Remembering Jack Whitten

Richard Shiff

Jack Whitten, approaching 80, died too young. His work was still developing—rapidly, in fact—and he was generating a whirl of new ideas as if he had nothing old to rely on. This was so, because none of Jack’s older art had aged. His old wasn’t old. A year ago, when he retrieved works of the 1970s and 1980s from storage, they appeared utterly contemporary. Art of timeless quality remains contemporary. Jack hit this high note repeatedly.

When I first visited Jack’s repurposed firehouse in Queens, evidence of remarkable manual skill and technical ingenuity struck me. He was producing unique varieties of paint and fashioning curious objects of wood and metal. Every feature of his art derived from his own hand, built to extreme refinement. His processes and their results resembled no others. He was operating a scientific laboratory, a factory, and an art studio, all in one. Jack explained that when you grow up in a thoroughly segregated community—his hometown of Bessemer, Alabama—and you’re denied the resources of the surrounding society and state, you become utterly self-sufficient. You learn to repair automobiles, to build furniture, to tailor a suit. He called his childhood environment “American Apartheid.” He couldn’t enter the public library or the town swimming pool. But none of Jack’s hardship inhibited the generosity he showed to all, as he learned from both black and white cultural traditions, enthusiastically sharing the rewards of his aesthetic experimentation.

Jack Whitten, Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas: molasses, copper, salt, coal ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade, 58 × 52 inches. © Jack Whitten. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, NY.

Jack’s experience could have filled several lifetimes. Drawing from his deep reservoir of feeling, he expressed the spirit or soul of both human subjects and objective materials. His attitude verged on pantheism, or perhaps animism. But, empiricist to the core, he turned to quantum physics and biochemistry, not religion or mysticism, to justify his position. Informed by advanced scientific theory as well as ancient mythology, he relied ultimately on intuition. During annual summers in Crete, he hunted octopus underwater, with an intuitive understanding to match the animal’s instinct. Following his human instincts, both aesthetic and moral, Jack created his “Black Monoliths,” acrylic abstractions projecting the souls of his cultural heroes, the likes of James Baldwin, John Coltrane, and Barbara Jordan. Beyond the human subjects he revered, his method expressed the soul of the material, of the color, of the light.

Jack radiated moral authority without claiming it. When I questioned him about the obstacles he had faced as a black American, he tempered the shocking account of his early years with humor. He was able to laugh at the illogic of the segregationist attempt to channel human lives. He recognized that negativity and bitterness in response would have destroyed his emotional well-being and incapacitated his art. Jack Whitten had the fullest humanity of any person I’ve ever known.

Contributor

Richard Shiff

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