Beloved Painter Jack Whitten, as Remembered by Artists, Curators, and Gallerists

Artsy Editors
Jan 23, 2018 11:22PM

Anton Corbijn, Jack Whitten, New York, 2017. © Anton Corbijn. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

This week, the art world mourned the loss of Jack Whitten, a pioneering abstract artist who tirelessly reimagined the meaning, and methods, of painting. “I cut paint, I laminate paint, I grind paint, I freeze paint, I boil paint,” he once said, describing his ever-inventive techniques in the studio. The results were a series of groundbreaking effects that challenged preconceived notions of what painting can be (including a style of pulling pigment across the canvas that predates similar efforts by Gerhard Richter).

Whitten’s death at the age of 78 comes at the height of a renewed, late-career fame. In 2016, he received the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President Obama. Last year, Hauser & Wirth showcased his work in a set of shows in New York and London, and Whitten’s paintings are also included in “Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which opens February 3 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art before traveling, in the fall, to the Brooklyn Museum. In April, the Baltimore Museum of Art will present a highly anticipated look at a different aspect of Whitten’s practice: the wood carvings and sculpture he has made for decades in Greece, his second home. (That exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September.)

Those who met him remember Whitten as a bold, effusive, confident spirit, enamored of the potentials of art and his role in advancing the creative dialogue. Here, we ask those who knew him—or were simply moved and inspired by his paintings—to reflect on his life and legacy.

Kathryn Kanjo, curator

What to do when faced with the truth that Jack Whitten—a deftly innovative artist of abstract, memorial canvases to cultural heroes—has himself died? Who will memorialize his forceful and time-stilling contributions to visual culture? Who will memorialize his truth, a word he used frequently? At a creative crossroads in the 1980s, Jack painted Dead Reckoning I, whose title references a navigation strategy he learned while a cadet in the Air Force ROTC. It is the effort to determine one’s best possibility of survival by figuring out how to reach your destination based upon your knowledge of where you’ve been. He distilled the concept to three tenets: a confirmation of faith; point of no return; latch to the stars.

“Throughout his life and in his art, Jack was propelled by conviction and questioning, control and abandon.”

As a child of the segregated South, Jack abandoned his studies in medicine at Tuskegee Institute to pursue visual art at Southern University. As a young man, he participated in Civil Rights protests in his southern home until the movement’s violence drove him north. As a student at Cooper Union, he discovered integrated classrooms and was welcomed by racially-identified artists, as well as artists of the New York School. And as a black artist, he resisted the period’s prevailing impulse of racial representation to explore the plastic and metaphorical possibilities of paint. Throughout his life and in his art, Jack was propelled by conviction and questioning, control and abandon. Ever humble of his understanding, yet confident in his intuition, he moved ahead with faith, arriving at a new way of representing the world around us. Jack got there first. Now we latch to the stars of his artistic truth to celebrate his radical innovation and passionate expression.

Adam Pendleton, artist

Jack Whitten was not only one of the giants of abstract painting, but, I would argue, one of the giants of conceptual art, through his relentless exploration of the theoretical implications of process.


Darby English, curator and art historian

I only ever saw Jack in professional settings, but to me he epitomizes the kind of moral consistency that I revere. We’re surrounded by people who shun this quality for the sake of glory or gain: the chameleonic type who are different people, behave differently to people, according to trifling circumstantial variables. What I revered in Jack I also came to see in his singular body of work: Jack being Jack, thinking here about what it means for an image to display its own process of development while asserting itself as a whole, thinking there about the speed of color or the integrity of tesserae. I guess what I mean is that when I look at the work I see Jack being Jack, thinking and doing as hard as he can, every step of the way. As though it were all in the work. As though the work were everything. Thank you, Jack, for all of that thoughtful doing, and for the fruit that it will bear forever.

Marlene Dumas, artist

Jack was a very passionate artist and person who lived through a very aggressive period of American history. He created an unknown, gentle touch and loving attitude to his materials and his subject matter which touched me deeply. He made me laugh and made me cry when I listened to one of his lectures for the first time. His works warm us in our cold times.

Massimiliano Gioni, curator

I think that it’s misleading to measure Whitten’s work in relation to Gerhard Richter, and it’s sadly the way in which artists of color often tend to be framed—always as dependent on somebody else’s fame. In fact I don’t think Richter’s and Whitten’s abstraction have much to do with each other (and I say this with great respect for both). I think we are better equipped to give Whitten his due if we try to understand his contribution to the history of art on his own ground and not in support (or in contrast) to Richter’s, if anything because Richter’s abstractions—I think—are actually striving to degrade abstraction, proving that even the most apparently lyrical image is solidly materialistic and earthbound, so to speak, while Whitten was always trying to find a celestial dimension in the most prosaic materials. I always loved how he literally cooked his paintings, preparing some of them almost with confectionary precision. His virtuosity with materials and his invention of unusual techniques is really unique in the recent history of American painting.

“Whitten was always trying to find a celestial dimension in the most prosaic materials.”

Also, Jack always had the greatest sneakers. I am told it was because of his back problems, but they were just the most stylish of all. Last year at the New Museum gala he was wearing silver sneakers. He looked like a cool astronaut which, retrospectively, is probably an accurate way to describe his attitude toward painting. Some of his most cosmic paintings have an otherworldly quality to them: I think he was more of a Coltrane fan than a Sun Ra adept, but some of his paintings make you think that “Space Is the Place.” We’ll certainly miss him now that he is “Miles Away.” Then again, like Miles Davis, Whitten had always been “Miles Ahead,” so we are still just catching up with him and wherever he is, sadly and prophetically—he got there first, once again.

Luc Tuymans, artist

Dear Jack,

Just before leaving for Hong Kong, I received the sad news that you’re no longer with us. When I first saw your work, a couple of years ago, it immediately struck me as extremely resourcefully layered and intensely alive. I was even more shocked when I learned about the extreme trajectory of the entire oeuvre; here was a black man working his way through abstraction, since the late 1950s until just recently. I will never forget that not so long ago one of your earlier works crowned the cover of Artforum. It looked like one of those wiped-out paintings of Gerhard Richter, only yours were painted years earlier. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for you in those early years. You refused figuration—not solely drawing on a possibly very tormented African-American background—and the work stood and stands out through its intricate painterly qualities. When I met you, you were in your mid-seventies, a very open and refreshingly unresentful and erudite spirit, and above all very elegant. Fortunately you were able to witness some success and the long overdue recognition for your work. A great guy, and a great artist.

Frank Demaegd, co-founder of Zeno X Gallery

During a visit to New York in 2010, I called Joel Wachs to hear which gallery shows were a must-see in town. He recommended I visit Alexander Gray Associates to see works by Jack Whitten. I was so impressed that I asked them if it was possible to meet the artist. A few hours later I was in Whitten’s studio in Queens. There was one painting entitled Reclamation: For Roy DeCarava (2010) that triggered my attention: a long, horizontal piece made of tesserae in acrylic paint. The composition is organic and dynamic, structured by two horizontal lines and a variety of black circles. Jack asked me to look closer and to notice the different pigments of black he used for this painting. It is such an intense piece. It does not only talk about the medium of painting but also about memory and soul. Through the paint he reminds us of the African-American photographer Roy DeCarava who only could take his pictures after he returned from work, when the evening turned dark. After my first encounter with Jack, I was convinced that his work was underestimated and needed worldwide recognition.

Soon after that I went back to New York to talk about representing his work. It was at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2010 when Zeno X Gallery first showed his paintings, soon followed by a solo show in Antwerp. The invitation for “Atopolis,” a show curated by Dirk Snauwaert from WIELS in 2015, which was strongly connected to the philosophy of Édouard Glissant, inspired Jack to make his last monumental painting. We are very proud that this major work, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014), is now part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As an artist, Jack always pushed boundaries by transmitting his knowledge about art history, metaphysics, technology, and humanity into his innovative paintings. Above all, Jack was a warm personality, someone with whom you were happy to spend an evening and enjoy passionate conversations. Everyone who met Jack has been touched by his soul, his vision, and his sense of humor.

Garry Grant, artist

Jack Whitten’s paintings have had a profound impact on me as a visual artist. I admire his practice for its originality, aesthetics, and craftsmanship, which were underappreciated by collectors, gallerists, and curators until the latter part of his life. To me, he was more than an artist, he was a scientist of art, exploring boundaries of space and time while expressing a distinctly Afrocentric narrative inspired by the Civil Rights movement and jazz. I have no doubt that his work will continue to be discovered, recognized, and celebrated for years to come.

Lowery Stokes Sims, curator

I first met Jack Whitten when I was a fledgling curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Under the leadership of Henry Geldzahler, our department acquired Delta Group II (1975) for the collection. In those days, there was not that much representation of African-American artists in the Met’s collection. I marveled at his approach to abstraction using unlikely tools like rakes and afro-picks to score the surfaces of his paintings with criss-cross linear patterns. I was astounded again in the 1980s when I visited his studio and observed his painstaking creation of acrylic tiles embedded with and dyed with vegetal matter that he pieced together to create the surfaces of his paintings. I supposed that his annual treks to Greece somehow influenced this mosaic trend. In recent years when he showed in Chelsea, I enjoyed his unique synthesis of surface and object and was happy that he was garnering the recognition that had so long eluded his generation of abstractionists. And in the midst of it all, he was a generous spirit and a Southern gentlemen. I will miss not seeing him.

Cecilia Alemani, curator

I worked with Jack for a small show, “The Comfort of Strangers,” that I curated back in 2010 at MoMA PS1 in conjunction with “Greater New York.” It featured the work of Whitten as well as Sylvia Sleigh, Judith Bernstein, and Leslie Thornton. Jack showed three paintings from the 1970s: one of his famous squeegee abstractions and two of his “comb” paintings, with geometric shapes emerging from the surface. It was very moving to see what happened in the show by juxtaposing very figurative, sensual works by Sleigh and Bernstein with Jack’s abstractions. For some reasons it made a lot of sense for these works to be together.

Jack has left us with an impressive series of works that show how innovative and experimental he has been, starting from the very beginning of his career, by treating the canvas with radical tools like squeegee, rakes, and combs—way before other famous European artists did. Jack was one of Marcia Tucker’s last shows at the Whitney and I remember her talking so fondly about him.

I remember going to Jack’s studio and being struck by how friendly and welcoming he was. (I was just a very young and inexperienced curator who was going to steal some of his precious time!) I also remember a small detail that really stayed with me: the floor was soft and bouncy! If I remember correctly, he had covered the entire studio floor with a sort of foamy layer, so that his back wouldn’t hurt from the extensive hours standing and painting. It was so strange to walk there, like floating. It was almost as though he had created a shield to protect him and his work from the harshness of life. I thought that was a beautiful image and I always will remember him like that, standing upright on a layer of softness that he put between him and the world.

Shinique Smith, artist

I first encountered Jack Whitten and his work in 2007 or 2009 at Alexander Gray Associates. And it is thanks to Pamela Joyner—for having the vision to gather an array of artists at her Joyner-Giuffrida collection to meet and share ideas—that I had the honor of some quality moments with Jack Whitten.

Jack was a charmer with his own stylish flair—always wearing an ascot or scarf, sometimes with a beret or what I thought of as a captain’s hat. I warmed to him quickly because his brand of humor and manner of laughing was familiar and similar to my grandfather’s. (I’m grateful to my art uncles and grandfathers for their prolific explorations of music, gesture, and the grid, and of side-profile posturing—like Barkley L. Hendricks and Terry Adkins—whose losses have also echoed through my studio.)

“Jack would preach that art was one of humanity’s last bastions, and abstraction was where we as black artists could truly be free.”

Jack used to say that “collage is the highest form” in art, and I agreed with him. Through the use of collage, one is able to balance gravity with time and space, histories and cultures with color and gesture. He displayed an almost metaphysical understanding of life through collage and paint. Jack was very passionate about art and could preach at times that art was one of humanity’s last bastions and abstraction was where we as black artists could truly be free, and where freedom could be truly expressed.

His contribution to painting and to abstract art is indelible, and his presence will be greatly missed.

Jim D’Amato, artist and student of Whittens at the School of Visual Arts

I was at the end of my foundation year at SVA when I first heard of Jack Whitten. Seeking some guidance about what the path to being an artist actually was, I was told to “seek him out” by Peter Heinemann, a longtime friend and colleague of Jack’s at SVA. I wasn’t prepared for how much meeting Jack would impact my life. It was like getting hit by a meteor.

“The verb is to make and not to paint,” Jack said in one of our first conversations. This idea was at the core of Jack’s process and one that I took to heart. Whether it was about the unlimited potential of paint itself or the challenges of being a painter, Jack never shied away from what he called “the real time element” of things. He embraced it and used it in his work.

He always kept his kindness and sense of humor on that journey, and was absolutely fearless about creating new spaces in paint. He never wanted to be “a dog chasing its tail.” He overcame real adversity and the complete ignorance of others and forged an amazing life and body of work. The world won’t be the same without him.  

Charles Gaines, artist

I first met Jack Whitten in 1973, when I was living in New York. If memory serves me, I was introduced to him by Ed Clark. We all met at Jack’s studio where I was also introduced to his wife, Mary. We looked at some new paintings and talked about his love of Greece, where he and Mary spent a lot of time. I remember how kind and gracious he was to me. And I remember how powerful his work was, highly disciplined abstract paintings that inventively rethought the idea of the gesture and explored it as a tool to realize form, image, and pattern. I also remember that he was an optimist, even as he knew that being a black abstract painter in the early 1970s was very difficult; his idea of art was more a commitment to a principle of art making than it was a career where one sought recognition and reward. His response was genuine and not just a strategy to come to terms with an unfriendly art world. So many black artists who have been neglected because of their race suddenly receive overdue attention late in their life, but they are not able to live long enough to enjoy it. There is just not enough time to fully make right so many years of wrong.

Andrianna Campbell, curator

“Throughout painting, gesture has been the guiding principle,” Jack Whitten said in 2015. “Americans extended the notion of gesture.” I think of Jack as living in gesture. It was something about the way he carried his frame. The way he would extend his arms out when talking to you. The way in those iconic studio photographs from 1977, you see him effortlessly moving his Developer around—a tool made at first of two-by-four wood, and later sixteen-gauge sheet metal with a piece of thick neoprene rubber. A tool he used to work on those “Slab” paintings, smearing paint, scraping it, weighing the density, and considering how much and where. As a very young artist, he was so indebted to Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis that visitors to his studio remarked on it. It made him reconsider, start over, and throw out the brush. Why not reinvent the tools themselves? He used Afro combs for paint appliqué, really underscoring the efficacy of blur. Then came the mighty Developer. The reinvention of the painting tool was a means to reinvent gesture itself. We saw in the work of Max Ernst and others a willingness to seek new means for paint application-frottage, making a rubbing of a textured surface, grattage where pigment is applied to substrate to capture the essence of the object beneath, or even decalcomania where the artist lays a pane of glass on a fresh painting to achieve a smeared surface. We saw Jackson Pollock working on the floor. Jack’s accomplishment is to bring these together into a practice uniquely his own. Not just in the tools themselves, but also when one considers the remarkable deviation in the surfaces of his canvases.  

Jack had early successes with a Whitney solo show in 1974, a 1983 ten-year survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and then a decade later a show at the New Museum; however, the intervening years were filled with dry spells. As he said, “you needed commercial representation.” It was not until 2007 that Alexander Gray Associates began representing Jack, and it was in 2015 that after much deliberation he made the move to Hauser & Wirth. Marilyn Minter, who taught alongside him [at SVA], told me, “You should have met him 20 years ago. He was overlooked but yet he was never bitter. Later he thought of his recent success as better late than never. He gloried in it but did not gloat.” He told me of years living with a lifetime of canvases that he meticulously stored. Many of the paintings had heavy surfaces because in the 1980s he started experimenting with applying skins, building up bas-relief areas.

I never knew him as this young man in the photographs, or even the esteemed professor that Marilyn describes, but the force of his presence never felt diminished into his seventies, when I met him. I was introduced through our mutual friend Ruth Fine in 2012. I was the lead researcher for Ruth’s colossal and critically momentous Norman Lewis show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Jack welcomed me and he took me in as if I were an old friend. He wanted to talk about Norman because he did not want his history to be lost. He spent hours with me recollecting another painter’s life, when he could have been telling me his own. To meet someone like Jack, to sit in the studio, drinking endless cups of green tea and looking around at his canvases of the 1970s and ’80s, was to see mastery and dedication firsthand. It was to feel uniquely blessed that history allows us to cross paths with great figures. Sitting in his home with his beautiful family, his wife Mary and daughter Mirsini, you got a sense of a complete human being. Someone who had so much joy; someone who was loved; someone who was honored by President Obama with a 2015 National Medal of Arts and who made you smile when you saw him wearing it afterward.

“To talk to Jack was to recognize the beauty and richness of existence, the possibility in even the dimmest times.”

He read a lot. He was an avid reader—philosophy, science, you name it. His conversation kept you on your toes for the facts and for your opinions. Often when I think of Jack, I’m transported back to the studio and again and again to standing in front of his wall of postcards, photographs, and mementos. Some referred to people he knew who were long dead and yet still admired, like Norman Lewis. Others were of artists such as Robert Smithson, who he only knew through the work. Standing there is how I came to find Spiral Jetty: For Robert Smithson (2016), his homage to Smithson that I hung in my “Vanishing Points” show at James Cohan. This was last year. I remember him standing at the opening, teasing me that I had put him on a salon wall surrounded by Smithson drawings. (I also included Jack’s iconic painting Black In Time I, 1980, which was hung in a primary position.)

Jack was not all about the intellect; he held on to a certain mysticism. He loved to refer to Katy Siegel’s 2006 “High Times, Hard Times” show and his prolific use of LSD before he had to stop and get his head together. He respected Katy because she had brought him back from obscurity. He followed his gut about people. He had visions that he followed as to where to put down roots. He would speak of Greece often, of the topography of the place and how it informed his work, of the dream of a tree that led him to the island in Crete where he started vacationing in 1969. To know him was impossible without seeing his collections of fish bones, sponges, and coral that he collected in the decades of foraging during his free dives. All those summers there, he dove as humans have been diving since ancient times.

And yet he was not a man who rejected the present. One of the first paintings I interviewed him about was Apps for Obama (2011), a tesserae painting about iPhone apps. He reveled in technology just as he had as a young artist-in-residence figuring out information transfer at Xerox. He had been born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939. He came into the world in the South during segregation and Jim Crow and he would shake his head and say that he had lived to see a black man become president. To talk to him was to recognize the beauty and richness of existence, the possibility in even the dimmest times. Though our eyes are dampened by the loss, and our hearts are heavy at the same time, we have yet to begin to grieve him because his presence looms above us all in those paintings, in those wood carvings he did in the long Greek summers, and in our hearts and fond remembrances. Here is a “Black Monolith” for Jack Whitten. Farewell Jack.

Artsy Editors