In the more than fifty years since Jack Whitten’s work was first included in a four-person show at Allan Stone in 1965, the year after he graduated from Cooper Union, he has proven impossible to characterize. While this is very much to Whitten’s credit, I also think that the radical stylistic and material transformations his work has undergone partly contributed to why — for many decades — he remained an underappreciated artist. Another reason was because he began exhibiting his unaffiliated paintings in the 1960s, when painting was considered dead or dying, and critics and institutions began championing artists who didn’t paint. Adding to this neglect is the fact that it is easy to miss the achievements of a black abstract painter if you are a white critic busy celebrating Conceptual Art. Because of a variety of so-called color-blind prejudices such as these, the art world did not begin to seriously deal with Whitten’s merger of formal inventiveness and emotional content until the past decade, when he entered his seventies. And, if you ask me, he still hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves.
The Sixties in America, in contrast to the optimism of the immediate postwar era, was frightening for everyone, full of fear, death, anger, resistance, and mourning — a daily consciousness of terror that never quite abated. During that time many of the most celebrated artists were the ones who were disengaged from this reality. They were content to fill the white box with their historically important works. This was the dilemma that Whitten, who was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, deep in the heart of the legally segregated South, faced. In an interview with Robert Storr that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail (September 2007), this is how he talked about the Sixties:
At that time, I was doing the best I could to contain the kind of imagery I was seeing. It wasn’t an intellectual situation, but rather, it was an emotional necessity. As a matter of fact, they’re my autobiographical paintings. I mean, I was going through a serious crisis in my life. But then everybody was. The whole race issue forced me to pick myself apart subconsciously until I met people like LeRoi Jones, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence who had found other solutions for their creative lives.
The turmoil the artist alludes to, and his approaches to containing it, can be seen in the exhibition Jack Whitten: The Sixties at Allan Stone Projects (September 8 – October 22, 2016). While writers have unanimously talked about the influence of Abstract Expressionism on these works, I am more interested in the other sources that inspired him because they are so unlikely and, at the moment when he was getting something out of them, unfashionable.
In his work – and here I am thinking of the painting “Zen Master” (1968) and the double portrait in pastel on paper, “Untitled” (1964) — he has absorbed aspects of Jackson Pollock’s late figurative work, such as “Portrait and a Dream” (1953), which many influential critics of the time considered a step back from his abstractions and therefore a failure, as well as the nuanced turbulence of Milton Resnick’s “Burning Bush” and “AS. 2” (both 1959), the high-key cacophonies of the German Expressionists, especiallyErnst Ludwig Kirchner, and the “simultaneous moment” found in Pavel Tchelitchew’s painting “Hide-and-Seek” (1942). What strikes me about this list is that Whitten didn’t try to fit in and didn’t seem the least bit interested in accommodating himself to the art world’s narrative of exclusivity. He eschewed the bold gestures and tight geometry of what many consider the distinctly American characteristics of Abstract Expressionism. Post-Painterly abstraction, Minimalism, and Pop Art didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he was interested in a concept that was largely dismissed by those in the know – Tchelitchew’s “simultaneous moment” — which helps us understand why this understanding of seeing as an anxious state is pervasive in his work throughout his career.
For one thing, his pastel landscapes, in which disembodied faces mysteriously appear, underscore how haunted Whitten felt by all that he had witnessed going on around him, in his daily life as well as the country and the world. This is why memorializing is central to his work. The dead don’t go away just because we get rid of their bodies. The blue hair, bright red lips, violet and green skin, and black circles and holes for eyes on the two heads in “Untitled” evoke torture, mutilation, and murder. When he was sixteen and growing up in Besemer, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched, beaten, mutilated, and shot in Money, Mississippi, a little less than 250 miles away, because he supposedly flirted with a white woman. How do you make the terror of that time palatable? Whitten seems to have found a way.
The three large paintings in the exhibition mark Whitten’s turn away from the overtly figurative to a form of subliminal figuration. In “Zen Master,” he fills the composition with strokes of thinly applied paint. While the mass of agitated brushstrokes initially seem like abstract marks, prolonged looking reveals a multitude of heads and figures populating the painting. In the middle of the composition and close to the top edge, there are two eye-like shapes — one of which is crowned by large lashes (like a spread of feathers) — done in varying densities of black. A column of white rays extends from each eye. Is the occupied landscape what the Zen Master sees or imagines? It is hard not to think that the Master is wrestling with his vision (or is it his memory) of a circle from Dante’s Hell. The heads and bodies seem to be emerging from the paint, even as they are submerged within it.
In the large, nearly square “CHE!” and “Boschville” (both 1969), Whitten uses a squeegee and other tools to apply paint as well as scrape it away. While the rivulets of watery paint and the luminous glow of the surface suggest that he is using techniques associated with stain painting, his reworking of the surface, with multiple layers of paint and varying textures, goes against what we think of as stain painting. The title “CHE!” and the date it was painted — two years after the Cuban revolutionary was killed in Bolivia, where the photograph of his corpse on a concrete slab in the laundry room was made to available to the press — suggest that the painting is both a memorial and an attempt (signaled by the exclamation point) to resurrect him or, at least, his spirit. It is hard not to think of the misshapen gray circular form near the top edge and just to the left of the central axis as a head with one red eye outlined in green and an open mouth with blue-green lips. What about the rust-colored drips and thin smears spreading beyond the painting’s edge onto the black border framing it?
In “Boschville” — is the title Whitten’s vision of Besemer or even America? — what are we to make of the white, phallic shape on the left side of painting, pointing down and topped by a large, violent, splashy red brushstroke? What about the red phallic form extending inward from the middle of the painting’s right physical edge, like an accusing finger or prone body? And what about the dark red snake-like form slithering across the canvas to meet it?
In “Zen Master” Whitten’s dense field of brushstrokes created heads and bodies that hover between legibility and illegibility. At some point he must have realized that his work couldn’t get any denser without becoming claustrophobic and airless. By bringing in different tools and applying different viscosities of paint, as he did in “CHE!” and “Boschville,” Whitten opened up a new path for himself. The fact that Whitten did this early in his career and has gone on to open up further pathways more than once, while remaining true to his emotional necessity, is a remarkable story of strength and determination and — dare I say it? — wisdom and forgiveness.
Jack Whitten: The Sixties continues at Allan Stone Projects (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22.