Jack Whitten’s enduring legacy lies in his interweaving of African American, African, and Modernist cultural histories. Known as a formidable painter, he was also one of the least known and most important artists of his generation (Whitten died in 2018 at the age of 78). The title of his recent exhibition at The Met Breuer, “Odyssey,” alludes to a personal journey as well as to the geographically diverse sources that influenced him.
Whitten’s work richly demonstrates the notion that whatever escapes restrictions escapes categorization. Unfortunately, what escapes categorization can also escape detection. Whitten himself made the melancholy observation that what allowed him to break conceptual barriers was that, as an African American, he flew under the art world radar; no one was paying attention anyway. In addition to the essential, ongoing racism and sexism of the art world, the art community of his era was particularly rigid—working across genres was perceived as an inability to focus. This is only one of the reasons why Whitten’s sculptures were not publicly exhibited until 2017, when they were shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In “Odyssey,” several major abstract paintings that together constitute a tribute to black history, accompanied and informed a nearly unknown body of work—a collection of 40 carved and assembled sculptures consisting of a diverse assortment of materials and techniques. These works show the influence of Whitten’s Southern childhood and the Civil Rights movement, as well as the material traditions of African, Minoan, and Cycladic art. There are also strong links to folk art and the work of self-trained artists such as Thornton Dial.
Whitten began carving wood in the 1960s after encountering the Metropolitan Museum’s extensive collection of African art. In 1986, he wrote, “My intention is to re-invent Cubism as pertaining to a modern technological society, taking it back to its original source: the African continent…I want an abstract interpretation built with a black sensibility.” Black identity is central to Whitten’s work; rather than setting the sculptural legacies of African and European cultures in opposition, he blends them. At the same time, the intellectual and innovative power of his work meets and beats mainstream formalism on its own turf.
Whitten separated his painting and sculptural practices geographically; the sculptures were created over the past five decades during his summers on Crete. They are elegantly crafted and highly refined, demonstrating enormous ingenuity. His takeaway from encounters with African and Cycladic sculpture was how these objects project their commemorative, symbolic, and protective functions. Many of Whitten’s sculptures resemble African power objects and fetishes. He felt that “there was coded information in African carving,” something containing “a cosmic worldview that has evolved through the millennia.”
His materials include marble, wood, nails, copper, bone, electronic parts, and personal mementos. They are cut, chiseled, laminated, and assembled; the surfaces range from raw to highly polished. Some works are pure carvings; others are studded with detail and embellishment. Whitten’s sculptures constitute a cross-cultural, trans-historical, cross-media aesthetic conversation that simultaneously explores connections between abstraction and figuration.