Art

Paint It Black: Jack Whitten’s Adventures in Abstraction

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“I’m dealing with the evolution of Western abstract painting,” Jack Whitten explained to critic/historian Robert Storr on the occasion of his 2014 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “I have to say that in all clarity, because it cuts through the bullshit.”

For fifty-some years, Whitten has stripped the bullshit away in order to propel abstraction forward, sustaining it with a purpose and presence and momentum that stays true to its radical roots. The artist has always refused seeking refuge in mere style or the comforts of habit, or the ease of tropes, and his current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth is nothing less than mesmerizing, resetting the eye and the mind along frequencies of his very own design.

Born in 1939 and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten arrived in New York in 1960 to study painting at Cooper Union. At the time, he was the only black student at the school, a radical departure from his experience under Southern segregation, where he’d never before had a white teacher, let alone white classmates. Master printer Robert Blackburn, who was teaching at Cooper Union, soon took him under his wing and introduced him to other major artists who were also black: namely, Romare Bearden, who in turn introduced him to the painters Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. If that generation wrestled with the pressures of representation, Whitten found himself drawn to the possibilities of abstraction. He also met and befriended the likes of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, who were giants to him. Yet the young artist had no intention of imitating any of these elders. What he wanted was to be a true creator, to find his own hand, to reflect something of his particular moment. “When you’re a young artist and you’re ambitious, you’ve got to get around your masters,” he also told Storr. “You gotta do some heavy thinking, man. You gotta have balls. You’ve gotta do shit that’s total risk. And you gotta think your way through. It’s a battlefield out there. Painting is literally a battlefield.”

Decades into this ongoing campaign, Whitten continues to imagine and materialize new spaces, new dimensions, in painting, for painting. The works on view (all produced since 2015) are at once earthly and cosmic — traversing a paint/time continuum, as it were — capturing and transmitting the essence of his subjects by tapping the forces he’s uncovered within the medium. In the 1970s, Whitten began drying sheets of acrylic paint and slicing them into small tiles, which he then affixed to his canvases as though tesserae in a mosaic. This gesture amplified a painting’s surface value, its presence. Light and shadow, depth and volume, were no longer just a matter of appearances, optical effects conjured by the artist’s hand. Rather, these qualities were produced by the condition of Whitten’s paint; his abstractions now shared space with his viewer.

On view are five “Quantum Wall” paintings, a scintillating series that Whitten began just last year, in which the artist laid acrylic tiles across his canvases like a stonemason paving a cathedral floor. Some of the tiles are vibrant and glittering, playing in and with the light. Others are inky brown or black, siphoning it. With these, Whitten composes a kind of lurking dark matter, abstract forms advancing and receding like phantoms — at once there and not. As Whitten explains, quantum mechanics proposes that a wall cannot really exist; it is merely the illusion of a certain atomic energy. So too, in effect, is painting — and so too is life. Quantum Wall (A Gift for Prince) is a large-scale triptych dominated by bluish tiles, from periwinkle to a hue more powdery. To memorialize someone, to pay homage, by way of collaborating with the false promise of permanence is in some sense Whitten’s way of reckoning with the material world and those who shaped it with their certain fate.

Whitten has long been interested in astrophysics, and his absorbing “Portal” series from 2016 (three of which are on view) offers the eye gateways in which to lose itself, or through which it may travel greater distances into painting. At the center of each canvas is a portal, a moon-like sphere, framed by tiles. The surfaces of the portals possess the gloss and richness of a primordial ooze. Cracked, bubbled, and glassy, these spaces are of elusive depths in which to wade, on which to contemplate. The eye also has a hard time resting anywhere in Whitten’s “Entities” series, lenticular drawings-not-drawings on Evolon in graphite and wax. These smudgy, whorling, black-and-white works look as though Whitten has trapped (rather than recorded) energies received in transmissions from an unknown elsewhere.

One of the exhibition’s significant highlights is Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali (2016), an elegy for The Greatest, whose spiritual and physical force inspired the artist’s practice. (Since the 1990s, Whitten has created Monoliths in tribute to powerful black thinkers, creators, and revolutionaries such as Maya Angelou, Barbara Jordan, and Ralph Ellison.) Neither wall nor portal, the painting appears archaeological, as though excavated from deep within the earth. Multicolored tesserae are densely composed in a kind of chaos until neatly arranged to outline a deep black rough muck settling on the bottom half of the canvas. Inside the muck emerges a round blue-rose form, echoed across the white outline in another round black form. At once womb-like and tomb-like, it’s an image that collapses creation and extinction — entwining the beginning and the end — to honor what’s gone, and perhaps to summon what’s to come.

Jack Whitten

Hauser & Wirth New York

548 West 22nd Street

212-790-3900, hauserwirth.info

Through April 8

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