I AM THE OBJECT: Jack Whitten’s work of the 1990s

Excerpt from a new essay by Richard Shiff

  • Nov 15, 2020

In 2015, Jack Whitten composed a statement that he titled ‘Beyond Abstraction.’ He meant ‘abstraction’ as a mode of visual art that lacks a mimetic component, save perhaps the imitation of other forms of abstraction. But he may also have been considering the abstraction involved in the familiar process of logical thinking, the cognitive operation that proceeds from point A to point B to point C, eventually to Z. Whitten took an alternative route, a non-route.

Despite the methodical nature of his craftsmanship, when devising a design strategy he would skip the intermediaries and pass directly from A to Z. This type of thinking is hard to plot or graph because no concept, no conceptual abstraction, connects A to Z, guiding the process. A, B, C, and so on connect by logical order and entailment, by induction or deduction. Not so, A and Z. From the vantage of A, Z appears as an insight, an intuition, perhaps a guess. In a graph, this type of thought process would require broken rather than continuous lines between the elements, or merely their conjunction, A–Z or even AZ—a linkage that leaves no graphic trace. We engage in, and may be victim to, a culture of ideological fantasies: trickle-down economics and the like, but perhaps also such benevolent principles as human equality—these are ideological constructs. Our quotidian processes of thought are guided by a culture of reasoning, which some would regard as natural to the human species, while others might consider this, too, as founded ideologically (reason being favored over magic and myth).

Ordinary language serves as the medium for reason and logical discourse. Within the relatively recent historical past (according to our reason), technological changes in imaging and communication—from lithography to photography, to the telegraph, typewriter, and telephone, to sound recording and film, to electronic scanning and transmission of audio and video signals, to pervasive computerization and digitization—all this must have had an effect on how members of our modern society perceive the data that informs them. Technological development would seem especially significant because, within the length of a contemporary lifetime, an individual receives data in modes different from those in which the same individual has already been indoctrinated. Novel representational technologies, often merely replicating the functions of the soon-to-be-outmoded media they replace, challenge the human sensorium to adapt. Friedrich Nietzsche presented a different challenge to the modern intellect and its culture of reason: ‘How should explanations be at all possible when we first turn everything into an image, our image!’ He meant an image of discrete bodies and subjectivities, experiencing discrete moments of time, like photographic snapshots. ‘Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists,’  Nietzsche wrote; ‘in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces … An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.’ To abandon reliance on reasoning in terms of causes that lead to effects and effects that necessitate the postulation of causes, this would constitute a radical turn in the course of modern thought. Rather like the compressed logic of A–Z.

Technologies, I have suggested, demand adaptation. Understanding and explanation are factors of adaptation, though not essential ones. Individuals can survive in ignorance, merely by mastering collective habits. Contemporary academics commonly argue that our response to technologies, at least the conscious aspect of it, will have been mediated by our existing cultural norms. Culture will stand between technological transmission and human reception. Especially with respect to self-reflection and adaptive understanding, culture will buffer, which is to say, it will distance the reasoning process from its objective, avoiding shocks disruptive to habit. Epitomizing the conclusions of several of her media colleagues, theorist Vivian Sobchack wrote in 2004: ‘The technological ‘nature’ of the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic is graspable always and only in a qualified manner—that is, less as a technological essence than as a cultural theme.’ The ‘technological essence’ remains within its impenetrable shell. Culturally acceptable reasoning tells stories about technologies, their origins, their benefits, their dangers. A technology can become a principal character in science fiction. But reasoned discursive accounts, factual or fictive, offer no effective means of worming inside a technology to perceive its full potential.

All this is only to propose that, in his countercultural manner, Jack Whitten reasoned over and beyond photographic and digital technologies. Contemplating the technologies that were responsible for the contemporary environment of images, he proceeded from A immediately to Z, rather than from A to B to C and so on. By his reckoning—through his medium of paint—he discovered the ‘technological essence’ of the photographic process and other imaging technologies. This ‘essence’ existed beyond any rationally ordered ‘cultural theme’ (to invoke Sobchack’s differentiation), that is, ‘beyond [rational] abstraction’ (Whitten’s formulation). As if he had been reading Nietzsche at the time, Whitten wrote in 1979: ‘As an artist, I merely present and dare not explain!’ Striking the Z-note, Whitten released the spirit or soul of the modern technologies that were organizing human perception.

He opened a door that had been opened at least once before, and it remains to be seen, after the artist’s death in January 2018, whether the door has closed again behind him. The once before involves Paul Cezanne. In 1891, Émile Bernard described Cezanne’s art as a process specific to a medium rather than to a culture of preexisting themes: ‘He opened to art this amazing door: painting for itself’ [fig. 1]. Just as academic criticism and philosophy—reasoning‑for‑itself—amounts to abstraction, so does painting‑for‑itself, but of a decidedly material type. Such painting may be better suited to burrowing into technologies of sensory perception than verbal reasoning is, despite a general culture that favors critical analysis by discursive logic. To think with materials has always been a viable alternative to the accepted norm, even within a culture of linguistic abstraction, a culture of the word. ‘The image,’ Whitten said, ‘must come out of the process.’ In his case, out of matter.

Figure 1. Paul Cezanne, Avenue at Chantilly, 1888. National Gallery, London.

In ‘Beyond Abstraction,’ his statement of 2015, Whitten listed aspects of the contemporary situation to which he believed his art had been responding and should continue to respond. At the head of the list: ‘Science and Technology have changed our perception of the world.’ Analogous change had not come through Christian religious practice, so much a part of Whitten’s childhood; the faith was a tradition, ultimately a force for cultural conservatism. And significant change had never developed within the politics of racial difference as Whitten experienced it throughout his life; little on the political front succeeded in dislodging the deepest cultural prejudices. In Whitten’s estimation, the desired evolution in the social and cultural realm would hinge on how attentive the society at large might be to changes in the perceptual order that technologies of imaging had already generated. It seemed to him that advances in science and technology had even altered access to the human soul. At the least, this possibility merited investigation. Whitten’s guide to art became science and technology, not theology, not political theory.

‘Consider Whitten’s practice as an art of technological animism, a materially sophisticated elaboration of a reservoir of beliefs deep within the human species, holdovers from a primordial past …’

After Walter Benjamin, after Norbert Wiener, after Marshall McLuhan, it may seem unproblematic to claim that ‘science and technology have changed our perception.’ Yet Whitten’s manner of engaging this new reality represents a curious inversion of the typical attitude. From his foundation in empiricism and material experimentation, he moved toward an aesthetic product of animist or pantheist value, a ‘presence’ in matter. He would seem to shift from the logic of science and revert to myth: ‘If [this presence] is not an illustration of something, then what is it? This thing has its own mind, its own body. It’s similar to the animists who believe that all matter holds something in it.’ When Whitten composed his statement on abstraction, he had long been structuring his painting on methods and principles derived from advanced studies in physics (quantum theory), biology (DNA), and mathematics (topological surfaces, fractals), all coupled with his understanding of the mechanics and electronics of contemporary technologies.

Yet in the studio, many of his raw materials were basic and inexpensive, others were scavenged from the streets, and the tools to fashion them were sometimes makeshift and always direct in their application. Consider Whitten’s practice as an art of technological animism, a materially sophisticated elaboration of a reservoir of beliefs deep within the human species, holdovers from a primordial past, with a redemptive value for the present overlooked by most of his peers. Through acrylic paint informed by the digital materiality of the new technologies of imaging—and through studio processes inspired by theories of quantum mechanics and electromagnetic forces—Whitten had been reaching far into the substance we experience as human mind, human feeling, human soul. From high-tech he turned to low-tech, but low-tech informed by high-tech. ‘I like going places that the computer cannot go,” he wrote: ‘Computers cannot penetrate the soul, but paint can.’

Jack Whitten, Memory Sites, 1995 © Jack Whitten Estate. Photo: Thomas Barratt

Detail of ‘Memory Sites’ (1995) © Jack Whitten Estate. Photo: Thomas Barratt

This was his inversion: to discover through paint what the new sciences and technological modes may have concealed within them, a concealment demanding exposure. Paint was Whitten’s medium of release. To decode photographic and electronic information he would return to the materiality of paint, as opposed to generating still more photographic and electronic forms. ‘There is a gap between knowing and not knowing,’ he wrote in 2008: ‘In the ’60s I called it the extreme middle. Now I call it the gap ... In African art it’s called presence … It’s purely mental … When matter is used in a particular way, it exudes presence.’ Such presence makes itself known, but not as knowledge, not as understanding or explanation. Whitten’s ‘extreme middle,’ ‘gap,’ and ‘presence’ represent the Z-notes of his A–Z mode of thought—his intuitive insights. Whitten applied the wisdom of the ages to contemporary science and technology. In his search for spiritual ‘presence,’ he used paint in accord with the foundation of modern computerization, the digital system. Conceived as more of a rhizome than a spreadsheet or a flowchart, his use of paint developed as a gridded, unit-by-unit process.

He would cut a thick sheet of laminated layers of acrylic, his ‘slab,’ into tile-like elements that he associated with the tesserae of mosaic—his material building blocks or ‘molecules.’ In 2017, he recounted his evolution: ‘Paint as matter, molecular perception, the unit as tessera, multidimensional space and light, all started with the Slab.’ Initially, around 1970, his paintings consisted of a ‘slab’ in its entirety, figured in various ways by squeegee- and rake-like tools during the brief period that the acrylic remained wet and malleable (see First Testing Slab, 1972 [fig. 2]). ‘To be as clear as possible without getting confused, I just want a slab of paint,’ he stated in 1972. A ‘slab’ was Whitten’s ‘first non-relational painting.’ He established the final configuration of the paint in a single gesture, with ‘the whole painting conceived of as one line.’ And it was fast: ‘That speed removes it from relational thinking to non-relational thinking’—from the relation of A to B to C, to the non-relation of A–Z.

Figure 2. Jack Whitten, First Testing Slab, 1972 © Jack Whitten Estate

Later, using fragments of a slab, his tesserae, Whitten could ‘make’ a painting digitally rather than ‘paint” it pictorially—construct it like a wall with units, rather than as a traditional composition with diverse elements serving diverse pictorial functions. ‘I don’t paint a painting, I make a painting,’ he said in 1994. And in 1996: ‘The painting must be built … like you are building a stone wall.’ A painted composition is ‘relational’ but not a painting made like a wall. Working with tesserae and other prefabricated acrylic units such as forms cast from molds, Whitten could constitute his digital grid rather than follow the predetermined order of one—guided by instinct instead of geometry, working organically instead of logically. His frequent allusions to escaping the restrictiveness of ‘relational’ art signify a break with the principles espoused by critic Clement Greenberg and his acolytes (Whitten, 1991: ‘At random is one way to achieve a total non-relational image’). In 1967, Greenberg, always keen on establishing analytical relations, disputed claims made for perceptual minimalism in sculpture: ‘No matter how simple the [art] object may be, there remains the relations and interrelations of surface, contour, and spatial interval.’

‘When the question of being a Black artist comes up, I always say we have to go to the word ‘sensibility.’ … Slavery eliminated our sense of place. Blacks had no choice but to recreate a sense of place.’ —Jack Whitten

Whitten had been developing a different type of ‘minimalism,’ an art of elemental units, his tesserae, which could be handled like the little objects they were; they bore their ‘space’ within their materiality. As of 1968, he knew Greenberg personally; the two maintained a friendly acquaintance, and Whitten followed Greenberg’s writings with interest. But he was hardly Greenbergian. Not long after recording Greenberg’s death in his studio log, he completed 'Space Is Clement (For Clement Greenberg)' (1994 [fig. 3]), one of his many ‘memorial’ paintings. ‘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. These people existed. I spoke to them, I knew them.’ The spirits were ‘here’—in the paint-matter and in its light.

Figure 3. Jack Whitten, Space Is Clement (For Clement Greenberg), 1994 © Jack Whitten Estate

‘Space Is Clement’ sets rectilinear tesserae about as far off a relational grid as they might be, as if the units of material themselves, not an implied geometrical order, were guiding the hand to create the space. Whitten later recalled his thinking about this anti-Greenbergian memorial to Greenberg: ‘My use of topographical space in ‘The Space Is Clement’ signifies my distancing myself from Greenbergian formalism. I eventually understood that abstraction as preached in Greenbergian terms was abstraction as an end to itself. I wanted abstraction to be a means to something else … ‘black sensibility.’ (On the sensibility that Whitten invokes in connection with his abstract art of matter: ‘When the question of being a Black artist comes up, I always say we have to go to the word ‘sensibility.’ … Slavery eliminated our sense of place. Blacks had no choice but to recreate a sense of place.’) I wonder if the form of the memorial to Greenberg, which resembles a planographic image of a meandering stream, pertains to a thought Whitten had on 11 May 1994, as he first noted the critic’s death. He followed with a quotation, a variant of one of Greenberg’s statements, and concluded with a self-assessment true to his own sensibility: ‘Clem passed. ‘Abstraction is the only stream that leads to an ocean.’ I am the ocean.’

Whitten’s art proceeded faster than its logical exposition. A–Z is faster than A to B to C and onward. It may not have been possible, even for the artist who experienced it, to recount the logic of his intuition. Here it would be wrong to resort to a theory to illuminate Whitten’s accomplishment. Despite his knowledge of quantum theory, particle theory, wave theory, and the like, his art was far removed from what most people would call science. His art aligns, however, with what most people call art. He had been closer than he thought to Donald Judd’s view, expressed in 1993, that ‘someday, not soon there will be another kind of painting, far from the easel, [and also] far from beyond the easel, since our environment indoors is four walls, usually flat. Color to continue had to occur in space’ In fact, for decades Whitten had been there. It was only his continuing movement beyond his own accomplishment that prevented him from realizing he had taken the medium of painting more than ‘close enough’ to its limit. He didn’t stop. I began this essay by referring to Whitten’s unpublished 2015 statement, ‘Beyond Abstraction.’ Its first line reads: ‘To go where no one has gone before is my goal in painting.’ He had spoken similarly in 2006, as well as at earlier moments: ‘My ambition is to change the course of art history.’ So much the better for art history that, already well beyond it, Whitten didn’t stop.

Installation View, ‘Jack Whitten 'I AM THE OBJECT’, Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 2020 © Jack Whitten Estate. Photo: Thomas Barratt

Jack Whitten 'I AM THE OBJECT' is on view at Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street by appointment through 23 January 2021. To visit the exhibition, book a timed viewing appointment here. Richard Shiff is a writer, critic and the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair at The University of Texas at Austin.