Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963 – 2017by William Corwin
MET BREUER | SEPTEMBER 6 – DECEMBER 2
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.
Most of the sculptures in the exhibition utilize a composite spectrum of materials that break away from the modernist standbys of singular cast or chiseled substances. The glisten of polished wood, dull light absorbent patches of appliquéd pale bone and gray metal, and the occasional miniature clear glass window looking into a niche filled with paper, photographs, and sundry objects, such as in The Guardian I (for Mary) (1983) lend the sculptures an ancient, careworn and beautifully pithy quality. Does Whitten succeed in integrating African roots into his own contemporary practice? That’s a far more difficult question. Whitten’s sculptural trajectory is traced from some of the earliest works on display such as the simple carved wood piece Jughead I (1965), heavily derivative of decorated ceramic objects from the American South, to Pluto (2013), one of a series of large marble blade based works hinting at mythological weapons and perhaps Pre-Colombian or Paleolithic knives, but appropriating historical types always seems the focus. At their best, as in the mesmerizing “Shark Bait” (2016); a series of stark and sharp white marble points inlaid onto a smooth rich mulberry substrate, the sculptures imitate ritual objects of indeterminate use. They seem to accommodate African sculpture through the lens of Brancusi: a process of simplification and exaggeration which seems to strengthen the underlying forms without appearing to sacrifice detail. “Shark Bait” bristles with glowing white spines like the tail of dragon or an arcane weapon, and seems wonderfully geographically unplaceable. But these subtexts of danger, hybridity, and power don’t really coalesce until we see very similar aesthetic gestures in paintings such as Black Monolith, VII Du Bois Legacy: for W. E. Burghardt (2014), in which an irregular oval-like form bristles with sharp mosaic fragments like some kind of cross between a stegosaurus and an Acheulean hand axe, signifying the rippling discontent and frustration of genius in the face of oppression. Much attention is spent on Whitten’s powers of observation, but one is left with the (false) impression that his process took place in a vacuum. Indeed, the “Odyssey” of Jack Whitten’s sculptures would benefit from acknowledging the similar quest of Whitten’s contemporary Melvin Edwards to develop a modern African American non-minimalist sculptural aesthetic, or the work of artists such as Bruce Conner or Alan Shields who were both influential as artists working in alternative medias. Such consideration would offer insight into the aesthetic parameters and historical considerations under which Whitten and his fellow artists took what they could use from the past to press ahead.
William Corwin is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.