‘The preservation of memory interests me. Memory is preserved in the paint.’—Jack Whitten
Beginning 5 November 2020, Hauser & Wirth New York will present rarely seen works made by American artist Jack Whitten (1939 – 2018). The exhibition focuses on his practice from 1991 through 2000, a period of intense experimentation during which, deeply affected by tumultuous world events, he strove to incorporate them into his work. Blurring the boundaries between sculpture and painting, and between the studio and the world, the multidimensional works on view combine geometric abstraction and found objects to mine spiritual and metaphysical thematic veins.
Among works on view are examples from Whitten’s Totem and Mask series of paintings, powerful elegiac works inspired by contemporary events that held deep significance for the artist. These commemorative works reveal Whitten’s ongoing fascination with African sculpture and his use of unconventional materials – acrylic, recycled glass, plywood and eggshells – in intricate, mosaic-like compositions.
In ‘Mask II: For Ronald Brown’ (1996), Whitten recalls the Commerce Secretary in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet, whose untimely death in a plane crash was mourned in the Black community across America. Whitten’s homage to Brown contains layers of reference imagery forming a triangle, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between spirituality, thought, and syntax. For Whitten, honoring the contributions by important Black figures was a recurrent theme in his work, as seen with his Black Monolith series.
In the landmark painting ‘Memory Sites’ (1995), Whitten experiments with the surface effects of acrylic paint to address man’s inhumanity to man. Made in tribute to Israeli politician and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated on 4 November 1995, ‘Memory Sites’ uses acrylic paint to resemble the texture of bone. This reconfiguration is reiterated by the shapes of skulls that emanate from the bottom of the work when looking at it from a distance. Combining abstraction and representation in using acrylic to replicate natural materials, this powerful painting evinces Whitten’s exceptional technical powers as well as his deftness at conveying the effects of tragedy on the human spirit.
The Black Monolith series began in the mid 1980’s, in which Whitten honored various African American intellectuals from the 20th and 21st century. These laid the groundwork for the subsequent Totem and Mask works. In the context of the events of 2020, these works have acquired added significance and portent. Together, the works on view reveal an artist of extraordinary sensitivity, capable of imbuing modernist abstraction with the vibrations of historical narratives and histories and bringing the spiritual and material realms into alignment.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939, Jack Whitten is celebrated for his innovative processes of applying paint to the surface of his canvases and transfiguring their material terrains. Although Whitten initially aligned with the New York circle of abstract expressionists active in the 1960s, his work gradually distanced from the movement's aesthetic philosophy and formal concerns, focusing more intensely on the experimental aspects of process and technique that came to define his practice.