Jack Whitten Retrospective Comes to the Walker Art Center

Decades of modern artwork show the artist’s evolution

Jack Whitten artist
photo courtesy of alexander gray associates, New york

Moving from one room to the next in the Walker’s Jack Whitten retrospective, you might well get the feeling that you’re witnessing the interplay between four or five different abstract visionary painters: one creating dim windows seemingly into the afterlife, the next relying on bold visual dynamics, another conjuring the impersonal visual hiss of the cathode ray tube, the last crafting in defiant colors images writ large in intricate mosaics. 

You’d be wrong, of course. They’re all the work of one man: the Alabama-born artist who came of age in the Civil Rights era and began his painting career in New York in the 1960s. 

“We had a saying in the sixties that still affects me,” Whitten says. “Be interested in the journey and not the destination. That was a mantra of ours. And if there is a destination, I don’t even want to know about it. Then maybe the juices will stop flowing.”

At 75, Whitten has the warm bearing of someone comfortable with the winding road of that selfsame journey—he’s as much at ease dropping an f-bomb as waxing on the relationship between the future and the eternal now.

Jack Whitten art
ny battle ground, 1967, oil on canvas; courtesy of the artist; alexander gray associates, new york; and zeno x gallery, © jack whitten/artists rights society (ars), new york

“I hear from a lot of younger people to avoid art history at all costs,” Whitten says, when discussing the influence of past painters on his work. “They say they don’t want to be bothered. I think that’s stupid—I have no other way of putting it.”

The Walker exhibit includes early works from Whitten that have rarely been exhibited—haunting “ghost” paintings like shades from the Classical afterlife. His subsequent paintings from the 1970s exist in the same galaxy as smeared, restless Jackson Pollocks (he used custom-made tools including rakes to conjure uncanny textures). By the time we’re in the present day, his use of tiles made of paint reflect pixilation and hard-drive realities.

Jack Whitten portrait
photo courtesy of alexander gray associates, new york

“It is the digital age,” Whitten says. “I believe in the arts as reflecting the times we’re living in. I’ve met people on the other end, who believe in the rejection of the present. I’m aware of that, but I’m not one of those people. Why should I go out and paint a 15th-century landscape? Give me a break. It’s not that I don’t like 15th-century landscapes, but what would be the point?”

The exhibit includes a new intricate, large-scale painting called “Soul Map” that Whitten created after being informed there was an empty wall perfect for a debut—he calls it the art-world equivalent of a “Mafia proposition.” It’s placed in view of his mammoth, jarringly provocative “9-11-01,” and both feel startlingly of the moment in a time when technology and society both sharpen and blur mass narratives. 

“As an abstract painter, I’m painting things that I can’t see,” he says. “You’re dealing with stuff that is cerebral. You can’t see it. And a lot of stuff that affects us every day is coming through science and technology—even the people inventing this stuff can’t see it. An astrophysicist has a tool to cite things, mathematicians use equations—but they can’t see that [stuff] at some point.”

Jack Whitten Abstract Art
Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994, acrylic, molasses, copper, salt, coal, ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade on canvas; courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund ©Jack Whitten/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Conversation with Whitten keeps returning to the topic of time. For a live-in-the-moment guy, he also looks back via dedications in his work to figures both private and public. 

“The memorializing has been with me since the ’60s,” he says. “My oldest brother, Tommy, he was a jazz musician and died in a horrible fire in his apartment in 1967—that was my first memorializing painting. Believe it or not, that one was destroyed in a fire in my studio, along with a memorial painting to JFK and one to Nat ‘King’ Cole. It’s like facing death, the loss, the passing that I have no control over. Each one of us has to find a way to deal with the grief—if we don’t, we go crazy. I have found that I can use my trade to innovate the grief. It helps.”

When he’s finally asked if he still finds inspiration in today’s world, his eyes gleam over the tops of his glasses. 

“I like to say yes.” He laughs. “That keeps me feeling young. If I lose that momentum and acceleration, then I’d say, Jack Whitten is getting too [expletive] old. Keep it in motion. Keep it flowing.”

Jack Whitten Abstract Artwork
Dead Reckoning I, 1980, acrylic on canvas; courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Bill Whitten ©Jack Whitten/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

“Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting”
Walker Art Center
through January 24, 2015