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BALTIMORE — All human beings contain secret selves. While we cultivate a public persona to attain resources and maximize success, our covert self encloses inferiorities, base desires, and inner wildness. In Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017, the landmark exhibition of master artist Jack Whitten at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a contrast between public and private selves comes into sharp focus. This distinction is manifested by two disparate bodies of work on display: the monumental abstract paintings that have become synonymous with Whitten and the diminutive never-been-shown wooden assemblage sculptures that fill the majority of the galleries.
For the first time, those who have followed his career can see two different sides of Whitten and they’re not reflective, but not Jekyll and Hyde either. Rather, Odyssey presents two fully developed bodies of work designed for radically different purposes: one to dominate the art world and the other to nourish his creative soul. Co-curated by Katy Siegel and Kelly Baum, the exhibition features 40 sculptures made over five decades, and eight paintings from the “Black Monolith” series. Comprised of carved wood and found objects, Whitten’s assemblages are distinctly African-influenced but are also linked to Crete, the island where the NY-based painter sojourned each summer with his family to fish and swim and make sculpture far away from the commercial art world and market.
The private Jack Whitten, the sculptor, allowed himself to be a wanderer with no set destination, improvising with the random objects around him and imbuing them with personal, sentimental, historical, and metaphysical meaning. In this assemblage work Whitten cultivated a deliberate smallness, an intimacy that calls for long stretches of looking to puzzle them together. On Crete he could indulge an affinity with the Malian and Congolese carved wooden sculpture that inspired Western Modernism and could incorporate ideas from ancient Greek mythology with his everyday life and the simple yet devotional act of carving wood.
In “Anthropos #1” (1972), a lanky upright totem of carved mulberry, wild olive wood, linen twine, and wire, Whitten consciously combines an ancient Greek term for humankind and a reference to upright ancient Cycladic figures with the geometric West African wooden tribal carvings and masks that inspired Cubism. Realized just slightly smaller than a human figure, “Anthropos #1” resonates with spiritual energy, and offers an opportunity to consider mythical human archetypes, both heroic and deific.
In “Lucy” (2011), Whitten creates a streamlined female version of earlier carved totems, undulating subtly with hips and waist and breasts of chiseled mulberry, combined with modern materials, like the bits of metal, wire, and glass that function like hair on the top of her head. Named after our oldest pre-human ancestor, Lucy (the 3.18 million-year-old fossilized hominid skeleton found in Ethiopia in the 1970s) the sculpture posits Africa’s centrality in a shared human history. Whitten ups the ante in “Lucy” by positioning her narrow curves atop several blocks of mahogany, stone, and metal, materially suggesting that her roots encompass disparate continents and cultures. As well, he creates visual tension and cohesion in a marriage of dissonant materials like the sculptural bases of Brancusi.
In the sculptural works here, Whitten presents his ideas often on personal, even sentimental terms, a radical departure from the Modernist context from which he made his paintings. Many of the bricolage-based works incorporate everyday items into their structure like “The Guardian I, For Mary” (1983), which joins carved black mulberry wood with locks of his wife’s hair, museum and bus tickets, bones, and wild sage and olive leaves, all placed into the “head” of the sculpture in a compartment covered with clear glass. “Mirsini’s Doll” (1975) is a rounded form with a face and a handle that appears to be worn smooth with use. Created for his daughter as a play object, this figure in Cretan walnut and black mulberry communicates a father’s love for his daughter.
Other guardian and talismanic sculptures, like “Homage to the Kri-Kri” (1985) and “The Death of Fishing” (2007) are festooned with the artist’s expired credit cards, fishing nets and lures, letters, spark plugs, and covered in nails like Kongo minkisi figures, the African ritual pieces that are included as supplemental reference objects in this exhibition. Whitten’s reliquaries and guardians preserve his own memories through his intimate objects; inspired by the minkisi figures, each has a therapeutic dedication that supersedes its role as art object. In addition to functioning as formal and intellectual constructions, Whitten’s sculptural works take on a deeper, personal resonance: They were intended to enrich his everyday life and their making rejuvenated his larger art practice.
Since these works were not created with an explicit intention of exhibition, their display in a museum setting presents interesting problems for the viewer. Odyssey’s three main galleries are filled with thematic clusters of the slightly smaller-than-human-size wooden assemblages. Each piece is animated on its own terms and the accompanying audio guide with clips of the artist talking about the work deepens your relationship to individual pieces. However, these sculptures can also feel crowded and overwhelmed, competing for attention in the large and open institutional space they have been assigned, where you have to force yourself to stop constantly scanning the room to examine each one individually.
Instead, Whitten’s sculptural works beg to be viewed in small grottoes or obscure dark nooks. They ask to be carried, caressed, placed out in the sun in a garden. They feel defiant under bright lights, next to gleaming concrete floors and clean white walls. The curators should not have attempted to recreate Whitten’s Crete, but at least should have considered the context in which the sculptures were made to be experienced. Lighting, space, scarcity, and sound could play a more significant role in isolating individual pieces and allowing a visitor to luxuriate in their small details. In a museum setting Whitten’s sculptural works simply refuse to function the same way as his paintings, and would benefit from a more innovative method of delivery that amplifies their drama piece by piece and reflects their specific, material culture.
A sense of polarity is inherent in this exhibit’s design because Whitten’s two bodies of work were intended for radically different contexts and purpose — both equally relevant and intentional. This disparity likely exists for many creative makers who engage in incongruent practices but feel the pressure to present a coherent story of success. It’s not surprising that Whitten did not show these sculptures during his lifetime, although he did give permission and work with the curators on this show before he died in 2017. According to an interview with Judith Olch Richards for the Smithsonian Archive, Whitten explained that the carving process allowed him to better understand the design of African objects that had deeply inspired him since his college days at Cooper Union. The carving continued as a private art practice for another five decades, allowing Whitten to access a part of himself far from the competitive pressures and critical scrutiny of the art world.
Stepping into the final gallery of paintings, it is jarring to see such a divergence from the sculpture, almost as if two different artists had made these bodies of work. Whitten the painter understood the power of proportion and realized it on a monumental scale. He wielded his ability to manipulate paint into dramatic fissured surfaces that dominate the viewer and gain power from a formal museum setting. For example, “Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant” (2014) built from eight separate panels dominates the room due to its great size. It embodies a universe built from tiny, unique pieces of matter and although the surface of this giant painting is fractured, Whitten imposes cohesion on a state of chaos through intense accumulation. Like the other “Black Monoliths,” this painting overwhelms and dazzles with its frenetic power. Odyssey’s selection of Whitten’s “Black Monolith” series of paintings, intended as memorials for specific individuals, all exude a magnetic force, and feel especially poignant after Whitten’s recent death.
This exhibition offers authentic physical proof that great artists are multi-faceted and that realizing ones own creative potential might involve fifty years of making secret art for the pleasure of the physical act and a growing self-awareness. In Crete, Whitten was able to have total control over his sculptural work, to make it personal because it didn’t need a market or a gallery. It let him value relationships over resources, to value sensuality over commerce, to recharge his creative batteries and ultimately feed that energy back into the painting and sculptural processes that he adored.
Although Whitten has stated that his sculpture has “been the single most important influence on [his] paintings’ plasticity,” the sculpture should never be dismissed as mere sketches for the more serious paintings, but addressed on its own terms as a fully formed practice. Whitten’s three-dimensional work expands the boundaries of the relationship between art and audience by refusing to conform to established art historical dichotomies between Western and non-Western aesthetics, and by breaking down hierarchies between personal narrative and the conceptual, historical, and metaphysical ideas it explores. As an exhibition, Odyssey is a rare chance to experience an authentic, complicated, and dualistic practice, which directly challenges a narrow, modernist history and an art world that emphasizes singularity and competition — offering instead a groundbreaking and expansive view of the purpose and function of art.