, and so I just wrapped them in plastic and put them away.
Rail: How has your understanding of art’s relationship with spirituality evolved?
Whitten: I think art runs parallel to religion, I don’t think they are the same. Art can be used in the service of religion if you want to, which is a large part of Western art history. We go to Italy and see all those beautiful paintings of the Italian Renaissance, which is one of the best examples we have of art used in the service of religion—culturally, worldwide. There is a German writer I used to read named Rudolf Otto. He wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy. I read it at an early date; it made a big impression. He was somebody struggling find the origins of religious feeling and how it effects his thinking on ethics and morality.
I struggled throughout with the role of art in religion, primarily because of my background. Christianity carries a lot of baggage, speaking personally. Going back to Martin Luther King, Jr.—when I met him in ’57, I believed in him. I believed in the whole concept of non-violence. When I left Tuskegee and went to Southern University in Louisiana I got involved with the movement down there and my ass was tested. I was one of the students who closed down Southern University and created a march in downtown Baton Rouge; this would be the spring of 1960. On that march we had to make a vow that whatever happened, we wouldn’t fight back. I witnessed evil. I saw hatred coming out of white people. They attacked us, threw shit and piss on us. We made it all the way to the state capital building as they were hitting us with sticks. I did it then, but I made a vow, I would never put myself in that position again. That march is what drove me out of the South. I took a Greyhound bus to New York City.
Rail: How did it change your understanding of Dr. King’s ideas on non-violent resistance? Following Christ, King is an “extremist of love”; his ideal
of non-violent resistance seems to require a kind of spiritual strength and emotional complexity that is hard to fathom in it’s human reality.
Whitten: It only works with civilized people. If society is brute and vulgar enough, it doesn’t work. Luckily, to a large extent, as bad as America has been, it’s fairly civilized—there are certain liberal values here that are protected. Ok, if the circumstances put me in the right place I know I’m a target—the police are killing black people in the streets—that’s been proven since I was a kid over and over. But all that said, there is a level of civilization here that keeps us afloat.
Rail: I think my first thoughts on “abstraction” came from sitting in church trying to imagine the opening scene in the Bible, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” How do you understand what abstraction is in painting?
Whitten: My idea of abstraction is white lightning. When I was in Dusseldorf recently I had some damn good schnapps. A few years back I was up north in Sweden and drinking something called akvavit. Down in Mexico I was drinking mezcal. In Austria we had a form of schnapps made from berries—beautiful stuff. In Egypt, where alcohol is forbidden, I went on a quest for araqi, a liquor made from dates. Where I am, on the island of Crete, we call it raki. But, I’m from Alabama and there we call it white lightning. What I’m saying is, for me abstraction is essence. What we do in abstraction is we take the whole of life and we distill it.
Rail: Into booze?
Whitten: I use the metaphor of liquor to get the idea of an essence—it comes though a distillation process. Each one of us abstract painters have to work out mentally, personally, what abstraction is for us. If we don’t do that then we are just following a kind of textbook analysis. All these notions of experience come together and I distill them through formal language and it comes out drop by drop by drop.
Rail: How do you understand the structures of time in your paintings?
Whitten: Now I’m seeing time as being interchangeable with space. In the Quantum Wall paintings, what I’m working with is space operating as a set of codes—not as something I walk into or am enclosed in. I went through one period where space was something that something else could be placed on top of. Now I’m seeing it as more than that: I’m seeing it as coded. I have a bunch of paintings struggling with the notion of time.
Rail: When did that start?
Whitten: I’m seventy-seven. It could have started now that I’m thinking about mortality? Seventy-seven is no joke. But probably it dates to thinking about Robert Smithson and his emphasis on entropy.
Rail: He was influenced by George Kubler’s The Shape of Time.
Whitten: That book had a profound influence on me too. It taught me primarily that I was thinking too simplistically about time. I started finding out that time in connection to memory is not as direct as I thought—it’s not linear. In the 1960s Kubler extended my thinking on time in the way Bachelard expanded my notions of space.
Rail: Can I admit that I’m totally unfamiliar with your sculptures?
Whitten: Everybody is, I’ve never shown them!
Rail: I feel better then. I’d still like to know how what you’re doing in sculpture relates to your painting?
Whitten: Without a doubt, the sculpture has had more influence on my painting than anything else. The concept of light is different in a sculptor’s mind than it is in a painter’s. When you’re confronted with this massive log to carve, something else is going on mentally than when you’re in front of a canvas. In carving you’re revealing the light in reaction to external light. That has creeped over into the painting, as I was saying before, about tesserae. The tessera is a three dimensional unit of acrylic paint and I have found that I can direct the light with it. In sculpture I carve light. I chisel light. I grind light. I sand light. I laminate light. Well, by god, man—that is what I’m doing in painting! Through sculpture I have refactored my whole way and approach to painting. Refactoring is a process of finding another solution; if you find out that the original solution is not working for you, you have to discover another one. This is why I don’t use the word “to paint” anymore, I use the word “to make.”
Rail: Were you always carving?
Whitten: Probably my first carving dates back to art school in the ’60s.
Rail: You’ve talked a lot about the influence of New York school painters on your thinking, but I’ve never heard you discuss any correlation with sculptors. Who were you interested in?
Whitten: One of my first loves in sculpture was studying David Smith. For wood carving in particular, there was a fellow named Raoul Hague. There was a Japanese artist at the time teaching out at the Brooklyn Museum, named Tashio Odate. Then there was a Greek, Michael Lekakis. I had a lot of introductions to woodcarving, but the original instruction was from the ancient African woodcarvings I saw when I first came to New York.
Rail: One of the effects of the tesserae as a plane is that it creates a non-linear visual rhythm. I know you’ve dedicated paintings to musicians, and you yourself played tenor sax, and I’m wondering how you understand rhythm, time, and sequence in visual art as related to parallel concepts in sound or music.
Whitten: That is very complicated but I’ll try. Painters learn to construct the density of light. All the light that we work with has a specific density to it. I use that word, “density,” in the same sense that a physical scientist would use it to talk about the density of wood or CorTen steel or lead, or the density of a feather—you hear me—the density of water. Painters are aware of the density of light. The whole history of painting is in that light. I can walk you through all the museums in the world and explain to you what painters are doing through their light. It gets complicated because geographical location gets involved in the quality of light. Like for me, being on Crete all these years, the light on Crete is different. You look at an object on Crete and it looks like its carved out of a hunk of steel—bright Mediterranean light. Down there we have these winds we call boreas—they clear the air, coming out of the mountains. When those winds blow, humidity drops down to ten percent, so you’re talking about a sharp quality of light. These geographical locations affect how painters see and structure densities of light in their art.
But it gets even more complicated: I have discovered that within those densities of light there is a sound. It is a much higher and a more complex notion of sound, but there is a sound in there. It agrees with what the ancient philosophers refer to as “the music of the spheres.” It’s in the light, it’s in the movement, which connects to time. All of us interested in time and how it relates to experience realize that it’s not just a clock. [Holding up a wrist watch.] We use this for daily practical stuff. But there are other aspects of time that go beyond this fucker—our bodies tell us there is biological time, then we discover there is a cosmological and geological time. Scientists claim that because of carbon atoms trapped in matter we can date, we can make a clock out of them, which we do.
But, going back to sound, within those light densities are sounds. For me personally, being African-American and the jazz music coming out of that culture, and meeting all those early jazz musicians, I realize there is something unique in that experience connecting time and sound. I have to tell a lot of painters who say they are working with jazz, that they are only working with it as simplistic narrative notion; until they can connect with it in terms of light, color and sound, they’re only skimming the surface of jazz.
Rail: Color relationships themselves create the light in painting, and I want to know how your color has evolved and how it relates to light.
Whitten: This is not just me, it affects every painter, every body who ever picked up a brush and started mixing paint. What would Hans Hoffman say? He’d point out the window and say, see that stuff out there, that is nature’s light. He’s talking about sunlight. Then he’d point to a lamp, you see that stuff there, that’s man’s light. Hans would then say, the only fucking light you’ve got is in that color. He’s talking about a tube of paint. Every painter, whether they’re abstract or figurative, has to discover that the only light they’ve got is in color. I don’t care about all the other stuff that people attach to it—the politics, the social issues—O.K. In terms of contemporary thought and the world we live in, I won’t say that’s not important. But ultimately, it’s what’s in that tube of paint that matters. At seventy-seven, I’ve been on this for more than fifty years and it’s still an ongoing process, it’s still forming. We don’t just arrive at an end and say, O.K., I know it all. Painting is a continuous process.
Rail: But what are specific moments that your thoughts on color have shifted?
Whitten: Let’s go to one specifically, the “Greek Alphabet” series which starts in 1976 and lasts through 1979, entering the 1980s. I removed all spectrum color from the studio: all reds, blues, yellows. I took them out! I reduced them down to black, white, and a range of greys.
Rail: Achromatic greys?
Whitten: Yeah. There is one hanging now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Delta Group II (1975). Why did I do that? I had survived the 1960s. As much as I could tell I was in tact. I was functioning. I realized that spectrum color, all those high valued reds, blues, greens, carry a lot of psychological stuff that I didn’t want to fuck with no mo’. I wanted to cut it down to the bone.
When Henry Geldzahler curated my ten-year survey at the Studio Museum in 1983, he asked me the same question. I said, Henry, you have to understand that in getting rid of all the chroma and taking it to black and white is not just a formal exercise. I’m very much aware of the meaning of black and white in American society, which informs who I am as an African American. The formal reasons for black and white are one thing but there are also the reasons coming out of the political situation, and I wanted to see if I could combine them.
What I discovered is that philosophically I don’t like either/or situations. I prefer neither/nor—that is what the black and white paintings taught me. I found that there was a third entity out there: not black, not white, but existing over there in those greys. Messing around with values like that I discovered I could create another form of optical color out of the greys. Looking at those paintings you’re going to see red, blues yellows shooting out at you. Just go look at them! There is another spectrum that isn’t coming from that regular spectrum we know, it’s coming from some place else, an inner light. Rothko discovered that. Rothko’s paintings are an advanced way of thinking about light and color, like another level of consciousness, and it took me years to get to that. In the Rothkos you are witnessing a light literally coming out of that man.
Rail: When you started moving back into color after the “Greek Alphabet,” how did you proceed?
Whitten: It came in very small amounts. My wife worked for a company called Nelson Whitehead, they were the largest importers of artist grade papers and I fell in love with a lot of the Japanese papers—handmade, thin and brightly colored. I started embedding them into the ground. I was burying these Japanese papers into pure titanium pigment, which I mixed into commercial paint to make a dense, heavy-bodied paint. Then I created what I called slip—
Rail: Like watery clay, in ceramics?
Whitten: Yes that’s where the term comes from. I made an acrylic slip made of graphite, pure crystalline silica, and acrylic medium. It was extremely translucent and granular. When that slip hit that pure titanium ground everything I put down would be revealed—the color bled through it. That is how the color started coming back.
Rail: Looking at these new Quantum Walls there are multiple layers that synthesize visually: there is the image on the surface of the tesserae, then there is pulsing out from below and between the underlying color and gesture of the substrate, creating a multiplicity and simultaneity.
Whitten: I’m hoping that people will read them holistically. There is a totality built into these works. Even in terms of meaning, emotion, and theory, which exists on many different levels at the same time.
Rail: These new paintings seem connected to Rothko, not necessarily formally but perhaps on a deeper level.
Whitten: I think so, people have observed that, but I wouldn’t say deeper. I would say, we live in different times. What Rothko expressed was in his time; we have been thrust into another time. Different times means different problems we have to be concerned with. I maintain that because of quantum mechanics everything has changed. It has forced us into a total reevaluation, a whole new notion of perception and how we see the world. I often make the statement that what I want is “world view.” The world views I’ve had fed to me over the years have served me well but I’m finding now that I need something else.
Rail: Would you say that defining a world view is one task of an artist?
Whitten: Hopefully it should be the job of all of us. Every individual in society. Now, in the political times we are going through, if the individual does not accept the responsibility of their world view we are in trouble. We have to group together, sure, but the onus is on the individual. We as people have to say, point blank, what kind of fucking world we want. Like with Mr. Trump—I don’t like what he’s talking about, all these phobias and hate that he is throwing out. I won’t accept it, and I think there are a lot of people out there that feel the same way. So it is not the responsibility of the arts, it’s down to every person. All of us have to say so.
Rail: Is one of the functions of art as a witness? Like, this is what it feels like to be here?
Whitten: Every time I have met a holocaust survivor—that person is a witness. It is enough for me for that person to say, I witnessed it. Or when I grew up with lynchings down South, and someone said, I saw that. When all is said is done, I’m an American pragmatist. The notion of the witness is that which makes it real. Being a witness makes us human.
Rail: Can artworks embody those memories?
Whitten: It’s built in there. My optimism is that other people see it. I use the notion of compression. When people ask me about the notion of being a black artist, and what am I doing in terms of the social politics of my age, I tell them: it’s all compressed in there. That is why I don’t have to deal with simple narrations. Ok, storytelling is good, but you don’t have to deal with that shit—just compress it in there. I like the toughness of that.
Rail: What do you see as the role of art today?
Whitten: I use the word antidote. There is so much shit going on in society that I don’t believe in—the only thing I believe in is art. I have nothing else. Art is the only thing I’ve got to go on, and I see it as being able to provide an antidote to all this evil shit that is going on. And it is evil—I cannot stress that enough. Obviously, it’s going to get much worse too. We haven’t seen nothing yet. All of us will be tested—that I can promise you.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.