Jack Whitten talks to Frieze about his life and work in his studio in Queens, New York, on the occasion of his...
Stanley, like Mike Fanelli who I would meet later in the sixties when I moved to the Lower West Side, was a friend of the artist. You could always get a hot meal on credit, cash a check without having a routine identification card; this was important because who had a bank account? The first time I ever showed a painting in public was at Stanley’s. . . a small group of collage paintings from 1963. The first painting I ever sold was to the superintendent of the building where my studio was: a Spanish fellow who often came in to admire what I was doing and paid $35 for a small 1961 painting as a Christmas present for his wife.
‘Edios Group‘ was a small artist co-op gallery on Avenue B in the mezzanine of the Old Charles Theatre. Stanley Moskowitz, one of the founders invited me to participate in a group show. I showed a series of collages made from rags that had been soaked in acrylic medium with oil paint applied on top. They were very earthy with siennas, raw umber, burnt umber and blacks.
The Black painters that I associated with were Joe Overstreet, William White, Bob Thompson, Emilio Cruz, Lawrence Compton and Haywood Bill Rivers. The good thing about the Lower East Side even with all the political rhetoric of race is that young artists, both Black and White, used the local bars such as Stanley’s to interact. This was important because the uptown gallery scene and the 10th Street co-op galleries were mostly White.
Balance is an important word in my vocabulary. I have a spirit that allows me to devour everything that crosses my path.
Cooper Union offered another totally different set of experiences; this was the first time that I was in class with White students and a White professor. My education at Cooper consisted of Bauhaus aesthetics (I studied two-dimensional design with Hans Beckmann of the German Bauhaus), Ben Cunningham who was highly influenced by color theory, three-dimensional design with Professor Anthony Candido, sculpture with Leo Amino, calligraphy with the American Master Paul Standard, Bob Blackburn the Master Print Maker, Charles Cajori, a structural expressionist painter well versed in cubism, David Lund, painter, Leo Manso, painter, Jack Stewart, painter who taught me a lot about process. I also must mention Robert Gwathmey, the Southerner from Virginia who went out of his way to make me feel at home. Morris Kantor’s critiques were helpful even though I was not a member of his class.
If Cooper Union offered me the Bauhaus, the Cedar Bar offered me Abstract Expressionism. Balance is an important word in my vocabulary. I have a spirit that allows me to devour everything that crosses my path. Having a high metabolic rate, I can digest everything! Meeting Bill de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and all of my professors at Cooper Union, convinced me that I had made the right decision to leave Tuskegee: New York was my home.
The tenor saxophone was my instrument of choice. I played in the Dunbar High School Marching Band in my hometown of Bessemer, Alabama. My high school band instructor, Lionel Garnier played all the classical Jazz masters for us: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Paul Chambers. Me and my band buddies who were interested in Jazz formed the Dunbar Jazzettes, which was a dance band. We made small change doing dances and even did local radio commercials for a used car salesman! It was a lot of fun and I sincerely thought there was a possibility of my being professional, but all of that changed when I came to New York.
Birdland, Five Spot, Minton’s, Village Vanguard, Village Gate, Half Note, Jazz Gallery, and Slugg’s Saloon destroyed any notion of my being a Jazz musician! What I heard in 1960 at Birdland on Monday nights changed me forever: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with a young Wayne Shorter, Art Farmer, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver . . . . and others. Art Blakey, whom I considered to be a witch doctor on drums, forced me to reconsider any interest in becoming a Jazz professional.
My first music teacher at Carver Junior High School, Mrs. Willie B. Jones, said that music was ‘pleasing sound.’ With this definition in mind, what was I to do with Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and a host of others who were changing the course of Jazz? I was at the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks place when Sonny Rollins did his first return gig from the woodshed. I saw Cecil Taylor attack the strings of the piano keyboard at the Five Spot; I witnessed Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in a fierce duel at McKee’s Lounge in Chicago during the summer of 1961. I sat at the feet of Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, and remember Kenny Durham scolding Ornette Coleman to get off the stand, “The nigger can’t play!” No one could harness the forces of chaos more than Archie Shepp and make it into music! Most of all: John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. The first time I had the opportunity to speak with Coltrane, “It’s like a wave” he said to me. More than once I’ve experienced an epiphany that changed my life. Wave, and what others had said about Coltrane’s music “sheets of sound” were my inspiration for my concept of planar light, i.e., light operating as a plane, came directly from Coltrane.
After a devastating critique from one of my painting professors at Cooper Union who claimed that I spent too much time on “accidents,” I ran into Bill de Kooning on University Place on my way to the Cedar to chill out, and as usual his “Hi kid, how are you doing?” I told him what had happened. Bill said, “You tell that motherfucker that there is no such thing as accidents in painting!” With that said, and a couple of beers at the Cedar Bar, I felt as if I could whip the world!
More than once, Franz Kline was helpful. Franz had a way of being matter of fact. He said to me and a group of young aspiring artists one night, “the minute you step into that studio and pick up that brush, you are a part of art history and you’ll never be lonely.” The studio is a lonely place but I have always believed that I have a place in the history of art. I also love to tell the story of Franz Kline giving me the name of Mr. Antonelli who worked at the Astrup Canvas Co. on the Lower West Side. I told Franz that I didn’t have any canvas and he said, “Go see Mr. Antonelli and tell him that Franz Kline sent you.” The Astrup Co. is where Franz bought his Blue Line Cotton Duck canvas; they were large wholesalers of cotton canvas and sold end rolls to artists.
It was Robert Blackburn, who managed the printmaking workshop at Cooper Union who introduced me to Romare Bearden. I was the only Black student in my class at Cooper Union in 1960 and Bob reached out to me. He said, “You must meet Romare Bearden” and bodily took me to Romare. Romare sent me to Jacob Lawrence and it was Romy who sent me to Norman Lewis. Norman Lewis’ studio was uptown on 125th Street. He lived and worked in a walk up office building. When I met Norman in 1962 he had no commercial gallery representation. His studio and living space (there was no division, he lived and worked in the same space) was very neat, and I remember his painting racks filled with paintings. I had so many questions with most of them being questions of survival.
How does one make enough money in order to do your work? How do you make a living? What was the effect of racism on his work? Problems of being a Black artist doing abstraction? Norman was helpful but not that encouraging on the prospect of making a living from one’s work.
Haywood Bill Rivers in contrast to both Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis was a true Bohemian. Bill had spent a lot of time in Paris, had a pretty good grasp on the history of painting, a good painter but with no financial success to speak of. . . . no gallery representation but I found the Bohemian Life attractive. When I met Romare he was just starting his first black and white collages made from Xerox copies of tribal African mixed with urban figurative imagery. They attracted me. I remember visiting his studio with all of the collage elements scattered on the floor so he could spontaneously choose from them. Even today, the image of Romy’s studio floor is still with me.
I remember hitting Kate Millett on the ass and saying, “Hi baby.” Kate smiled at me and said, “I don’t call you nigger, do I?” Feminism was something I had never thought of. I grew up with powerful women and took for granted women as leaders. The pastor of our church, The Church of God, was Sister Griffith. Sister Watson and Sister Bettie Robinson were highly respected and considered spiritual leaders, and of course, my Mom raised us by herself. My Mother was a powerful woman. It did not take me long to understand that Kate Millett was talking about something else. What I was taking for granted was nowhere near the truth: women had no power in the country at large. . . no economic power. . . no political power. . . and certainly, as I later learned. . . no power in the art world. Kate gave me a lot to think about.
The sexual revolution affected all of us. Calvin C. Hernton was writing a book called Sex and Racism in America, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Lower West Side were my neighborhoods and we, more than anybody, because of the multiethnic mix of people on the scene with art providing the common ground, we experienced extreme sexual cross-pollination. Sexually speaking, life was good. . . we fucked everything that moved with every color available! Calvin’s research into the history of Black/White sexual identities exposed the dark and political horrors of sex: America had turned that which was free and natural. . . a gift from the Gods, into a political horror chamber!
LeRoi Jones a.k.a. Amiri Baraka was the first Black man I ever met who spoke freely and bluntly about the power of Black identity. I had met Martin Luther King in Montgomery during the bus boycott in 1957. Dr. King spoke of racial equality, the dignity of Black people, faith in the scriptures which provided the spiritual strength of overcome the legacy of slavery. . . everything that I had been taught as a child growing up in Alabama. Roi was different. He spoke different. He acted different. He dressed different. I remember visiting him at his home with his wife Hettie Jones and their two children, Kellie and Lisa. I particularly remember a small paperweight object on his desk with the inscription “I read for information.” I was very impressed with this.
So many people from so many racial backgrounds gave me so much to think about. At times I felt as if my head was exploding! Jeffrey Waite, who gave me employment, as a carpenter’s helper was especially helpful. He taught me cabinetmaking. . . a skill that proved to be extremely valuable: I could always pick up my hammer, saw. . . and make a buck. Jeff also introduced me to the world of philosophy. Jeff had studied philosophy at McGill University with an advanced degree. His knowledge of books was unbelievable. More than a philosopher, he was a book collector! One day while tearing down a wall to receive a newly built cabinet, I picked up a piece of debris and excitedly said “Another one!” Jeff had been observing me collecting found objects from different sources. This day he grabbed my hand and said, “Why this one and not that one?” This was my first genuine lesson in aesthetics outside of any academic norms.
So many young men were being killed in Vietnam. . . men of my generation and I often thought. . . if I had continued at Tuskegee I would have been in the muck of war. At times I felt guilty and it was difficult for me to continue my studies at Cooper Union and to convince myself of the value of art. No one could ignore the racial implications of Vietnam. . . . a lot of Black blood was spilled. . . Black men along with their White buddies were dying by the thousands. My guilt turned to shame and anger when the truth surfaced: We had no legitimate reason for being there.
After a brief marriage and the birth of my first daughter, Keita. . . survival became more urgent. The racial climate had intensified. Black people were becoming more militant and the anger of injustice exploded into outright anarchy. Political assassinations fueled the temperature of fear, and violence became American as cherry pie! America was on the brink of disaster. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham with the death of four little girls and partial blinding of another little girl pushed me over the edge. I didn’t know what to do. Was art really that important? Those little girls were from my hometown. My worst experiences of growing up in the South had caught up with me and there was no place to hide. There was no place of comfort. For the first time in my life I experienced the absence of hope. My Grandmother Etta used to say about White people, “Their children will be better.” Their children had become monsters!
Who are you Jack Whitten? What kind of person do you want to be? What sort of world do you want?
My paintings became violent. It became harder to control my emotions; even hate had entered my vocabulary. Honestly, throughout horrible experiences in the South. . . I didn’t feel hate. . . but now hate had penetrated my psyche. The assassination of Dr. King, the assassination of Malcolm X, of John and Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, and the resulting riots across America forced all of us to make decisions that would affect us for the rest of our lives. I was ready to acquire guns and explosives, go back to Alabama and encourage rebellion at any cost necessary. Allan Stone, my art dealer, shouted and screamed at me, “You are an artist and you better make up your mind!” He insisted that my job was in the studio. How can anyone justify staying in the studio when your people are dying? What is the artist supposed to do? Start killing White people? What justifies killing for any cause? These were and remain the most difficult questions for me considering the politics of race in America.
During the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis a bunch of us were getting high on anything available, drinking loads of alcohol, crying and making asses of ourselves in public, when George Segal the sculptor walked into Stanley’s. I had met George several times through my friend Letty Lou Eisenhauer. George said, “What’s going on Jack?” One young lady who was totally fucked up, crying, and screaming, “We will all be dead by morning!” George, whom I had a lot of respect for and considered to be a major artist, went on the offensive: “You are artists, I am an artist. Tonight I am going to the studio and make another sculpture and I advise you to do the same.”
The conviction in his voice is something I’ll never forget. Everything was forcing me to make up my mind: Who are you Jack Whitten? What kind of person do you want to be? What sort of world do you want?
My first one-man show at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1968 was the highlight of the 1960s for me. Everything came together in that show. My decision to stay in the studio had paid off. I didn’t have any money; my first marriage had fallen apart. I had a daughter to think of. . . the responsibility of caring for someone was frightening and I dealt with it the best I could. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Wayne Thiebaud, Lawrence Calcagno signed my letters of reference for the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, which I received. This was a great help and the grant money prevented me from going over the edge. The show got good reviews. Allan sold a few paintings. I met Clement Greenberg for the first time. . . I requested that he see the show, which he did, and I received some favorable feedback.
Carl Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, Husserl, Joseph Campbell, Eastern philosophy, Zen, Black Nationalism, Vietnam, urban riots, political assassinations, drugs, sex, family, racism, and painting all contributed to a massive personal meltdown by late 1968. Anxiety is a disease that has no respect for race, gender, economics, politics, or spiritual belief. Anxiety can poison every aspect of one’s being. For the first time in my life I was forced to seek the help of a psychiatrist. A friend of mine recommended that I see someone who had helped her. Black guy seeing a Jewish psychiatrist? The very thought was enough to destroy every Black cell in my body! He was nice. Patient. I liked him. Without talking that much, he allowed me to vent everything that was bothering me: Everything! His diagnosis? I had opened Pandora’s Box. The cosmic flood of information had blown a fuse!
I lost my taste for meat and lived primarily off of brown rice and vegetables for almost a year. At times I could not get out of bed. I became paranoid toward everything and everybody. Any form of drugs were out of the question. . . even the smell of marijuana spun me out of control. I met a Black man on Canal Street, he was a street person, smelly with red inflamed eyes, long matted greasy dirty hair, and his clothing was not fit for man or beast. His dark skin was encrusted with dirt and every quality of urban filth. He approached me and said, “What’s wrong with you Brother? Men do not stand and sleep, only elephants can do that!” One of my best friends at that time, the “bread man” John Fischer said, ”Do you want to kill me? Do you hate White people?” I was losing it and desperately tried to pull myself together. Another woman had entered my life: Her name was Mary Staikos, someone whom I had met at Cooper Union years before. Both of us were married at the time with no interest in romance whatsoever. Mary was born in New York City. Her father was born in Greece, but Mary had never been to Greece.
My dear friend Frank Hertz invited me to study karate with him at a local dojo. The discipline of Okinawa Karate, Shohei-ryu helped a lot. Another friend convinced me to study Hatha Yoga at the Yoga Institute, which also helped. I forgot to mention the death of my Brother Tommy, the jazz musician. Tommy died in 1967 as the result of a fire in his Grand Street apartment. Tommy lived for 28 days in intensive care at St. Vincent’s Hospital. To witness the agony of such a painful death added fuel to the fire.
Mary and I were married in 1968 at our loft on Broome Street. The sculptor Melvin Edwards was my best man; Mary’s cousin Harriette Andreadis was a witness. No one else in Mary’s family bothered to come. In 1969, Mary wanted to visit Greece, the homeland of her parents, and I always had an interest in Greek philosophy, sculpture, and myths. We decided to take a trip to Greece in the summer of 1969. Two nights before our departure date, I had a powerful dream. . . the type of dream so vivid that I awoke violently in a sweat. I saw a tree standing in a clearing. . . heavily pruned with bare limbs. The dream was a command: Somewhere in Greece you are to find this tree and carve it into a totem. The dream did not say where in Greece, only to take your carving tools. I’ve always carved wood during the summer months. Before going to Greece, I spent the summers upstate New York carving wood.
We arrived in Athens, found a cheap hotel in the neighborhood of Plaka and used that as a base to travel visiting all the museums, archeological sites and going on side trips throughout the mainland. Soon our money was running out with no tree in sight, and people advised us to go to Crete because it was cheaper. They put us on an overnight ferryboat to Iraklion, Crete.
My first time in blue water with no horizon; I realized that I was in the center of a circle…a vast, unbelievable void of a circle. It was exhilarating! We went deck class, the cheapest ticket available. . . no cabin. . . just out in the middle of the Mediterranean. The next morning we arrived in the port city of Iraklion and I went straight to the tourist police office located in the harbor, I told them the story of my dream and they advised me to go South because it was the cheapest place on Crete. They put us on a public bus to the village of Aghia Galini. An old Cretan man befriended us on the bus and told us not to worry, that he would find us an inexpensive place to live. The bus ride across the island was amazing. We traveled through a landscape of rugged mountains, flat plains covered in grapevines, olive trees. . . . it was like a fairyland. When the asphalt road turned to dirt and gravel, we were not so sure that we had made the right decision. The wind was blowing so violently, with dust and rock, our joy turned slightly to fear. Finally, after almost two hours we could glimpse the sea from a distance. It is something about the sight of the sea that automatically gives a sense of joy. . . hope and adventure.
Aghia Galini in 1969 was a small fishing village with no electricity. A little harbor at sea level nestled between rolling hills and in the distance the majestic Mt. Ida, known locally as Psiloritis. The bus pulled into the harbor and from the window I saw the tree standing in a clearing just as it appeared in my dream. The old man who befriended us was not joking: He took us to a hotel which charged one U.S. dollar a night! We found that the two of us could live comfortably getting all we wanted to eat and drink for less than five dollars a day.
The next objective was to find out who owned the tree. We were directed to the home of Strati Troullinos. My Greek was non-existent and Mary’s Greek was not good enough to make Strati understand what I wanted to do with the tree. He thought I wanted to cut it down. I came up with a plan to make him understand: I went into the surrounding hills, found some wood and set up shop on the harbor beneath some trees. It worked. Strati immediately understood. He invited us into his home, led me to a back storage room, and showed me his collection of tools. He was a retired cabinetmaker! Take what you need!
The tree still stands in the harbor of Aghia Galini. Because of tourism, with cafes, restaurants, hotels, it is not as visible as in 1969 but it’s still there. The face of a fisherman stares out to sea, an octopus wraps its tentacles around the trunk, fish swim in three-dimensional relief as the crest of waves from a circular motion creating a narrative of men, fish and sea. The top of the totem is a large fish with its tail pointing to the sky.
The nineteen sixties were coming to a close. I was still intact, much stronger, and braver. Greece had restored my sanity and I was ready for a new chapter in my life.
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