On ViewHauser & Wirth
January 28 – April 4, 2020
Jack Whitten. Transitional Space. A Drawing Survey opens a fresh perspective on the work of a singular and intensely cerebral artist. Deeply involved with materials, Whitten is well known for having devised novel tools to make massive paintings. Here, he shows himself equally at home on a modest scale and with a range of new mediums. He brings a light touch to the 76 works on view, some of which seem to have been conjured from thin air. Like the Met’s 2017 exhibition of Whitten’s sculptures—a body of work unknown even to some close associates—this exhilarating survey exposes works rarely shown in the artist’s lifetime and inspires a more comprehensive consideration of his accomplishments. From early gestural landscapes to recent works that conflate sidewalks and star chambers, Whitten’s drawings argue for a universal perception that transcends established artistic categories, embracing subjects as diverse as jazz, political violence, and gardens in outer space.
The show spans five decades, but nearly a third of the works date from the 1960s, a crucial period when Whitten attended Cooper Union and immersed himself in the New York art world. Early works in dialogue with Gorky and de Kooning include expressionist female heads and the darkly opaque Form 2 (1965), a looming silhouette in oil and wax, which coincide with his awakening interest in African sculpture and the sense of “presence” in materials that culminate in his “Monoliths.” Head 1 (1965), on the other hand, prefigures the use of frottage and other processes linked to photography that would become so important in later work. Under psychological stress, as reported in a 2009 interview with the Archives of American Art, Whitten saw faces in everything—particularly wood grain and various found objects. These faces emerge in the gestural fields of richly worked landscapes like King’s Garden #3 (1968). Part of a series of fourteen watercolors responding to the assassination of Martin Luther King, the garden becomes a site of animistic regeneration and ecstatic fusion that gestures to Whitten’s roots in the Pentecostal church. Art serves to restore balance in the face of tragedy and rage, to maintain the stance of sovereign intelligence Whitten pursued through his ongoing assimilation of scientific and philosophical ideas. Serving a similar restorative purpose, Looking for Bin Laden #7 (Second Set) (2008), which suggests the world of drones and military surveillance with smudges of xerox toner, attests to the enduring anger of an eye-witness to 9/11.
The four “Transitional Space” paintings (1969) which lend the show its title step away from what Whitten calls the “autobiography” of his earlier work towards abstraction, and Whitten moved decisively in 1970 to eliminate dramatic gestural mark-making and focus instead on rasterized fields and submerged indexical traces. “Images are photographic, therefore I must photograph my thoughts,” he had declared with oracular force in 1964, and the effects of this epiphany play out in his layered acrylic “slabs,” but also in his drawings, where landscape yields to abstracted space, and gestural improvisation is subsumed by material surface. Northside Railway Station #7 (1978), for example, floats patches of acrylic slip, a device borrowed from painting, on a field of colored pencil hatchings that capture light and suggest submerged forms. The drawings entice with a veritable feast of materials: watercolor and charcoal combine with metal filings, glitter, xerox toner, and more esoteric substances like Black Cat and Renaissance wax. Like Degas, Whitten was inspired by the richness of fine pastels, but didn’t hesitate to mix them with other, more commonplace mediums. And the support, too, is an active participant: list the high quality papers identified by the checklist—Arches, Ingres, Waterford—and they read like Proust’s enumeration of train stops on the way to Combray.
Whitten conceived the page as a material presence. This is true even when it is reduced to essentials, as it is for Site # 2 (1986), which is laid out on a distressed page with burnt edges, damage that embodies the historical trauma of the African diaspora. In Broken Grid VIII (1996) Whitten used collaged drawings to adapt the mosaic technique of his paintings to something resembling a satellite photograph. This open, flexible new space supports the addition of indexical elements, like rubbings of industrial surfaces that simultaneously convey the specific “presence” of their sources and imply a coordinate system capable of transposing the viewer anywhere. These rubbings are analogous to the raster Whitten created by raking the surface of his acrylic paintings—both devices unify the image while opening it to various kinds of coded information.
In other works, Whitten’s attention to materiality achieves a cosmic scale. The “Space Garden” series (2006), for example, organizes nebulous outpourings of powdered pigments and glitter into celestial bodies of a universe unified by molecular science and soul. Four Studies for Cosmic Bopper (1993) fuse this universal vantage point with content that’s closer to home; here Whitten compressed richly worked clouds of charcoal into vertical columns that celebrate unapologetic blackness, while electronic flickers of light recall the mosaic colors of his monument to Ornette Coleman Black Monolith, IX (Open Circle For Ornette Coleman) (2015). In Whitten’s wide open universe, the casually composed Loop (In and Out) #4 (2012) recalls traces of particles in a cloud chamber. Whitten saw an abstracted autobiographical reference in its improvisatory movement: liberated in an expanded space, he achieved the speed he sought in his initial break with gestural marks.