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Jack Whitten, "Mask III: For The Children of Dunblane, Scotland" (1996), acrylic and recycled glass on canvas, 66 x 123 inches, (© Jack Whitten Estate; all images courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth, unless otherwise stated; photo by Dan Bradica)

Imagine a technological device so advanced that each byte of storage is able to compress all qualia of a person, all their memories — the biographical nine yards. Now imagine that this encoded data cannot be rationalized with language or theories, but only with empathy. This is the Jack Whitten Object.

The posthumous exhibition I AM THE OBJECT, on view at the capacious Chelsea outpost of Hauser & Wirth, focuses on Whitten’s legacy-defining process: the laborious building-up of thumbnail-sized pieces of acrylic, like masonry, into works that fuse painting and sculpture. Cut from larger castings, he called these three-dimensional units of paint-matter tessera. Each contains its own tiny galaxy of abstract markings, light, and color. Collectively, they induce an excited dance of the eye. It’s mesmerizing. 

Jack Whitten, “Totem 2000 VI Annunciation: For John Coltrane (detail)” (2000), acrylic collage on plywood, 72 x 23 3/4 x 2 inches (photo by Ken Tan/Hyperallergic)

Get nose-close. Look from afar. Ponder the title. Repeat. The experience is thoroughly rewarding. A fierce thinker, Whitten maintained a voracious intellectual appetite, expressed equally through his writings. Inspired by quantum mechanics and traditional African sculpture, he created soulful compositions, topographies of his feelings for individuals who have meant something to him. Whitten distilled such essences into each tessera, yielding works that are complex and arresting.

The sweeping harmonies of John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” materialize in “Totem 2000 VI Annunciation: For John Coltrane” (2000), replete with improvisational bursts of color. Whitten is utterly emotive as a colorist, perhaps owing to the Mediterranean light of Crete, where he and his family summered for many years. The jubilant colors of “Mask III: For The Children of Dunblane, Scotland” (1996), meanwhile, evince tragedy. Lamenting on the shooting massacre, color here represents the young victims trapped under menacing white crosshairs. Not one to shy from contentious issues of a racially divided US, Whitten packs the discontent of a mourning nation into “Totem 2000 IV: For Amadou Diallo” (2000) — a powerful yet tender monument no taller than fifty inches, that meditates on the senseless killing of the 22-year old immigrant from Guinea, who was shot nineteen times by four NYPD officers. 

Jack Whitten, “Windows Of The Mind: A Monument Dedicated To The Power Of Painting!” (1995), acrylic on canvas
102 x 136 inches (© Jack Whitten Estate; photo by Dan Bradica)

“Windows Of The Mind: A Monument Dedicated To The Power Of Painting!” (1995) is the ultimate showstopper. A temple as a brain — could there be a more earnest tribute to the faculties of the human mind? Architectural and anachronistic, its nebulous shadows congeal as though synapses were caught in the creative act. Sooty, singed, and crystalline — there’s charisma in each tessera. (See if you can find Whitten’s signature). This is a chiaroscuro still-life, in praise of the transformative power of paint to depict light.

These days, there is a surfeit of fast and frivolous digital content vying for our attention. That is fine, insofar as the role of art is to engage the mind and the soul on a deeper level. Whitten’s objects do just that in person. They are magnanimous when processed slowly, revealing the manifold lessons of lived experiences.

Installation view, Jack Whitten. I AM THE OBJECT, Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 2020 (© Jack Whitten Estate; photo by Thomas Barratt)

Jack Whitten: I AM THE OBJECT continues through January 23, 2021 at Hauser & Wirth (West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

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Ken Tan

Singapore born, New York based. Likes art, design and culture. Find him on Instagram @kentansg.

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