In Memoriam Remembering Jack Whitten

Phong Bui

Jack Whitten, NY Battleground, 1967. Oil on canvas, 60 x 83.88 inches. Courtesy Studio Museum, Harlem NY and Hauser & Wirth.

Even though I’d been aware of Jack’s work for a long time, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 when my friend Katy Siegel told me that she was curating, with our mutual friend the painter David Reed as an advisor, an exhibit called High Times Hard Times: New York Paintings 1967 – 1975, that I became more fully exposed to the thick and thin, the wear and tear of what painters had to go through to reinvent themselves in accord to the necessary growth of painting culture. Most of us are aware it was during that period that Conceptual art (especially large minimal sculptures) was the dominating force in the art world, and painting was on the retreat, which precipitated the first of many claims of “the death of painting.” David Reed put it quite eloquently:

Portrait of Jack Whitten, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Experimental painting was caught in a double bind. Often the people who supported painting had very conservative rules and criteria for what painting should be. Some of these rules and restrictions came from Greenbergian formalism, while others came out of Abstract Expressionism or geometric abstraction. And then, on the other hand, there were people who took the theoretical stance that nothing at all was possible in painting. As a result, the most innovative work was caught in the middle, attacked from both sides. Of course one of the big problems was that a lot of experimental painting was coming from unexpected sources: African Americans, women, lesbians, gays, and counterculture dropouts. This experimental painting came from people who didn’t fit the traditional profile of what a painter was supposed to be.

It certainly seems to me that, during that interval, there were a lot of rules being broken while many inventions were being made. It was probably around 1970 that Jack, with his brilliant invention of a device that he called a “developer” or “processor” (a comb-like apparatus with a broom head at one end, and a squeegee blade at the other), began layering various colors on canvas stretched on the floor. He dragged his developer across the surface from one end to the other. The result was an amazingly complex pattern of incised, striated lines, or an even, smooth surface that revealed an unexpected color and light from layers beneath. This overall effect was a television screen-like surface filled with a color test pattern that has turned to blur like electronic interference. We can say that Jack relates the feel of his photographic painting to the feel of his thinking, as he told Richard Shiff, “The image is photographic; therefore I must photograph my thoughts.” What an inventive way of thinking! His thinking thus became visual rather than verbal intervention. And again, we can think of it as verbally fuzzy, partly because materially it’s rather rough around the edges, and visually blurred, partly because the image is stilled yet implying motion.

All that said and done, this was 11 or 12 years before Gerhard Richter created his own squeegee technique for his abstract paintings. And one would think Jack would have been contented enough to have made this landmark technical discovery, and make it his career with such a unique and singular style like other artists would do. But of course not! This is exactly what makes Jack a great artist. It’s the trust in the power of art, and the longevity of an artist’s lifetime, that Jack in turn trusted himself to trust the artists he admired before him who trusted themselves to trust the artists they admired before them, and this went on and on all the way to the beginning of Cave painting. One of the artists that Jack admired was de Kooning. And it just occurred to me, there was something de Kooning said that made me understand and appreciate Jack’s work more and more: “The desire to create a style beforehand is a mere apology of one’s own anxiety.” It was from this perspective that I came to know Jack when I curated a show of his work at MoMA PS1 in 2007.

What I’ve learned was Jack’s compelling social/political/cultural awareness, along with his love for history of art, has always been consistently materialized, revealed through his alchemical rapport with the materials, from which the forms emerged with the enigmatic containment of both the personal and the universal, sometimes very prominently visible, other times so subtle that it would just disintegrate into the surrounding space.

Take the series of paintings that Jack had made in the ’60s, some of which were shown at PS1. What we see is Jack’s immediate emotional response to the turmoil of the time. By deploying his own painterly synthesis of the figurative expressionist idiom and a nuanced sense of improvisation, Jack’s robust brushworks were thunderous and lightning quick in execution. They invoke images that couldn’t be censored, edited from his anger, his direct frustration with the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, and above all, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. I remember Jack and I discussed two paintings in particular in the show: New York Battle Ground, painted in 1967, and the legendary and monumental 9.11.01, painted in 2006. That’s 39 years in between, and they were installed facing each other. The former was painted with such furious expressionist ethos, a flux of images that called forth half B-52 bombers, half atrocious, abominable, aggressive, insect-like creatures, anthropomorphic terror of deconstructed forms. They came alive from the application of soaking wet oil paint, flying towards the center. The latter was the opposite: the whole painting was carefully constructed in a mosaic-like formation, made from plaster molds and cast acrylic paint, among other Whittenesque secret voodoo materials. Yet what we both discovered was the two paintings shared striking similarities in the terms of how the images and the compositions were deployed, particularly with the identifiable use of the monumental black triangular, pyramidal, monolithic structures at the center, which undoubtedly referred to the pyramid on the back of the U.S one dollar bill, while the flying images perhaps obliquely evoked Manifest Destiny’s Goddess Columbia floating in mid air, the symbol of America—in any case, the two pictures were covered with smoke and fire. Whatever it is, one thing we can say for sure, Jack’s 9.11.01 painting has to do surely with “blood, money, and oil.”

What else can I say about Jack in addition to being a generous, courageous, and wise person? His inspiring belief in the power of art sustained his stamina throughout the hardship and struggles as an African American person and artist. I, too, am grateful to Jack for paving the way for me to fight against the narrow confines of our popular culture’s perpetual tendency to label those it considers as outsiders of the establishment. Jack has taught all of us: your potential is greater than your given circumstances.


Phong Bui


Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.