In 1985, abstract artist Jack Whitten wrote in his studio log, “I WANT TO PUT THE MAGIC BACK IN PAINTING.” With surfaces that ripple, crack, and glisten, as though a light underneath is seeping through, Whitten’s paintings are certainly magical. His ability to create this impression primarily using acrylic paint alone—through an extremely complex, labor-intensive process of scrapping, painting, and pouring—only adds to this magic.
Much like his art, Whitten’s writing is dense and forceful, with something underneath struggling to reach the surface. Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed, a new book published by Hauser & Wirth, reproduces a selection of studio notes and writings spanning his five-decade career, from his studies at Cooper Union in the 1960s to his receipt of the 2015 National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Though Whitten passed away in January, several months before the book’s publication, he worked closely with editor Katy Siegel on the conception and selection.
These “studio notes,” as Whitten called them, reveal him to be a deeply sensitive man at war with himself and the sociopolitical structures he hoped his painting could transcend. In a September 1994 entry, he writes: “No Religion, No Politics, No sex, No Autobiographical Pretense, or Historical References, No Identities whatsoever, No commerce or Market ideologies. I WANT ART.” Whitten longed to create art unburdened by social restrictions and expectations, often especially limiting for black artists like himself.
Confident that abstraction, rather than realism, was the way toward this goal, Whitten chronicled the evolution of his idiosyncratic painting methods in his journals. At times, he seems to be on the verge of an artistic breakthrough: “Without thinking I was using a flooring chisel and chipping away the impasto,” he writes in March 1973. “The results was pure bright color shinning [siq] through a field of dark ominous undefinable color.” His notes highlight his fierce vision: “To my knowledge no one has arrived at an image by using a flooring chisel to chip away paint…. no one has used a carpenter’s saw either or a shoe shine brush or an afro comb, or a plumber’s plunger… Maybe I’ve been doing something new all along without knowing it.”
In other instances, his words betray a fevered anguish over his own creative progress. In a November 1973 entry, presented as a facsimile, he scribbles: “Back to my painting—exhausting myself—sweating, crying + cursing the very ground I walk on and enjoying every minute of it!”
Throughout his notes, he struggles to define his style, experimenting variously with calling himself an Abstract Photo-Realist, an anti-Cubist painter, or a Digital Expressionist. “I must stop trying to name what I am doing,” he writes in a 1974 entry. Genre categorizations all fell in the shadow of Western art history, which he included in his 1992 list of 20 things “to avoid at all costs”—in addition to formalism, abstract expressionism, and “black bourgeois aesthetic”. In April 1975, he wrote, “May the history of Western painting die within me”.
Whitten used lists throughout his journals to track his progress and goals. In his 1998 studio log, reproduced on the back cover of the book as well as inside, Whitten expressed his aversion to the ego-driven pursuit of art stardom in a list of 32 objectives, which include:
- REMOVE THE EUROPEAN SIGNIFICANCE OF TOUCH IN PAINTING.
- ONLY FOOLS WANT TO BE FAMOUS (AVOID AT ALL COST)
- AVOID ART-WORLD STRATEGIES.
- ERASE ALL KNOWN ISMS.
While he was plagued by financial instability—he often writes of his money issues—he stayed focused on his painting problems, as he was painfully aware of how racism in the art world stifled his commercial success. In the mid-seventies, famed curator Henry Geldzahler finally acquired one of his paintings, then displayed it in a show of “Selected Black Artists”, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After seeing the show, Whitten, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, railed against tokenism: “The painting will always be used in shows of this type so that the Metropolitan can say ‘Look, we have one!’” he wrote in his journal. “Indeed, they have one but what does this do for me? Does this represent a special category for me? The most accepted black abstract artist? A pawn to keep the mass at bay? Will this painting be shown in regular museums shows at the Metropolitan as a representation of current American abstract painting?”
Unfortunately, time has not eased such fears, as many artists of color, women, and other minority groups still find themselves relegated to identity-specific exhibitions. In 1976, Whitten reflected on how artists might rebel against this pigeonholing: “I try to emphasize as much as possible the need for black artists to go all the way now . . . not stopping at social-realism but to press ahead and investigate what the world of the abstract has to offer.”
As he tells art historian Andrianna Campbell in a 2015 interview excerpted in the book, there was no model for the type of career he sought at the time he was painting: “Norman [Lewis] was the only one that had a substantial presence in the community as a black abstract painter. That was my attraction, and that’s why I wanted to speak with him.”
As touchstones for his own work, Whitten often cites Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, all of whom he both celebrates and criticizes in his studio notes. Other artists he looks to include Jackson Pollock (“IF IT IS TRUE THAT JACKSON POLLACK [sic] BROKE THE ICE, I AM SHOWING WHAT’S UNDERNEATH THE ICE”, December, 1987); Willem de Kooning, whom he lectured about at the Whitney in 2015; Mark Rothko (“Art is not substitution for religion, someone should have told Rothko that”, October 1979); and Picasso, whose use of African sculpture plagued Whitten (“AFRICAN ART HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH CUBISM BUT CUBISM HAD A LOT TO DO WITH AFRICAN ART”, February 1991).
These notes on other artists range from brief asides to lengthy critiques. In the book’s introduction, Siegel writes that the selection of notes was edited to remove Whitten’s harsher thoughts on his fellow artists. It seems hard to believe this criticism was any harsher than that he directed at himself. Again and again, Whitten writes of creating a painting, only to write a few months later that he’s destroyed it. While this was usually due to formal problems he later discovered with the work, his self-doubt certainly stemmed in part from anxieties about the role of art in the broader cultural and political landscape. This was especially true in the 1960s, when he participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
In the essay Siegal commissioned Whitten write on this time period, from which there are fewer studio notes than other decades, he reflects on the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing, asking, “How can anyone justify staying in the studio when your people are dying? What is the artist supposed to do? Start killing White people? What justifies killing for any cause? These were and remain the most difficult questions for me considering the politics of race in America.”
These questions still loom for him during his 2015 interview with Campbell, in which he says, “In the Black community, [social] issues and the politics have been so pressing that discussions of ideas and of concepts just come up with less urgency.” Formal artistic concerns seem trivial in comparison to “the political pressures, the pressures of survival of a whole history as a people here in America.” This sheds new light on his constant financial struggles.
Whitten doesn’t pretend to have answers these big questions. In his writing, he simply finds the strength to return to his studio and try to make sense of things through painting. Despite his lack of wealth or early success, Whitten found solace in making art. In December 1985, he proclaims, “I am black, 46 years old, angry, tired of teaching, tired of being poor[…] What am I to do?” The answer, of course, is paint.
Over ten years later, he writes in capital letters: “MY PAINTING PROCESS IS NOT LABOR INTENSIVE IT’S LOVE INTENSIVE.”
Eventually, the love goes both ways in Whitten’s story. In 2016, he writes of receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama: “I have been on the battlefield all of my life and I continue to fight: I AM A WARRIOR.” It’s hard to read these later entries, when his success was finally on the rise, knowing that his death was also nearing. “My time has come + there is no reason to slow down,” he writes in September 2016.
In the last journal entry before his death, on January 20, 2018, at age 78, he offered a hopeful prescription for surviving an era of political turmoil: “Art is the only spiritual form that we can depend on. When politics goes amok, when organized religions become political . . . we can always depend on art to pull us through.”
Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed is available from Amazon, Hauser & Wirth, and other online booksellers. Hauser & Wirth Gallery, in Los Angeles, is showing a survey of Whitten’s abstract work, titled Self Portraits with Satellites. A separate exhibition, titled Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017, will open at the Met Breuer in September, traveling from the Baltimore Museum of Art.