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
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
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
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.
, 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.