February 3: I want the visual equivalent of jazz.
Jack Whitten, 1988
“Why am I carving wood? Jack Whitten asked this question in August 2017. He first saw the collections of African sculpture in the Brooklyn and Metropolitan Museums, as well as reproductions, when he moved to New York in the early years. 1960. He admitted that he didn’t understand it then, but he “knew that African art had a secret. Something that maybe could help me [sic] as a young black man. In 1964, Whitten met Allan Stone, the obsessive collector and expert dealer (Watch: The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art, 2007). Stone would become Whitten’s first gallery owner. Stone asked the artist to approach African sculpture with true intimacy: “Take it, smell it, smell it. In other words, it allowed Whitten to “make contact,” a real, physical touch. It was this encouragement that propelled Whitten’s sculpture. He left behind more informal multimedia assemblages.
A few years later, in 1969, Whitten and his wife, Mary, decided to visit Greece. Two nights before leaving on a trip, Whitten dreamed of a tree standing in a clearing. “The dream said, ‘When you go to Greece, you must take your carving tools with you, find this tree and cut it into a totem pole.’ “A weird dream,” he recalls. In fact, it was a harbinger that Whitten later described as “an order.” He found the tree – a 13-foot eucalyptus tree – in the square of Agia Galini, a Cretan village. Then (as now) the tree was rooted in the ground. Whitten borrowed tools from the tree’s owner, a local cabinet maker, and carved a sculpture based on his 1968 sculpture, Ancestral totem.
Whitten had carved wood when he was a student at Cooper Union in the early 1960s. His carving progressed after meeting Allan Stone. Whitten’s sculpture is direct sculpture, that is, work without conception or drawing. Known primarily for his painting, Whitten said the most important influence on his painting was sculpture: sculpture fed his painting. It was a catalyst. He had learned that “there is information encoded in African sculpture,” something akin to DNA that contains “a view of the cosmic world that has evolved over millennia.” For Whitten, this DNA went beyond culture, race and color. He sank into aesthetics and pictorialism.
Katy Siegel, co-curator of the exhibition, called Whitten a polytropic, a multifaceted man, and a polymecanos, who was exceptionally resourceful and multi-talented. The sculptures were made in Crete itself, if not in Crete. The woods he used were local to the island: walnut, black and white mulberry. He modified and transformed the sculptures with marble, copper, bone, fishing line, found objects and memorabilia. Made in Crete, there seems to be a Mycenaean influence here and there. But Alabama, African American and African influences dominate. Some objects are pure sculptures like Jug Head 1 (1965), which references and unifies the biography of Whitten in Alabama and his African American and African interests and DNA. Others, like Tribute to Kri-Kri (1985) look like Central Africa (Kongo) minkisi power figures or fetishistic objects.
Whitten’s sculptures were little known except in Crete, where, having spent summers there since 1969, he bought a hilltop property in 1984. This coincided with the 100e anniversary of the village, and its sculptures were exhibited on the beach. The heart of humanity, Anthropos # 2, Anthropos # 3 and Scorpio were in this convivial and improvised exhibition. He said he never made them with the intention of showing them. “Besides, they were in Crete. . . [But he] I knew there would be a time when it would be important to bring out the sculpture, ”where it would have a greater impact.
Among the pedestals and display platforms of the Baltimore Museum of Art, there are display cases. These are not to be overlooked. One features Whitten’s studio sneakers, which he polished with repeated applications of silver spray paint. Another display case contains daily logbooks, notes and memorabilia, documenting events, making statements and asking questions.
May 21, 86: My paintings speak of transcendence. I want them to transcend race, religion, politics, time, gender, purpose, and any known idea of history.
Oct. 27: My intention is to reinvent Cubism as belonging to a modern technological society, by bringing it back to its original source: the African continent. . . I want an abstract interpretation built with a dark sensibility.
Jan 25, 88: I wish I could dissolve all time zones and travel only in light.
Whitten was an artist of exceptional intimacy, honesty and integrity, telling it exactly as through abstract art. Even in the exhibit’s educational room, there are more display cases that contain materials Whitten reveled in: discarded electronics, acrylic paint, wood, bone, and marble.
Whitten had a “memorizing impulse” that commemorated friends and public figures. The exhibition ends with eight of Whitten Black monolith paintings, which honored African Americans, ranging from James Baldwin and Terry Adkins to Maya Angelou and Ornette Coleman. Moreover, these works connect Whitten’s sculptures and paintings not only to raw physicality, but also to memory. These surfaces were made using Whitten’s sculptural techniques: cutting, sanding, grinding, chiseling and laminating. Some are printed with the designs of the workshop materials that had been molded, which were then layered and attached to the canvas.
Taken as a whole, as essayist Kwame Appiah points out, Whitten “accepted his multiple legacies with a balance that resolved them into the unity of his work. . . nothing he did can be mistaken for anything you have ever seen before. As Whitten himself concluded: “June 4: The hardest part is I never know what I want until I see it. “Rather than embodying a Western and Cartesian philosophy—”Cogito, ergo sum ”-I think so I am; Whitten manifested Léopold Sédar Senghor’s holistic proposition, “I feel, I dance the Other; I am.”
Odyssey: Sculpture by Jack Whitten, 1963-2017
The Baltimore Museum of Art, April 22 to July 29, 2018.
The Met Breuer (New York) from September 6 to December 2, 2018.