Remembering Jack Whitten

STANLEY WHITNEY
with Phong Bui

Phong Bui (Rail): I know you moved to New York in 1968, based on Philip Guston’s advice. But at what point did you meet Jack?

Stanley Whitney: I grew up in Philadelphia, which in those days, it was a very hard city due to the race issue. I decided I wanted to get away from all that, and the draft during the height of the Vietnam War. I went to a school in the Midwest, Columbus College in Ohio, but soon realized the school wasn’t offering a BFA at the time, so I transferred to KCAI (Kansas City Art Institute), where Dan Christensen, a Color Field painter, and his brother Don, an artist and composer, went to school. Dan visited New York in the summer of 1965, and Don visited in the summer of 1968 and both never left. [Laughs] After graduating from KCAI, I went to a program called Summer Six at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Philip Guston taught. He liked my work, and he said “You know, you should move to New York and go to The Studio School,” which I did but soon dropped out of, partly because I wanted to hang out at Max’s Kansas City and meet artists. Actually, I met Jack through Juan Cass, a classmate of mine in Columbus College, who was then going to Cooper Union, where Jack was his teacher.

I remember one day Juan says “Yeah, I’m going visit Jack at his studio on Crosby Street. Do you want to come along?”

Jack Whitten, USA Oracle (Assasination of M.L. King), 1968. © Jack Whitten. Courtesy Studio Museum, Harlem NY and Hauser & Wirth.

Rail: A nice walk from where he and Mary lived on Lispenard Street.

Whitney: Exactly. Thinking back now, and to put it in context, those were the days when painting was under attack—people thought that painters were a bunch of idiots—so everyone was trying to figure out how to make a painting without a brush. So seeing Jack with his big broom with a squeegee or a comb-like contraption that pushes paint around on canvas on the floor was impressive. I was like, “What is this?” [Laughs] What always amazed me about Jack was not so much just his painting but his life. He didn’t let the whole race issue get in his way. He simply refused to get bitter. And he made his life for himself. What I learned from Jack was to make a good life for yourself no matter what. It wasn’t what he said to me but it’s what he taught me—it was what I saw him do. He got married to Mary, had a summer place in Crete, learned Greek, made sculpture there, eating and living life well, with his olive oil and herbs from his garden. The fact is he became a really international person who refused to get caught up in the American black and white family feud. I remember one time Ed Clark told me about going to visit Jack and Mary in Greece. Jack was gonna go get Ed and his other friends fish, so they follow Jack down to the beach, and Jack says “I’m gonna go get us fish.” And so he goes in the ocean with his spear gun and he jumps in and disappears. Ed and the rest are sitting on the beach, and after 20 or 30 minutes go by and Jack doesn’t come back, they’re thinking, “Oh my God, Jack drowned.” [Laughs] Everyone was saying to each other, “What are we gonna tell Mary?” You know, they’re terrified, and all of a sudden then Jack comes out of the water with this big fish! [Laughs] Jack was really healthy. And Jack was a visionary.

Rail: In some sense, for example, how he found the house in Crete?

Whitney: Yes. I don’t know if I’ll get this story right but Jack told us he had a dream about a tree. Then he went to Crete and saw the tree from the dream. He realized that was the spot. I was really impressed a lot by, not just his work, but by how he handled the life he chose to live. How he dealt with being an artist or what it meant to be an artist and where race was, where life was, where his marriage with Mary was, where his daughter Mirsini was, and how he lived his life in the fullest sense. I never heard Jack complain about one thing. I mean, Jack did tell stories about being in Birmingham, how he was treated, and all these horrible things. He went to Tuskegee University, where my grandfather also went to school. Jack also talked about how he played the saxophone, but when he came to New York, he realized he wasn’t that good, so he gave it up and focused on painting instead. [Laughs]

Rail: Did you see Jack often after the initial meeting?

Whitney: We didn’t socialize much. I went to visit him at his studio in Queens after he and Mary moved from Tribeca in 2003, a couple of times. I’d have dinner with him with different people on some occasions. I would see him at openings, I would see him at shows. I would see him at more official events. I guess once this whole thing happened in recent years with everyone wanting older African American artists, Jack and I saw each other a lot more. We got closer then. It was really more about knowing Jack was there. The situation was I’m on this corner, you’re on that corner. We got it covered.

Early on, downtown when I got here in ‘68, the whole downtown art scene, there were maybe ten African American artists. Most were from Jack’s generation like Al Loving, William T. Williams, Joe Overstreet, just to name a few.

Rail: And Bob Thompson, who died so young at the age twenty-nine.

Whitney: In 1966. I still remember opening the Village Voice and there’s a picture of Bob Thompson who had just died, and there was a painting at The New School. And I was like, “What? Who is this guy?” And so I ran over to see the painting, and I was like, oh my god, and I was so upset that I had missed him. That he had just died. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Man this is so close to where I want to go.” Making color everything and everything else so alive. In a different yet similar way, Jack became a big figure for me. How Jack handled everything was so influential to my thinking. Jack was political in the way he thought through what politics meant, what politics were in his art, where race was in his art.

He got into the complexity of it all. It was never simple. He never made it easy or simple-minded for the viewer, or anyone. He refused to dumb down what that is.

Rail: I wasn’t so aware of that political complexity until I curated a show of Jack’s early works in 2007, which included the new and monumental painting 9.11.01. They were all so intense.

Whitney: I remember that show very well. I never saw those Martin Luther King paintings before. Jack was too busy to be literal. He was teaching. He was making his art. He had his family life. I think Jack has always been focused from the very beginning. When I first came to town, there was a moment when Jack was doing pretty well, when all the African American artists were grouped together in shows, including again William T. Williams, Al Loving, Peter Bradley, Mel Edwards, and so on. That lasted for a little bit, and then it faded away. In the ‘70s, they gained some visibility again as I remember I was in grad school at the time. I should mention that it was a real special kind of camaraderie to know each other as painters. Like, you’re a painter, I’m a painter. We’re both painters, which implies we’re sort of beyond the race issue, that we were trying to reach something that was less personal and more universal.

Rail: It’s like Coltrane and Henry Threadgill, for an older generation to a younger one.

Whitney: Yeah, exactly. You just knew that you were a radical person and you don’t want to be the only one. And it was a big thing knowing Jack was in it for the long haul. I knew, myself, it’s gonna be a long haul, like Jack, when I got to town, I saw everything and tried to figure out where I fit in—from Philip Guston to Clement Greenberg and the Color Field, to Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, you know the whole Leo Castelli ensemble. And I soon discovered that I didn’t fit in. I knew in those days, it’s gonna be a long haul. I think Jack was the same way with his work. Once Jack figured out, I figured out too that none of us fit in anywhere. So the mental support of each other was huge.

Rail: Did you hang out with Jack at Max’s Kansas City or other bars ever?

Whitney: No, you wouldn’t see him at any bar. He was too busy with his work and his home life. And he and Mary went away in the summer to Greece. So, you didn’t see him on the street when everyone was out, but people always talked about him. His students loved him. You can’t remember anyone saying one bad thing about Jack Whitten. One thing, you and I know, Jack had a lot of great stories, and I love to tell them. You couldn’t get a word in edgewise sometimes. [Laughs] The thing about Jack, he had a wealth of information, not just materials that came out from his life journey.

Rail: You get that sense of history of the past, present, and future all in one when you go to his studio. It’s all embodied in his ancestral altar, along with all sorts of postcards, photographs, memorabilia, etc. that he tacked up on one big wall. It seemed as though he had lived many lives before this one.

Whitney: That’s true. You get this feeling that Jack was going to live forever. And the secret was Jack had made a decision early on how he saw racism can eat away at people. And he wasn’t going to go there. Being a painter, I had to deal with that fact, which was and always will be there. Jack was really one of the only few who was just so steady and courageous. Whatever it took him to not go there. If it meant teaching, it meant teaching. It meant whatever he had to do to maintain the art. And the idea of going away for the summer and getting out of this goddamn place to save yourself—to not get too crazy—he got that down. Especially for African Americans who don’t get out of here, because they think that everyone outside of the U.S. wouldn’t like them. Well, that wasn’t the case with Jack. He knew how to take care of business. He had a building on Lispenard Street, an amazing studio on Crosby, a summer home in Greece. After 9/11, Jack and Mary sold the building and bought a firehouse-turned-studio and an apartment in Queens. He really figured out a lot in terms of his life and how to maintain his life.

Rail: Would you say, how Jack and Mary figured their own way, including going to Crete every summer, that they paved the way for you and Marina to create your own, including going away to Italy every summer?

Whitney: Yeah, definitely! We didn’t wait until we had money to live the way we live. You know, you’re supposed to make your career, become successful, then get a place. Also, why would you go away when you should be out in Long Island or here working on your career in the summertime? Jack didn’t wait until he got his work shown at Hauser & Wirth, then get a place, and whatever else. Jack knew, no matter what: I’m gonna make great art, I’m going to have a great life. It wasn’t about the New York art world, it wasn’t about money. “I’m gonna have this life no matter what.” And that’s what inspired me—no matter what. Jack as a great painter is inseparable from Jack the courageous human being.

Contributors

Phong Bui

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

Stanley Whitney

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