Remembering Jack Whitten

Ron Gorchov

I met Jack Whitten in the late ’60s, and right away we exchanged studio visits. I was changing my process constantly at the time, and I wasn’t showing much to other artists, but Jack was one of the few that saw my work. With every visit and every new body of work, I was always impressed with how considered Jack’s work was. With his early works that involved rubber, Jack made molds of acrylic paint with other materials and mediums, cut them into small squares, then put them together as tessellated forms with recognizable and abstract images, in a unified yet unexpected method. I felt like Jack was reinventing abstraction. He wanted to make the idea of paint more complex, yet very accessible.

Jack Whitten, Black Monolith, VII DuBois Legacy: For W.E. Burghardt, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 63 × 4 inches.

Jack thought deeply about space and science, like quantum mechanics and missing matter, yet he had a kind of mystical idea about painting. He put those ideas into paint. In his earlier works, I think he wanted to get away from Abstract Expressionism, though he took what he learned from it, then added to it with something personal and new: he figured out a way to be less gestural or emotional—in terms of an overall field—and more explicit in terms of mental clarity and a very thought-through process of getting the results he wanted.

The images he created are surprising when you see them; they’re diffused much like space, as matter recreated. The aspects of science and space coupled with mystical elements don’t always appear to me right away: it takes time to make itself visible. But, the important thing is that he kept changing, was always bringing in new ways to show his mental process.

Although I didn’t see Jack often, I always truly enjoyed seeing him and Mary whenever I could. I thought they were both smart, loving, and warm people. Jack experienced a lot of struggle in his life, but he was committed to abstraction as a form of freedom, his own invented freedom. Jack was an exceptional example.


Ron Gorchov