Jack Whitten, who died this weekend at age 78, cut across a lot of lines in his art and in his life. He was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, when Jim Crow laws were used to enforce segregation. He heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in a church in Alabama in 1957, and talked to him briefly, while a freshman at Tuskegee University. He participated in the Civil Rights movement, encountering white-sanctioned anger and rabid incivility. It took courage and determination to do these things. It took more than courage not to become bitter about what happened then or later.
In 1960, Whitten got on a bus and came to New York and studied at Cooper Union, where he was the only black student in his class. During this time, he met Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Barnett Newman, as well as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis. He recognized the importance of being who he was at that moment in time, as he told Kathryn Kanjo in an interview for the catalogue of the 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting:
Can you imagine what this meant for me? I’m getting information from both sides of the divide and, believe me, we’re talking a divide. Those divides did not meet. By being a student — my coming in at that opportune time — I had access to both sides of the divide. In retrospect, this was the best thing that could have happened to me, a young black kid from Alabama — from the background that I came out of — to have access to these kinds of people. I am talking mentor figures.
In 1965, shortly after he graduated from Cooper Union, Whitten’s work was included in a four-person show at Allan Stone. He had solo shows there in 1968 and ’70. While critics have pointed out the influence of Abstract Expressionism on these early works, something he readily acknowledged, I was struck by the other sources he was drawing upon: the high key cacophonies of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; the “simultaneous moment” in Pavel Tchelitchew’s painting “Hide-and-Seek” (1942); the late figurative work of Jackson Pollock, just to name a few. He was working in a way that ignored the distinction between abstraction and figuration, another divide.
The idea of purity held no interest for Whitten, and the reasons seem obvious. When you say that paint must be paint, you are aligning yourself with one side of the divide, a goal that Whitten never pursued. Could paint be paint as well as capable of doing something more? Black, after all, wasn’t just another color in a can.
Whitten understood that you couldn’t fit into something that has no room for you. Artists would accept him, but not the art world, where Jim Crow-like laws were unspoken but effective. Stanley Whitney remembers meeting Whitten when he was 22, in what he called the “Color Field scene,” which had “great parties.” But going to a party and being accepted are two different things. Here is what Whitney said about it:
[Clement] Greenberg would be in the corner with his “people” who you couldn’t talk to. If you went over there, they’d stop and look at you and not talk.
Think about it: de Kooning and Guston talk to you, but Greenberg and his “people” don’t.
By 1970, Whitten had reinvented himself, and would go on to do it a number of times in his career. In 1974, he had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which featured paintings from his Slab series. In these works, he poured and pooled different layers of acrylic paint onto a canvas. He then wiped the paint in a single gesture, producing a blurred, striated effect that has been compared to “frozen motion.”
You would think that one thing would lead to another, and that a solo show at the Whitney would result, at the very least, in some kind of gallery representation. But check Whitten’s exhibition record and you will see that this was not the case (nor was it the case for Melvin Edwards, who had a solo show at the Whitney in 1970). You kept your day job, and you continued to make art, or you succumbed. The work had to be the reward. What else could you look forward to?
When Whitten did the Slab paintings, he knew that they were unlike anything else being made at the time. He knew that he had done something special: he had embraced his separateness without announcing it. Neither he nor his work fit in. He was not going to accommodate himself to the whims of others. He would not go to the world; the world would have to come to him. Luckily, he lived long enough to see that begin to happen.
Whitten never made work that was charming, kitschy, or ingratiating, which are the moves of the privileged. He did not try to win viewers over. His work resists easy interpretations. He never stooped. You have to be supremely confident to do all this. And to keep doing so, even when almost no one is looking, is the example that Whitten set for others. He kept moving and making. He did so with grace, honesty, and elegance. I never heard him complain about what did not happen or what should have been. He had a wonderful laugh and big sweet smile. He talked about his life, but never bragged about what he had experienced. In this way, Whitten became a mentor, inspiration, and much else for many others, myself included.