Art

Jack Whitten’s Deeply Personal Portraits and Paintings

Whitten’s paintings pay homage to his influences, including artists and close family. He thought of his works as “gifts” — personal dedications that reveal his subjects’ nuances and edges.

Jack Whitten, “Self Portrait II” (2014), acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 in (© the Estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy the Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth, photo by John Berens)

LOS ANGELES — I like to think Jack Whitten is still somewhere in the strokes and shards of his paintings. There, steadily but coyly keeping the beat as viewers follow the patterns in his vibrant, abstract tessellations — knowing full well they’ll soon hit a snag in an unexpected swath of color or tangle of dried acrylic. This is where Whitten riffs — where the soul, the hum, and the blur of his devil-may-care experiments with paint brim over. Yet throughout Whitten’s 50-year career, it seems that his art was never about himself, but rather about the love and respect for the people who helped make it. Jack Whitten: Self Portrait with Satellites, a small survey at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles of paintings paying homage to such influences as Allen Ginsberg and Arshile Gorky, as well as Whitten’s mother, brother, daughter, and other close family, shows how carefully Whitten thought of his paintings as “gifts” — personal dedications that reveal his subjects’ (and in turn his own) nuances and edges.

Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939 and raised in the segregated South, participating actively in the Civil Rights Movement before moving to New York in 1960 to attend Cooper Union. There, Whitten fell in with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other Abstract Expressionists, but was never really allowed to fit in; Whitten mentioned in talks how he was largely ignored by the painting scene at that time, and maybe for the bulk of his career, for being black and making art that was hard to categorize. Whitten’s paintings hover between the technical and the poignant, bewildering in their precision and felt emotion; they are political not in their content, but just in their defiant, experimental presence.

Installation view, Jack Whitten. Self Portrait With Satellites, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2018 (© the Estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy the Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Mario de Lopez)

Self Portrait with Satellites references two paintings, one square and one circular, of the same name from 1984. The square version is almost entirely gray, until you realize the bits of pink, red, and green emanating from the ricocheting rectangles’ carved-in edges. Floating, satellite-like shapes circle an empty space — perhaps that’s where Whitten continues to reside — but even there you can see Whitten’s tug of oil and acrylic, the materiality choppy and nearly sculptural. Traces of color linger in the swirl, as if Whitten wanted them painted in, but barely. “Jack’s Nest” (1986) shows a similarly evocative restraint; a small painting at 12 by 12 inches, it is made up of a studded white grid that has been sanded down and blurred away in a yellow-green haze. Bright blues and reds trickle into the foam-like border Whitten has raised around the edges; the painting reminds me of a slow sunset or passing car at night wherein light blurs and somehow stays in the air.

In the 1980s, Whitten began making tesserae paintings composed of tiles of dried acrylic. He played off this technique until he passed away in January, and while the majority of his paintings were abstract, Self Portrait with Satellites surprises with a figurative portrait of Whitten himself from 1996, which has only been shown once at G.R.N’Namdi Gallery in Chicago the year it was made. “Self Portrait” (1996) is a mosaic of recycled glass, black walnut, and acrylic on canvas; the edges are undefined because the painting is not stretched over a frame, and the whole thing falls regally like a tapestry. Whitten is rendered as he usually presented himself: fun and nattily dressed — note the ascot, always. Tiles in varying sizes are laid next to each other, their mediums unable to be told apart; little pieces of clear acrylic are suffused with a wisp of bottle green or dust of mocha brown. Under the painting’s surface are rough pencil scribbles that dictated where tiles should be laid to outline the scraggle of Whitten’s hair and bare curve of his smile under that thick mustache.

Jack Whitten, “Mother’s Day 1979 For Mom” (1979), acrylic on canvas, 22 x 22 in (© the Estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy the Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth, photo by John Berens)

“Self Portrait” and Whitten’s figurative practice may be lesser known alongside his abstract work, but portraiture and the deeply personal ran through his practice from start to finish. In works like “Mother’s Day 1979 For Mom” (1979) or “Self Portrait II” (2014), there is always a charged mass — colors lurking beneath the surface or a vortex of built-up, dried acrylic. Something is coalescing, and you wonder, toward what? Why did Whitten keep working and layering? Maybe it was something about the act of doing, the gesture as dedication — Whitten was able to lift the very essence of a person into the verve of his mark.

Self Portrait with Satellites is not laid out in any particular order, and the result is a cross section of an incredibly diverse and fertile career — this review covers only about a fourth of the exhibition. But I’d like to end on a self-portrait. One that reminds me of the Jack Whitten I was lucky enough to briefly talk with a few times. My first art review was of his survey Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, curated by Kathryn Kanjo at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego a few years ago. Whitten walked and talked that opening with a kick in his strut and a hell of a punchline; laughing deeply in his silver-dusted sneakers, there was a glimmer about him that seemed deeply rooted and set at ease. I look at “Self Portrait” (1995), almost elemental in its use of rusted metal and bronze-color paint, and picture Whitten digging in his heels. A painter, here to stay.

Installation view, Jack Whitten. Self Portrait With Satellites at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2018 (© the Estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy the Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Mario de Lopez)

In “Self Portrait,” silver tiles are gingerly positioned next to burnt-black and glistening tiles of acrylic that recall volcanic rock. All the tiles are centered on a piece of found metal nicked with cuts, but some are bejeweled with yellow drops, while others are clear and sprinkled with rust — in the face of discrimination and violence from the art world (and the people outside it), Whitten made painting precious.

Whitten’s mosaics often catch flecks of dirt or whatever in them, and he also kept casting random trinkets and debris throughout his career. His paintings remind me of the unseen dust on enlargers that inevitably gets developed in a photograph — so stubbornly and irrevocably holding the space and time and personality of their very making. Whitten came out of an Abstract Expressionist tradition, but never brooded in elitism; he balanced the smart and the fun, the quiet and the hearty in his paintings with a relentless care for craft. Whitten’s portraits manifest that feeling of understanding someone more than you know; he gave everything to his art, and in turn that generosity became the greatest expression of himself. A soul comes through in Whitten’s painting — not just in the melancholic mood, but also in the click and dance and croon of his material feeling.

Jack Whitten: Self Portrait with Satellites continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 E 3rd St, Los Angeles) through September 23. 

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