For the past 40 years, Jack Whitten has utilized abstraction as a rich territory for expression, experimentation, and problem solving. His paintings possess an uncommon energy and physicality, informed by the techniques he mastered working in construction trades of cabinet making and home building.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Jack Whitten was deeply influenced by the injustices of segregation; sermons at the Southern Church of God; the joys of fishing and hunting; and the resourcefulness of his parents. As a young artist in New York in the 1960s, he established a dialogue with key African-American artists (Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis) and many of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters (Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston). The engagement with collage, storytelling, and gesture, as practiced by these modern masters, would inform Whitten in profound ways.
Since the 1970s, Whitten has found it necessary to create his own tools and techniques for use in constructing process-driven paintings: fashioning numerous variations on the Afro-comb, squeegee, rake, and trowel; making moulds of various street surfaces and casting them in acrylic; imbuing paint with gels, powders, and organic matter.
Whitten has said, “In Greek the word for artist is zographos, a combination of zo, ‘of life,’ and graphos, ‘to write.’ An old man said to me one day, as I was telling him about what I do, ‘Zograpois, writer of life. This is your job, you do this.’ When I dedicate paintings it is my way of acknowledging that certain people existed as a spirit and energy. I take material and present it in a way to say that these spirits are here. David Budd, Miles Davis, Norman Lewis, Chris Wilmarth, Romare Bearden. These people existed. I spoke to them, I knew them."
E-Stamp III (Red Velvet: For Marcia Tucker), 2007, on the left of this page, is a recent work dedicated to the founding director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Tucker, who died in 2006, was curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1969 to 1977, during which time she organized Whitten’s first solo museum exhibition.
This painting derives its design from electronic stamps that can be downloaded from the internet and printed onto envelopes, an invention that appeals to Whitten’s interest in technology, tracking devises, and scanning systems. The palette of rich browns and reds was inspired by Red Velvet cake, a classic southern dessert that the artist imagined as a gift for his dear friend. In the 20th and 21st centuries, artists (and others), have taken their roles as witnesses very seriously. This applies as much to remembering acts of war, genocide, natural disaster, and terrorism, as it does to recognizing instances of bravery and lives of vision. Whitten has made a significant contribution to the history of honoring the dead with memorial paintings that offer a powerful merger of abstraction and representation, spirit and matter.
Jack Whitten has shown his work in solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Newark Museum, New Jersey; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles ; and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.
Atlanta Contemporary Art Center Web Site