Born in Besemer, Alabama, in 1939 — during the Jim Crow era when rigid segregation was in effect — Jack Whitten belongs to the generation of abstract artists that emerged in the early 1970s, more than a decade after Minimalism, Pop Art, and Color Field first came on the scene. If we take a generation to mean about five years, then Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), Elizabeth Murray (1940–2007), and Thomas Nozkowski (b. 1944) also belong to this generation. I mention these three artists because each of them hit their stride in the 1970s, or, after the “1960s,” when, according to Douglas Crimp, in his essay “The End Of Painting” (1981), “painting’s terminal condition finally seemed impossible to ignore. The symptoms were everywhere…”
While all four artists are innovators, Whitten is the most relentless experimenter with materials in a generation of abstract artists who have yet to receive their due, perhaps because no one has come up with a catchy and marketable name for them, like the “Minimalists” or “The Pictures Generation.” By materials, I do not just mean paint. Whitten has also used Styrofoam, hair, eggshells, molasses, copper, and coal ash in his works.
Whitten’s preoccupation with experimentation has deep roots in his experience. In an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith that appeared in BOMB (Summer 1994), Whitten stated:
I’m convinced today that a lot of my attitudes toward painting and making, and experimentation came from George Washington Carver. He made his own pigments, his own paints, from his inventions with peanuts. The obsession with invention and discovery impressed me.
One other thing Whitten said to Goldsmith seems particularly relevant:
It took 20 years to get into a position where I could work myself out of history. Every painter wants to escape art history. And now there’s a curve that’s leading me out. My emphasis on pop culture, video, science, on the urban environment, and everything on up to the Big Bang theory excites me. I see that as a way, using those metaphors, that I can escape art historical references.
These were not the first thoughts that I had when I went to see the exhibition, Jack Whitten, at Hauser & Wirth (January 26–April 8, 2017), the artist’s first with this international gallery. My first response was luscious perplexity, which only the very best artists are able to swiftly induce in viewers. How does one visually account for this work and all its contradictions?
The first paintings to greet the view belong to the series, The Portals. While the three similarly sized paintings share the same format of a circle floating inside a square, their materiality and the process by which they were made distinguishes them. They are not variations on a theme, but distinct works within a series. Whitten works magic with acrylic: he can get it to look like a polished slice of stone, a sheet of rumpled industrial plastic, or the pitted surface of a moon seen through a powerful telescope.
Whereas the circle and the title suggest a doorway or an opening, the dense material surface of the circle contradicts this. The opposition between opening and solid barrier became more apparent as I moved closer to the painting: no one achieves a surface like Whitten. In “The Third Portal” (2016), he has filled the area around the solid black circle’s uneven surface with tiny, glittering, mosaic-like pieces. Other bits of color and light are scattered throughout the deep blue bricks. The bricks are made of paint that has been cast and cut, but they do not come across as machine produced.
Since the early 1970s, Whitten has been a process painter who has invented a variety of ways to start and complete a painting. In his paintings from the 1970s, he used various homemade and repurposed devices to pull acrylic paint across the painting’s surface. There was a feeling of speed, of looking at something that was blurred, at a frozen motion. In the paintings in this show in which Whitten filled the surface with his cast bricks, I had the feeling that the artist was slowing down time — that the joy he gets from making these paintings is of a different nature than what he experienced in his earlier work. The other thing that strikes me about the paintings, particularly the ones from his series of Quantum Walls, is the way he brings matter and immateriality, the visceral and invisible, together.
The spectrum of experience in these paintings is vast. One can stand at the far end of this spacious gallery and, as you walk closer to the painting, something happens at every step. First there is this ghostly apparition (or discoloration) on the painting’s faceted surface. It hovers between legibility and illegibility. In the largely violet “Quantum Wall, III (The Geometry of Being An Octopus)” (2016), the darker shades of black and violet “staining” the wall appear to be on the verge of coalescing into an image but never do. Whitten seems to be getting at our desire to see, particularly in the realm of science, and how our expectations can ever be met. For each thing we learn leads to more questions for which we do not have the answers. It is as if Whitten’s “walls” underscore the physical limit of our perceptions: the “stains” on them remind us that much of reality exists beyond our grasp.
The conversation Whitten establishes between visibility and invisibility goes in myriad directions — from social matters of race to philosophical and scientific speculations about the nature of the universe. At the same time, Whitten’s walls evoke the invisible and forgotten laborer. His masonry of cast paint evokes the anonymous laborers that built the Americas, from those who inlaid the Mayan mosaics, to the slaves who built the White House, to the bricklayers who colored the mortar the way Frank Lloyd Wright wanted, to the welders who erected Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub in Lower Manhattan. By making work that shares something with the constructions of anonymous laborers, Whitten reminds us that there is more to artmaking than fabrication or craftsmanship. Moreover, the world is not divided just into employer and employee, which is a model in need of serious revision. Whitten’s art is a challenge to mainstream thinking on many different levels, from the relationship of subject matter to abstraction to the connection between artmaking and art. Isn’t it time to acknowledge these challenges? Abstract art did not culminate in the 1960s and it is about time we got around to embracing that fact, and not the fake news that institutions and various authorities have repeatedly tried to foist on us.
Jack Whitten continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 8, 2017.