Cosmic Put-on: Notes on Jack Whitten
Jack Whitten at Alexander Gray Associates
September 11 to October 12, 2013
508 West 26th Street #215
New York City, 212-399-2636
Exuberant is the word I would use to describe Jack Whitten’s work over the years. While it is certainly possible to link the artist’s work to his African American background, to political turmoil current and past, to Abstract Expressionism, and even to metaphysics, what I really sense from his art is a man having fun with his materials. Whitten’s current show at Alexander Gray Associates hits you with a room full of color: the lava reds of Nine Cosmic CD’s: For the Firespitter (Jayne Cortez); the pure white of Warping Pythagoras: For Alan Uglow; and the deep black punctuated by colored dots in Remote Control. It’s not just the color that creates excitement in the room. Striking contrasts of figure and ground push the paintings out toward the viewer. Whitten builds materials onto the canvas in a way that is both evocative and tactile. The work hovers between collage, sculpture, and the kind of warped illusion of space wrought by juxtaposing realities that don’t quite fit together. The artist has said to me that the universe has not three or four but multiple dimensions; looking at his paintings, I believe him.
Single Loop: For Toots (2012), is a typical example. The painting consists of a neon red band that resembles a lasso, slapped onto a sculpted surface of radiating ripples. Whitten has applied a fine mist of black spray paint to the ripples, hitting the upside of each bump and leaving the downside stark white. This causes the low-relief surface to resemble a hard-lit black and white photograph of a lunar or desert landscape. Though the red loop is embedded in that surface, it seems miles in the foreground. The effect is like spotting a hair on the lens of a bombsight while viewing a barren topography 30,000 feet below.
Such a sight might not be foreign to Whitten, who trained as a pilot in the Tuskegee University air ROTC unit that succeeded the Tuskegee airmen of World War II fame. Also at Tuskegee, and later at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the artist studied medicine. This left-brain background partly explains his interest in things scientific, like the Pythagorean Theorem or the many dimensions of space-time. Whitten applies all meanings of the word “warp” to Greek geometry in Warping Pythagoras (2013). Against a bright white ground, the artist paints an off-kilter black outline diagram—ostensibly showing the relationship between the sides of a right triangle. The diagram’s bent lines might be a nod to the modern cosmologist’s notion that space is warped. However, the painting’s jumbo size (6 feet high by 4 ½ wide/1.8 meters high by 1.4 wide), and the fact that the diagram appears to be skipping along and flapping in the air, makes it as much Pythagoras’s notebook doodle as his measure of the universe. On display here is the artist’s unique ability to both honor and make sport of received wisdom.
Whitten’s exuberance is in full bloom in the very large (approximately 11 feet wide/3.5 meters wide) Nine Cosmic CD’s: For the Firespitter (Jayne Cortez). This 2013 painting unearths the history of the artist’s technical innovations. Its deep red color blend is the result of raking unmixed hues across the canvas with a large tool, inflecting the streams of paint with an up-down ripple and radial pattern similar to that of Single Loop. Along the bottom edge of this hot pool of paint is a series of molded acrylic discs that resemble CDs, but are much funkier in texture than cold metallic audio discs. The technique of applying paint by mechanically raking across—and the insertion of molded objects—were two innovations of Whitten’s from the 1970s and 1980s respectively. Here he uses them again to great emotive effect in homage to Cortez, the performance poet and Black Arts innovator.
Whitten’s nods to African American heroes go back to the 1960s, when he moved from the South to New York City to study at Cooper Union and soak up the lessons of Abstract Expressionism. Although expressive, Whitten’s early works—e.g., the Martin Luther King series–were not quite abstract. In the the1968 painting King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), for example, faces and figures peer out from amidst a thicket of gestural marks. At the time the artist was dealing with the fallout of personal turmoil as well as the political tenor of the times, and he has said in a 2007 Brooklyn Rail interview with Robert Storr, “I was doing the best I could to contain the kind of imagery I was seeing.” Like his current works, these paintings have an intensity of color and a lyrical quality to the paint application—a vibrating energy that pushes beyond the limits of the canvas.
It was through rational experimentation with materials that Whitten found the proper outlet for this nervous energy. Beginning in the 1970s the artist departed from the style of Abstract Expressionism and began to apply paint in controlled ways using squeegees and afro-combs. These experiments produced the blurred horizontal lines of April’s Shark (1974)—an effect that would show up in the work of Gerhard Richter ten years later. In spite of these innovations, Whitten’s fame waned by the 1990s, to the extent that a 1991 Arts Magazine review put him in the category of “underknown” artists. Recent attention to his work— including a major 2007 exhibition at MoMA PS1, one at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University this year, the inclusion of his painting 9-11-01 in the current Venice Biennale, and numerous exhibitions at Alexander Gray, has corrected this condition.
The serious and the funny come together quite nicely once again in Whitten’s monumental 2013 painting Remote Control. Its tight array of acrylic pop-ups, ordered in finer and coarser grid intervals, has some of the remoteness and control of an Agnes Martin. It might be a vast field of stars, brighter or dimmer according to their distance in space, and sharing the jet black firmament with the occasional red tail light from an airplane. With its long, narrow proportion and overabundance of colored protrusions, it is most certainly a gigantic TV remote. If the revolution is televised after all, you can be sure that Whitten’s paintings will pick up the signal.