Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963 – 2017
New York, NYMet Breuer
September 6 – December 2, 2018
Eschewing the criticality of the minimalist sculpture around him in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jack Whitten, primarily known as a painter, embarked on a course of aesthetic discovery aimed at producing sculpture that radiated the energy of collective memory and reflected the power of various individuals, living and dead, to whom he chose to pay tribute through his work. He emerged from the roots of constructed, as well as fluid, formalism; looking at practitioners such as Antony Caro and Mark di Suvero, and perhaps Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth as well. Whitten combined these contemporary influences with an examination of his own cultural roots through careful study of traditional Kongo (West African) power figures among other African sculptural typologies. Showing a whimsical inclination to switch sides though, the artist also felt out the potential formal capabilities of archaic Greek traditions. In the current exhibition at the Met Breuer, which goes out of its way to educate the viewer on the various historical tropes and models which Whitten clearly observed, absorbed, and at times deftly mimicked, there is much seductive pastiche and several works of true and exalted synthesis. John Lennon Altarpiece (1968) is the most fruitful example of Whitten’s hands-on sculptural researches: pulling together the many strands of inspiration while exhibiting subservience to none. John Lennon Altarpiece abstracts a humanoid torso, indistinct of gender, embodying the devotion to the figure of both Cycladic and Classical Greek sculpture. The glossy wood of the thighs versus the hips and trunk teeming with embedded nails and rough metal objects is a direct appropriation of Central African traditions of juxtaposing textures and adding layers of nostalgic energy to sculpture by the appliqué of nuggets of value. The almost threatening furriness of the torso may further pun at the hair shirt of the beatified musician’s namesake, John the Baptist, a nod to the Christian traditions of Whitten’s upbringing in Alabama.
The majority of the sculptures cleave primarily to a gentle updating of ancient forms though, and we are schooled in Whitten’s more profound originality via painting through the works displayed on the walls. The two dimensional and three dimensional pieces dialogue throughout the show and the viewer watches as bold gestures of adulation and invocations of talismanic and shamanic protection as seen in gorgeous but imitative works such as Memory Container (1972 – 73), The Guardian II (for Mirsini) (1984), and The Guardian III (for Jack) (1986), resonate with the more innovative and ultimately more arresting ominous tribute paintings such as Black Monolith, II (for Ralph Ellison) (1994), Black Monolith, VIII (for Maya Angelou) (2015), and Black Monolith, X (the Birth of Muhammad Ali) (2016). In these enveloping black rectangles, Whitten delineates simple powerful shapes by encrusting the canvas with small, irregular, but rectangular acrylic pieces, forming a mosaic. The lacunae between the units are wide enough that both the overall form and the spider’s web network of interstitial spaces are prominent, creating a portrait of the individual’s aura while simultaneously acknowledging that the whole is a sum of its parts. These paintings achieve the goal as tributes to great individuals while also representing the contributions of community as well.