WALL STREET JOURNAL
Feb. 6, 2013 9:37 p.m. ET
Jack Whitten has been working with paint since he moved to New York in 1959 to study art at Cooper Union. He started showing in galleries in the ’60s, commencing a career that would acquaint him well with many exquisite and elusive elements of abstraction. After decades of both high-profile exhibitions and spells of relative inattention, he’s now an important figure in the city’s history of pioneering African-American art, as well as in the story of painting since the rise of Abstract Expressionism.
At age 73, Mr. Whitten is currently in the midst of a New York moment. His 1974 painting “Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington)” features prominently in the group exhibition “Blues for Smoke,” opening Thursday at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Next week, more of his work will be on display in the New Museum show “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.”
From his studio in Queens, in a splattered white coat and sneakers painted shiny silver, Mr. Whitten spoke with The Wall Street Journal about choosing abstraction, finding his way in New York and learning to love “north light.”
This is something of a homecoming for you at the Whitney.
The painting there was originally shown at the Whitney in a show I did in 1975, so that painting’s come back home. It’s neat to see a painting come full-circle back. I’m originally from Alabama, and it’s owned now by a museum in Birmingham. For the Birmingham Museum of Art to buy that painting was fantastic because when I was a kid, I could not go there. For them to buy a painting of mine and put it in the museum—that’s kind of heavy.
In your catalog essay, you wrote that “abstraction is a matter of choice.” What guided your choice?
The black community has a narrative tradition. Black folks are storytellers. The blues, for example, is stories about people’s sorrows, people’s joys. I came in at a time in my generation when I realized I didn’t have to follow the narrative tradition just because it was a given. But a funny thing happened on the way to abstraction: Now I’m finding that there’s such a thing as an abstract narrative!
Do you mean we see stories in abstraction?
You can look at anything and immediately your mind will recognize a pattern and you’ll say, “Oh, that is like…” We all do that. An older painter once said to me, ridiculously, about a black-and-white painting by Robert Motherwell, “It’s just Holstein cattle.” The mind wants to find a pattern that is familiar.
How did you develop your painting style?
My paintings are not painting in the traditional sense of painting a painting. I “make” a painting. They’re all done through process, as opposed to painting with a brush. That came out of sculpture: When you’re carving wood, you’re “making”—cutting, chiseling, grinding, sanding, laminating. All those practices figure into the painting process for me.
What inspired that process?
When I moved to New York, I would leave class at Cooper Union and make a beeline for the Cedar Tavern. That’s where the action was. Some of the first people I met in New York were Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Chamberlain, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko. Before coming to New York, I didn’t know what art was. I knew how to draw and how to do some things, but building a larger philosophical notion of the meaning of art never occurred to me. But seeing how they lived, I thought, “If this is what art is, then this is what I want to do.”
What attracted you to them most?
Those guys could be crazy. But being there as a young black kid from the South, with all white people, I never felt from any of them what I felt down south. I could talk to them and they’d ask, “Hey kid, what’s happening? Did you get any work done today?” It was the notion of freedom. When I came to New York and discovered abstraction, I immediately saw it as an expansion of freedom.
Was the rest of the art world as open then?
No. For painters in the generation before me, when it came to the commercial gallery scene, there was very little representation. In my generation it was none. For black artists doing abstract painting, there was no support whatsoever. Even through the early ’70s, nobody reached out. There was a great divide there.
You mentioned de Kooning as being helpful. What did you learn from him?
I was a young art student asking him questions and following him around like a puppy. He was useful in a lot of ways. I came in one night after a horrific critique when one of my professors put me down for concentrating too much on process. That was not a word used much then, in 1961. He said I accepted too many accidents. I spoke to de Kooning, and he said to me, “There’s no such thing as accidents in painting! F— him.” That was very helpful to me. Here was a master of Abstract Expressionism who was using a lot of process techniques. He used to mix mayonnaise with oil paint and beat it to emulsify it.
What do you make of the New York art scene now?
The good thing is that New York as an art center still has an amazing amount of energy and variety. Every sensibility known to man is here. When we speak of pluralism, New York is where it’s at. I do sense, though, a huge void out there now, a void in abstract painting, and young people are not capable of filling it because it’s gotten to a point where it’s too complex. A young person doesn’t have enough information. But I have a lot of information. I see an opening, and I have to take advantage of it.
Your shoes are pretty abstract.
In the ’60s, we painted our shoes. They’re like my [similarly silver] work hat. When I’m working, I have to have something to break the light. When I was in TriBeCa, I had a whole window of north light. In Manhattan the north light is the best, but I get some north light here too.
What is “north light”?
It’s the best light for painters’ use. In New York, they all want north light. North light is more polarized—it’s bright but it has a softness to it. South light is harsh, very harsh.
Artists Melvin Edwards and Ed Clark at the opening of “Jack Whitten,” September 2011, Alexander Gray Associates, New York
NEWSMAKER: Jack Whitten on Molding His “Ready-Now” Abstract Paintings
Photo by Kristine Larsen
Published: September 11, 2013
Though he’s been making work since the 1960s, Whitten is in the midst of a well-deserved renaissance. His pivotal experiments in process-driven abstraction were revisited in a major show on view through March at the SCAD Museum of Art, in Savannah, and also included in “NYC: 1993” at the New Museum this past spring. This month new paintings go on view at New York’s Alexander Gray Associates, and pieces from 1971 to 1973 will be shown at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum from September 17. In 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art in
San Diego will give Whitten his first major retrospective. Scott Indrisek met with the artist at his studio in Sunnyside, Queens, to talk about his experimentations with paint.
How do you work with paint as collage, exactly?
Collage has been sort
of the keystone of modernist thought. With Picasso, with Matisse. What I have done is remove the paint from the canvas, which makes it physical. I can pick it up and hold it in my hand, I can cut it and I can reapply it. This is the essence of the notion of making a painting as opposed to painting a painting.
Some of the most recent works involve
the shape of a loop. How’d that come about?
I was having an interview with a German fellow in the studio, and he was asking me the same question. I took a sheet of paper and I tried to explain to him. I
drew a line coming out of Africa to America, and I said, when I started learning about painting and art history, I had to move from America, I had to go up to Europe. I had
to go way over to the Far East, to Japan and China, all the way over to Australia. I’m going back and forth globally. It’s a map—
an autobiographical map. That’s where
the loop started, but as I got into it, it became something more mystical. André Malraux had a theory he called Museum Without Walls, that one should be able
to travel mentally through all the world’s cultures, the whole repository of human knowledge. Major museums now, their holdings are listed online. You can go and you can punch into the Louvre and walk through the whole collection. Go up to the Tate, come back through the Prado, go through the Metropolitan.
Can we talk a bit about your rather unique technical process?
I make these strips of acrylic beforehand, all in different shapes. And then when I
put the strips into the wet field of paint,
they relax. It’s very conceptual. Everything comes together with the last step. This is
not an overlay, that’s an inlay; it’s inlaid into a field of wet acrylic, and when that happens, you get a strange spatial juxtaposition. For painting, that’s a new space. I first saw
a glimpse of that space in the ’70s, and
I’ve been chasing it ever since. But now I’ve chased it up to a point where I can force it into a corner.
Can you tell me about the painting Remote Control, which will be in the show at Alexander Gray?
That whole surface is poured; it’s not a painted surface. It’s about five layers. It’s like pouring concrete. You build a form, it has to be absolutely
level and then you start
pouring. Then the paint
moves where it wants to.
It’s contained; in Greek
that’s what is called
kaloupi, which means
“a parameter, form.”
Jack Whitten, “Remote Control,” 2013 / Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
Are you ever actually
applying a brush
to the canvas?
Not so much.
Sometimes, if I’m looking
for a thin glaze, I might
resort to some types of
brushes. But to actually
sit down and paint with
a brush, no. I cut paint,
I laminate paint, I grind
paint, I freeze paint,
I boil paint. I just gave
a talk at Yale University
and some kids were
asking about the process,
and I said, “Well, it’s like
Chinese cooking.” You’ve
got to select everything,
find the best quality you
can, wash it, clean it, cut
it to the desired amounts, and you have all these component parts laid out to do a stir-fry. And then there is step one, step two, step three, right? And at the last moment, all these ingredients come together and the whole thing takes place
in four minutes at the most.
And what are the other 3-D forms that are inlaid into the paint?
They come from all over. They are made from molds. One is from my orange
juice bottle, Simply Orange. My wife and I went to the supermarket and bought a whole shopping cart full of it, $150 worth of orange juice, when all I was after was the bottles. The computer mouse died yesterday. We had to go to Staples to get a new mouse, and the container it came in—that’s a mold. I bought a lot of clams and took the shells and used them as molds. I call this stuff ready-now. Duchamp called his found objects readymades; I make these and I call them ready-nows. All
of these plastics are different. I have to experiment to find a release that will allow me, once the acrylic is set, to be able to pull it out of the mold. My dealer in Antwerp wears
a hearing aid. The last time I was in Antwerp, his wife had saved all the containers for his hearing aids and gave them to me. So I brought them back
to New York and got a very
good painting out of it, which of course I gave to her. The cooking industry is making a
lot of nonstick products, and they’re fantastic.
And how do you get the color into
I’m mostly using an acrylic medium
that is transparent, and the ratio of pigment to the medium is less than 1 percent. It’s important that I keep working with the theme of transparency. I wanted it see-through.
Have you ever worked with oil paint?
In the 1960s. But when I started being more experimental in the ’70s, acrylic was
the way to go. Oil paint does not allow you
to experiment to this extent. You can’t do it. I’ll be waiting for it to dry for months. And now that different manufacturers are coming up with different mediums within the acrylic polymer, the range is incredible.
You have a house in Crete where you spend the summers. Do you work while you’re there?
I carve wood. I don’t paint in the summer much. In wood carving you use chisels, axes, saws, hatchets, grinders; you are cutting, laminating, shaping. It’s a very physical process. All of these processes now have gotten into the painting. So the greatest influence on my painting is my wood carving.
What are those airplane models hanging from the ceiling?
These are the airplanes the Tuskegee airmen flew. I went to Tuskegee, you know. My first years in college were there, where I was a premed student. What happened was that one particular early morning in our ROTC class, the base colonel was leading the class
on weaponry. All I remember is standing up from my seat—now, you wouldn’t do that. ROTC in Tuskegee is some serious shit. I stood and I mumbled, “What the fuck am I doing here?” My buddy grabbed me, but I just repeated it: “What am I doing here?” We were getting ready to take a big test, and I just realized this was not for me. I knew that I had to leave Tuskegee. Before going
to Tuskegee, my thing was art and music. Tuskegee didn’t have an art program, and I went further south to Baton Rouge. Southern University, they had an art program. State school, segregated. I started studying art and got involved in the civil rights demonstrations. My class closed down Southern University, shut it down. We organized a march. It started off as a protest against the state because we didn’t think that the state was funding our school to the degree that they were funding the white school. This was the first time anyone had protested against it. The damned thing started off as a campus thing, but then it enlarged into a whole civil rights thing. The local clergy became involved, and people
in the community, and we organized a march downtown to the state capital of Baton Rouge, and that turned nasty. That’s what forced me out of the South. At Tuskegee a professor of architecture had told me about Cooper Union. That it was tuition free. They accepted me for the fall semester. It’s a hell of a story because now you know the problems at Cooper Union. They have destroyed their legacy. They fucked up. Now for somebody like myself, with the need that I had, it’s no longer an option. It’s a pity.
28 Black Holes (Dedicated To Jackie O)
Alexander Gray Associates
Apps for Obama
Alexander Gray Associates
Alexander Gray Associates
Alexander Gray Associates
Alexander Gray Associates
Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
WALL STREET JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL
AGENDA – United States, Arts
11 September – 12 October 2013 at Alexander Gray Associates, New York.
Crushed Grid (2013), Acrylic on canvas 63h x 103w in (160.02h x 261.62w cm)
Alexander Gray Associates is pleased to present an exhibition featuring new paintings by Jack Whitten, accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalog. The presentation highlights the most recent evolution of process in Whitten’s nearly 50-year career dedicated to abstraction, manipulation, and subversion of traditional painting practices.
Scale, context, and history play equally integral roles in the group of paintings on view. With its alluring, slick black surface, the sprawling Remote Control (2013) is both seductive and intimidating, alluding to the appeal and threat of technology. In the massive Crushed Grid (2013), Whitten reinvents the modernist grid by immersing a distorted net of acrylic ribbons in thick layers of undulating paint. The varied effects of his material experimentation add a sense of tension, depth, and motion; the result is an array of illusory surface textures that seem solid and aerated, dense and viscous yet fluid.
The memorial and homage paintings in the exhibition further exemplify Whitten’s innovative consideration of painting as object. Elements of three-dimensionality are applied to the canvas, such as the acrylic molds in Nine Cosmic CDs: For The Firespitter (Jayne Cortez) (2013). The radiant energy captured by Whitten’s vivid palette provides insight into the fierce personality and artistic achievements of the late poet who inspired the painting.
About his recent work Whitten states, “I like the idea that people are suspended while asking questions about process. I like the idea that the viewer might be frozen by wonder. I have developed many conceptual and technical approaches over the past 50 years, and now, all I’m doing is going back into my toolbox and using them. I am dealing with the evolution of painting, Western abstract painting in particular. In this way, evolution is the symbol I am trying to capture. That’s why each work is so different, it is still in the act of evolving.”
Concurrent with the exhibition at Alexander Gray Associates, Jack Whitten: Light Years 1971–1973 is on view at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University September 17–December 22, 2013. Whitten’s painting, 9-11-01, is featured in
The Encyclopedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale through November 24, 2013. Whitten will also be featured in the renowned traveling exhibition Blues for Smoke at the Wexner Center for the Arts September 21, 2013–January 5, 2014, as well as the Gallery’s Art Basel Miami Beach 2013 presentation. Whitten’s work will be the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego in 2014.
Alexander Gray Associates
508 West 26 Street #215
New York (NY) 10001 United States
Tuesday – Saturday
From 11am to 6pm
Published: Thursday, 15 August 2013
SPACE BUSTERS II
acrylic and polyurethane on panel
16 x 20 inches
New York artist Jack Whitten has been making pivotal abstract paintings since the 1960s, and to this day continues to explore and create cutting edge, process-driven work. Whitten now omits the brush from his practice, stating “I cut paint, I laminate paint, I grind paint, I freeze paint, I boil paint,” just naming a few of his radical techniques. In Space Busters II, Whitten uses a unique translucent mixture of acrylic paint and polyurethane to cast multiple hemispherical reliefs from everyday objects. The final painting creates an amazing, yet strange, spatial juxtaposition for the viewer, a unique feeling that has been the impetus for most of Jack Whitten’s artistic pursuits. Whitten’s work was exhibited in the 1969 and 1972 Whitney Biennials; the landmark 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964–1980 at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975, organized by Independent Curators International; Blues for Smoke, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and The Encyclopedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale. Recent solo exhibitions include P.S.1/MoMA Center for Contemporary Art, New York, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and Savannah College of Art and Design. Whitten’s work will be the subject of solo shows Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971–1973 at the Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, and Jack Whitten: Evolver at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield. A retrospective exhibition of Whitten’s work will be presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in fall 2014.
estimated retail value: $30,000
Jack Whitten with Robert Storr
by Robert Storr
On the occasion of Jack Whitten’s two exhibits, at P.S.1 (from now until September 24th) and at Alexander Gray Associates (from September 13th to October 20th), Rail Consulting Editor Robert Storr spoke to the artist about his life and work.
Portrait of the artist. Photo by John Berens
Robert Storr (Rail): After having seen your show at P.S.1, I had no idea you painted in that idiom at all at the beginning of your career (maybe partly because I got to know your work when I came to New York in the late 1970s). Can you talk a little bit about what your experience of that period was like, and where you were coming from?
Jack Whitten: Actually I showed those works in a group show called “Four Voices – One Theme” at Allan Stone Gallery in 1965. In fact, it was my first commercial gallery showing in New York.
Rail: How did Allan Stone become aware of you?
Whitten: He became aware of me through the painter Joe Overstreet, who had arranged a meeting with Allan and other artists at his studio. I was just one year out of college from Cooper Union.
Rail: There’s a lot of variety within the group—I mean, between 1962 and 1968 you were dealing with all kinds of pictorial problems, and arriving at different pictorial solutions. Take “See the Funny People” for example, where the separations from density to openness are highly delineated, whereas in most other paintings there’s a sense that all the forms and all the marks are potentially bleeding into each other or inter-weaving as if they were painted with greater urgency and spontaneity.
Whitten: Well, you’re talking about the whole decade of the ’60s. On the one hand I was struggling with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and on the other, I was, like most other people at the time, living precariously through my own experience with the psychedelic.
Rail: (laughs) Now Jack, how dedicated of a researcher were you?
Whitten: That’s what was in the air; that’s what people were feeling, so all of the inter-mingling or one thing melting into another was considered natural at the time. (laughs)
Jack Whitten, 9.11.01 (2005). Mixed media and acrylic on canvas, 120”x240”. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.
Rail: Let’s focus on the political condition and how it affected you. First of all, there’s about half of the paintings that in some ways, by their titles at least, make references to Dr. Martin Luther King. For example, “MLK’s Garden,” “King’s Wish,” “For MLK,” and “U.S.A. Oracle,” which is the most complex one, in that it has a lot of sub-themes. Maybe you can tell us just a little bit about what Dr. King meant to you at that time, and how you went about making pictures in a context where there was breaking news about the war and then his subsequent assassination in April of 1968?
Whitten: I met Dr. King when I went to hear him talk at a local church in Montgomery, Alabama, which is not far from where I was going to school at Tuskegee Institute in 1957. It was my freshman year, and right in the middle of the bus boycott. So I had a chance to speak to him about our political struggle.
Rail: What was he like to deal with one on one?
Whitten: You know, having been brought up in the Christian Fundamentalist Church in Bessemer, Alabama; I was already accustomed to witnessing such a preacher man. The only thing different was that he was a great one—charismatic beyond belief of course, but what was important to me is that I was able to connect with a type of spirituality that the man had.
Rail: He was still a very young man at that time.
Whitten: Absolutely. And this was his first introduction to the national stage. At that time, as you know, all of our buses were segregated; we had white sections and colored sections. I remember the sign on the bus in Bessemer—the front said ‘white’ and the back said ‘colored.’ I knew a young man, he was actually one of my older sister’s best friends who came back from the Army with his Army uniform on, got on the bus and sat down one day, and the bus driver asked him to move, and he told him he was tired and wanted to sit down. So the guy pulled out a pistol and killed him. So what King did within that context was an extremely brave thing to do.
Rail: Did you ever come across him again in person or did you mostly follow what he did in the news the way other people did?
Whitten: I was present in Washington, D.C. for his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, but I never met him again. What I did on my own when I was down in Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1959 was try out his theories of non-violence by participating in numerous sit-down demonstrations. In fact, I was one of the organizers.
Rail: Was it part of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) or was it a spontaneously organized demonstration by you and your colleagues?
Whitten: It started as a campus protest among students, and then it spread out, involving all the local clergies, and was nationally televised. In fact, that march convinced me that I couldn’t participate any longer. That’s why I left and came to New York to further my study at Cooper Union in 1959.
Rail: Because the violence was directed at you?
Whitten: I just couldn’t go on. I believed in Dr. King’s philosophies; but in reality I found out that I didn’t have it in me to continue in this direction. I found it too difficult to turn the other cheek.
Rail: So when you came to Cooper Union, what kind of work were you making before those paintings that are now on view at P.S.1?
Whitten: The best way to describe my experience at Cooper Union in 1960-1964 is that it was influenced by both German Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionism. But as soon as I graduated I met Bill de Kooning and Franz Kline, my work became more Abstract Expressionistic, with some surrealist overtones. I was influenced by Gorky as well as Pollock.
Rail: So the notion of “Hide and Seek” had an impact on you.
Whitten: I remember once visiting a friend, and how I kept seeing faces on the windowsill. At first I found them very disturbing, because I didn’t know what was happening.
Rail: Were you being, perhaps, anxious about a certain thing, or was it a vision of some sort?
Whitten: I think it was more like a vision, because I started seeing these faces in everything that I looked at. In addition, it was my friend Jeff Waite, a carpenter and a philosopher (he was Welsh and had earned his PhD from McGill University) who one day saw me pick up one of these found objects which I collected and grabbed my hand and asked me, “Why did you pick up this one and not that one?” And I said, “I never thought there was any difference between them. I just pick whichever one attracted me.” At any rate, it was Jeff who interested me into reading philosophy and aesthetics. And then, as we say today, connect the dots. One thing led to another. The structuring of personal aesthetics is what those paintings are about.
Rail: In spite of the fact that there’s a lot of references to the social conflicts in the ’60s and so on, it’s hard to tell in some of the paintings whether these images are emerging from the ground, or are in a sense being sublimated into the painting.
Whitten: At that time, I was doing the best I could to contain the kind of imagery I was seeing. It wasn’t an intellectual situation, but rather, it was an emotional necessity. As a matter of fact, they’re my autobiographical paintings. I mean, I was going through a serious crisis in my life. But then everybody was. The whole race issue forced me to pick myself apart subconsciously until I met people like Leroi Jones, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence who had found other solutions for their creative lives.
Rail: That was a very interesting chapter in the history of African-American artists altogether. For example, Norman Lewis was shifting towards abstraction in the ’50s, which was considered at that time very radical, but his work by far has not been well represented in art history, nor has it been well shown in museums. And I guess one of the things that’s exciting about your show is that it brings up all of those issues.
Whitten: That’s one part of the problem, the other is the tension that exists between abstraction and figuration, which has to do with pictorial or formal problems rather than political ones.
Rail: You’re right—there is quite a lot of range in what you see. I mean, they’re gestural paintings from a distance, but when you look closer you see faces and other references to the figure. At the same time, the spatial organization varies enormously.
Whitten: It’d be difficult to tell you what sort of mental state I was going through by late ’68. For the first time in my life I had to see a shrink simply because I thought I was going off the deep end. I would occasionally go and talk to Jacob Lawrence. And he would tell me, “Well, you got to keep your mind on the plastic.” It’s like the Van Gogh syndrome. Van Gogh was obviously emotionally intense, but if he hadn’t maintained some sort or a structural integrity, he would not have been able to make those paintings. That’s what made his paintings so great.
Rail: Yeah. Form is a way of absorbing and dealing with tension, so that it doesn’t run into chaos!
Whitten: It’s a way of trying to make sense of things. You’re a painter yourself, you know what I’m speaking of.
Rail: I do, actually. Emotionally as well as formally. All of us want to be in charge of it. Now, one of the things that’s also striking, is that in “Look Mom,” you get these opaque surfaces, certainly less atmospheric than others ones, and you begin to see a clarification of the physical parts of the painting other than gesture. Does that work, in some ways, have greater connection to your abstractions in the ’70s?
Whitten: That painting coincided at the time when I started using paint right out of the tube. I discovered what I call “the spatial overlay,” which gave me a different way to deal with space. It was my own way to get away from that psychedelic influence. Anybody with any sense from my generation who was serious about painting by the late ’60s had to realize that the psychedelic was a perpetual dog chasing its tail. And in our own way, we had to invent our way of making paintings.
Rail: Your painting, “Siberian Salt Grinder” in the show “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975,” curated by Katy Siegel at the National Academy of Design, was so uncanny because it looks so much like Gerhard Richter’s work, but it was made before Richter made paintings of that kind. Again it was a question of suddenly discovering a chapter in your personal history, but it’s also problematic, if you want to call it that; in that nobody was aware of it unless they happened to be real lucky to have seen them.
Whitten: That painting was first shown at the Whitney Museum, in a show curated by Marcia Tucker. It was painted in ’74, a good ten years before Richter. By the time I did the last show at Alan’s in 1969, I realized that I had to do something drastically radical from the relative gesture of my wrist, which was becoming too habitual. In the middle of all this, I got a grant from Xerox Corporation along with three other artists, Steve Antonakos, Bob Whitman, and Agnes Denis, and all of us were invited to Rochester to experiment with their instruments and work with their engineers. And my solution was to expand the gesture while taking my hand out of it. I figured if Bill de Kooning had a house-painting brush, if I made a brush 20 times that size, I might be able to overcome his influence, and perhaps the work will lead me somewhere else. Ultimately, they were critical for me because they allowed me to make new leaps in other directions. The total picture plane was conceived of as a single line.
Rail: You certainly did that. Not only did they give you a new direction, but they were also critical of the kinds of assumptions that went with what gesture was, and the idea of direct painting. Here you’ve got something where the kind of sensual and physical quality, with such gorgeous effect, could co-exist with a removed and formal conceit.
Whitten: I think in his last paintings, Pollock was dealing with those issues between Abstract Expressionism, gesture, and figuration, all at once. While many others tend to put him down because they thought that he was going back to figuration, I’m one of those who believe that he had discovered something that he didn’t understand fully. He was just desperately trying to make sense of what he had discovered, that’s all.
Rail: And he didn’t assume that it was a one-directional situation anyway.
Whitten: Well, my friend David Budd used to tell me repeatedly, “You know, after Pollock, something was swept under the rug,” and I never knew what he was talking about. At that time, when older painters talked to you, they did it in some sort double-talk or riddled way, and if you didn’t have a feeling for the painter’s language, you didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Bill de Kooning used to talk that way.
Rail: Yeah. With his wonderful Dutch accent. In any case, when you started making these paintings, did you care for the fact that you were going against the grain of geometric abstraction? In other words, were you navigating, in a sense, off of that, or were you perfectly happy to be seen in respect to that?
Whitten: By 1970 I was seeing a lot of Henry Geldzahler, who was a great supporter of my work at that time. He would come to the studio and we would talk a lot about the grid; the grid being a kind of, as he put in a little essay he wrote for me once, “aspect of civilization.” In my own way, I was introduced to it by my afro-comb. That’s where it started.
Rail: So that’s when you began to use your comb as a painting tool?
Whitten: Yes. First I used the afro-comb with a couple of paintings, and then I began to recognize a pattern. That’s when I wanted more control, so I started making the device myself. The afro-comb became a big carpenter saw. In fact, MoMA has one from 1978.
Rail: That’s the one I included in my first show at MoMA.
Whitten: Exactly. I remember one of the critics said “There’s a Jack Whitten painting that looks like it just wants to jump off the wall and start dancing.” But for the most part, no one knew what to do with those paintings. It took a long time to bring those paintings back into the public view with the proper understanding which they deserve.
Rail: That’s why Katy’s show was so important, because what happened during that period cannot be reduced to just a couple of names.
Whitten: Even the period we were talking about earlier, from the black perspective in the ’60s; no one has attempted to make sense of that.
Rail: The Whitney or other museums should do or should have done something on that period. Anyway, let’s shift a little bit to the 9/11 painting. What was your sense of that day, and how did you get to the point of thinking that one day you could make a picture after such an event?
Whitten: I was on Lispenard Street, where I had lived since 1962, with some firemen that morning because of a gas leak on our block. Do you remember the voice of somebody saying, “Holy shit!” from the first video clip that was available on TV? That’s my voice. Anyway, all of a sudden, there was this horrible sound coming our way, and we all look up and see this enormous plane flying right over our heads, and it went directly into the North tower. And when it hit, the first thing you saw was this big crystal burst; before you saw any smoke, before you saw any flame, the sky was just filled with crystal glass, which was hard to see on the video. It was like this huge chandelier, that’s what you saw. One of the firemen said, “Oh, it’s a horrible accident,” and so did my tenant and a few others among my neighbors. But my gut feeling was, “Hey man, that was no goddamn accident.” I had two years of pilot training down at Tuskegee, so I know that you can muscle a plane’s steering and take it off course. Believe me, that plane was like an arrow shooting at a target. The firemen stopped what they were doing, got into their trucks and they took off immediately toward the Trade building, and while some of us were still arguing about whether or not it was an accident, the second plane hit the South tower.
Rail: Because we live in Brooklyn, we could only see the whole thing from afar. We didn’t experience the impact. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have actually seen the impact up close as you did.
Whitten: Watching those poor people jumping out of the buildings was the most terrifying and horrible experience. To think that close to 3,000 people were murdered in my neighborhood—nobody gets over that, you really don’t. So I made a vow to do something about it. I made the decision before that happened to sell my building, and got a new studio in Woodside, Queens. I remember Ms. Gund came to visit me at the studio in the middle of renovation, and I said to her, “The first painting I’m going to do when I get this studio together is going to be the 9/11 painting.” When I finished the painting four years later, I called her up and invited her to come and see it, and she did.
Rail: She has got more time for people, more energy to really try and make things happen than anybody I know. So in some ways, the 9/11 painting is part of your memorial painting series that grew out of the ’60s?
Rail: But what was the first one?
Whitten: The first one probably was for my older brother Tommy, who was a jazz musician, and was killed in a fire in 1965. I did two Kennedy paintings, a painting of children who were killed in Birmingham, and one of Nat King Cole, which were all destroyed in a fire. I’ve had two major fires in New York.
Rail: Could you talk a bit about what you’ll be showing at Alexander Gray this month?
Whitten: Five memorial paintings that are based on electronic-stamps, which are for friends and people I knew: Al Held, Al Loving, Marcia Tucker, Bobby Short, and the last one for my younger brother, Billy, who died last year.
Rail: I only know the two Als and Marcia, but my daughter Katherine and I are big admirers of Bobby Short.
Whitten: Bobby was a great supporter of the Studio Museum. He gave a lot of time and effort to the Studio Museum, and that’s how I first met him. I told him that we play his music loud during the summertime at my house on Crete and that the swallows would go crazy flying in and out of the porch! Bobby gave me a big hug and said, “Darling, that’s so marvelous.”
Jack Whitten, Southern Exposure, Alexander Gray Associates
Jack Whitten, Chinese Doorway, Alexander Gray Associates
Jack Whitten, First Gestalt, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 16” x 16”. Collection: United Yarn Products, Co., Inc. All photos courtesy of Horodner Romley Gallery.
On a blustery, early spring day, I visited Jack Whitten at his five-story Tribeca building where he has worked and lived with his wife Mary for many years. On the ground floor is a pizza parlor and directly above it is Jack’s smallish studio with a few new works in progress. “Man, I have to work when I have a show up or I go crazy,” he told me. He was being humble—in fact, he had two shows up at the time: a retrospective of paintings from the 1970s at Daniel Newburg and a show of brand-new works at Horodner-Romley. “Oh, it’s been kind of quiet around here. We live a quiet life,” he said. Another underestimation. The phone was ringing off the hook. The previous day, the New York Times had proclaimed Jack to be the father of the much talked about “new abstraction” in painting of the last few years. No small feat indeed. We proceeded upstairs, past Mary’s conservation studio to the top floor, where Jack opened the door to one of the most gorgeous living spaces that I have seen in this city. “Yep, I did it all myself,” he proclaimed—this time with a bit of a boast—as I looked around at an interior worthy of Architectural Digest. His fetishistic wood sculptures and paintings from the 1960s to the 1990s co-mingled with luxurious handmade furniture and cabinetry. As we sat down, Jack offered me tea and bread soaked in olive oil pressed from his grove in Greece where he vacations each summer. The wealth of contradiction infused with the incredible warmth of my host made me know that I was in for something special, loaded with quiet surprises.
Kenneth Goldsmith Looking at these two bodies of work, from the ‘70s and the ‘90s, what strikes me immediately is that the earlier work is more self-consciously invested and referential to the history of painting than the later work.
Jack Whitten As earlier paintings, they would have to be more of a historical reference. My background—coming to New York in 1959 and studying painting at Cooper Union Art School, in and out of the museums and the Cedar Bar, knowing other painters, the Abstract Expressionists in particular—I had no choice but to be well versed. It took 20 years to get into a position where I could work myself out of history. Every painter wants to escape art history. And now there’s a curve that’s leading me out. My emphasis on pop culture, video, science, on the urban environment, and everything on up to the Big Bang theory excites me. I see that as a way, using those metaphors, that I can escape art historical references.
I was impressed with you when we first met in Lodz, Poland at the Artist Museum for Construction in Progress, running around with your computer, engaging all of those people with sounds, compiling all those words—I instantly identified with that, that’s why I wanted to meet you and touch base, because as a poet, you’re into this pop thing, you’re into this immediacy of the norm.
KG What we both share in our recent works is that we’re binding disparate things we find in the culture, in the newspapers, in the material that’s all around us. I find a lot of my sounds on the street. I’m always listening. And when I look at your recent work, I know you’ve been scavenging the streets—molds off the sidewalk, metal grates and caps—you’ve been taking impressions from the world around you.
JW Sure, sure. That button painting was inspired by a Lisa Hoke sculpture, but I lifted the composition from a Lalaounis jewelry ad in the New York Times.
KG I wouldn’t know that.
JW No you wouldn’t. (laughter) It’s not important that one knows that, but it’s what gets me started.
KG You transform material, you don’t leave it as you found it, or do you?
JW Transformation is very important. Materials are just raw materials, that’s all. It’s like a word, anybody can have access to the same word, but a word in your mouth is totally different from a word in mine.
KG : I tend to put a word into a context where it assumes a new meaning. It’s like taking a word out of the popular context and re-applying it to art. Tell me, what was your relationship to pop culture in the ‘70s?
JW What governs those early ‘70s paintings is photography, and I don’t mean a photographic picture, I mean the process of photography. What happens in a camera when you set that f-stop and a small amount of light comes through and places itself on a sensitive plate. The speed factor. Speed is an important part of abstract thought.
KG Talk about your relationship with speed.
JW First, in terms of Abstract Expressionism as a gesture, later in terms of the instant, what happens in a split second, as in photography. So when I was doing those paintings, to place the paint in a split second—the whole painting was conceived of as one line, the painting as a gesture.
KG Physically, how long did it take you to make those paintings?
JW Over an extended period of time I might go backward and forward in layers. But the crucial part took place in three seconds, two seconds. I took the Abstract Expressionist gesture and amplified it. That speed removes it from relational thinking to non-relational thinking. Because when that tool I was using would fall across the canvas—it did not allow for relational thought.
KG What tool?
JW Paintings from the 1970s were made with a tool of my design that was 12 feet wide, so that the act of painting was raked across the whole plane of the painting in one shot.
KG But the funny thing is that the paintings have an un-handmade look. They look like a photography process, in some way related to video. Obviously the hand is really important in your work, but somehow it was masked.
JW% It’s an extension of the hand. I’m coming in back of Pollock, I’m extending Pollock’s thinking, that’s what’s going on here. Let’s consider Pollock for a minute. The paint leaves the hand, falls onto this canvas, I take that and extend it several steps further.
KG With the tool?
JW I have to use the tool. The tool is a sort of medium, you might say, that stands between me and the painting.
KG Buckminster Fuller always said that one of the best tools he had were his eyeglasses, which he saw as an extension of the eye. So everything to Fuller was an extension of himself. That’s where the integration comes in. We’re really not separate from our tools at all. There is no need to shun or fear any type of technology. It’s all an extension of ourselves. Did you feel that the tool was an extension of your hand or was it something separate from you?
JW Very much like how Buckminster Fuller explained himself. That tool is an extender of my hand. It’s like saying the computer is an extender of one’s brain.
KG It goes into McLuhan’s old idea of an extended nervous system which has now come back full force into our lives with the Internet, global computer systems, and the new cellular satellite networks.
JW My metaphors are found in scientific processes. Hydrogen bubble chambers turned me on in the ‘70s. Electronic scanning devices—that’s where I found my images.
KG What do you mean by electronic scanning devices?
JW Let’s say you have an atom, a particle you want to scan. You put it into these chambers and get a picture of what it looks like, its movements, its tracks. Scientists have experiments they do in particle physics, they have whole caves built out there just designed to try to chase particles so they can track them. All through the ‘70s these things were going through my head, they excited me very much.
KG To bring it back to the idea of the computer and technology, I have a little hand scanner that I use as a vacuum cleaner. I can just suck up images and suck up text and put them into my work. Like the way you scavenge the streets and suck up all that’s around you and put it into your painting.
JW This is beautiful, it is what I call the loop. Sucking in information, using technology and letting it go back and forth. It loops in and out.
KG In embrace of the world.
JW In embrace of the world. Let’s dig it. We live in a modern technological society… But in truth, I think we are in a primitive technological society. That’s where we are.
Jack Whitten, Prime Mover, 1974, acrylic on canvas, 59” x 88”.
KG Primitive technological society. That’s an interesting idea. It reminds me of modern painting or modern music—perhaps jazz?
JW In John Coltrane’s music there is this phenomenon that we refer to as a sheet of sound. As a painter, I experience sound that way, light operating in a sheet…a sheet of light, a plane of light.
KG One thing I’ve always found remarkable about Coltrane’s music is the sheer amount of air and light he gives into his work.
JW He penetrates the world…the man penetrates the world. I believe in equivalency, as expressed in mathematics. My light in painting is equivalent to Coltrane’s sound. Coltrane’s music is non-linear. It’s circular. It’s not one-dimensional. Coltrane is multi-dimensional. And coming out of the ‘60s, this affected my painting. When I speak of space in painting, I’m speaking in terms of multi-dimensional space. A space that is infinite in all directions. This is what I got from Coltrane.
KG Haven’t you dedicated works to friends who are musicians? There’s been a great interaction with you and music over the years.
JW Music has had a great bearing on my painting. The music is what has kept me going, even in my lowest moments. I’ve had moments of depression, especially in the late ‘60s.
KG Knowing you as I do now, your spirit is so high and so generous that I can’t imagine you being plagued with depression.
JW I went through a period in the late ‘60s of anxiety. I was catatonic, I was afraid to get out of bed. But the music was the thing that kept my perspective.
KG And comforted you down there.
JW And comforted me. Well, growing up in Alabama, with my strict Christian fundamentalist background, we couldn’t hear rhythm and blues in the house, because my mother wouldn’t allow it. But my oldest brother always had one or two records that he would sneak on when my mother wasn’t home.
KG Where did you grow up in Alabama?
JW In Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer, Alabama is a steel mill town, the next-largest town to Birmingham. But the music I heard then was mostly gospel. Local rhythm and blues stations, early 1950s, played rock and roll, rhythm and blues. That’s the music I grew up with.
KG Getting it on the radio.
JW Getting it on the radio. See, things were very much divided, as they are today, unfortunately. But then, the polarity was great, coming from a strict segregated society. You had a black radio station, you had a white radio station. White kids played Elvis Presley, and that whole crew of country-western sort of sounds. Black radio stations played black blues, Detroit-sound music. Early Motown.
KG But it strikes me that everybody was copping everything from everybody. The blues guys were copping country licks and the country musicians were copping blues licks. It seems to me that there might have been more interaction, or am I wrong?
JW Well, I tell you. In Alabama, growing up in the ‘50s, there was a definite polarity. Definite. The word “crossover” didn’t even exist then.
KG But don’t you think it was happening? Wasn’t everybody listening to what everybody else was doing?
JW I would say yes, everybody heard the same thing. No doubt about that. Coming from the South, I maintain that there’s a certain southern sensibility. The language has that same intonation in the voice, white or black.
KG In the house that you grew up in, was there a lot of visual art?
JW My father was a coal miner. He died when I was young; my mom was a seamstress but she was a believer in education. There were books, magazines, a piano. My mother’s first husband was a sign painter, and he did some painting on the side, probably the first painting that I saw as a kid. His name was James Monroe Cross. He was also a gospel singer, one of the original founders of the Dixie Hummingbirds. And the old people in my community claimed that out of my mother grieving for this man I was a marked kid.
KG A what?
JW A marked kid. It’s a term which means that something can be transferred to another person. This man was not my father, but old people would say things to my mother like, “Anabelle, if James hadn’t died, I would have sworn you lied!” People were always pointing out that I had certain traits of his. I grew up with a painting that he did of a waterfall—I have it here. When my mom died, I requested from the rest of the family if I could have it.
KG What turned you on about it?
JW In those days, I had no idea what turned me on about that painting. Now I know that we carry ancient information in our head, in association to water. The first time we saw ourselves, the first image we saw of ourselves, was leaning over to have a drink of water. And we have carried that with us. So even today, water is an archetypal image. We carry a certain information about fluidity, translucency, transparency.
KG To me, it comes across in Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Ithaca episode, where there’s a beautiful body of writing about the properties of water. The question is, “What in water did Bloom, water-lover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?” And he says, “Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sun-dam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides…” This is exactly what you’re talking about.
JW Exactly what I’m talking about. The first painting I saw, that painting stayed with me all my childhood.
KG I’d like to pause for a moment, with this painting, and make a metaphor of Odysseus’s journey, which Joyce used in Ulysses, around the islands surrounding Greece. In your journeys, in a sense, your wanderings, from Alabama to New York, and every summer to Crete and then back to New York, there’s a parallel between Joyce’s character, this painting (which was a forbearer for the future) and your life as somebody who travels and lives in many places.
JW And it’s carried on water.
KG It’s carried on water. As was Odysseus. It seems to me that you’re very connected to the flow of life itself, the sequence of events. You’re not fighting events as much as you’re going with things.
JW Part of that is my 1960s upbringing. I’m 54 years old, and you are…
JW That’s a considerable gap. In the ‘60s, we grew up with a kind of philosophy. My generation never knew about the destination of the journey, our interest was being part of the journey. You ask somebody, “Where’s the destination?” Response: “Man, we don’t know.”
KG Well, the final destination is what, death? (laughter)
JW It wasn’t even death, because we didn’t accept that.
KG There’s a cornering of everything now, and a commodification, a tracking, and a counting, a competition and neurosis that’s based around professionalism and packaging. That goes against a lot of the type of flow that you’re talking about.
JW Well, my spirit from the ‘60s was one of rebellion. We didn’t want to be packaged. You have to understand, Ken, that my generation, coming from the ‘60s, we never really arrived. It’s like we’ve been holding on to something all these years. I’m not talking from just a black perspective. White and black, everybody, it’s like we’ve never had our shot, we’ve never had our due, it’s never really resolved itself. And I’m beginning to see now, that there’s a pretty good chance that this philosophy of life—now it’s ripe for the pickings. It’s time to collect interest on that. That shit has been lying dormant all this time. I say tap into it. And I can see where it would play a role, primarily in terms of media, computers, technology.
KG When I look at the most progressive of the computer networks, it’s the Well, which is run by the people who did the Whole Earth Catalog.
I don’t know, Jack, my idea of being an artist is in step with that philosophy; you’re living for the moment, very much involved with what’s happening, it’s about living life, and it’s not about the goals, it’s more about the journey. These ideas have come to me via my parents. How did you feel during the ‘80s?
JW See, the ‘80s were a bad time for me as far as the commercial world was concerned. The ‘80s really hit a peak of materialistic thinking. My work didn’t suffer. What happened to me in the ‘80s is that I buried deeper into my mind. I got ten years of work out of the ‘80s that is a solid body of work. I’m not one for knocking my head against a brick wall, so I went underground into the woodshed. But I realized that the works I was doing could not participate in the sort of thing that was going on in the ‘80s.
KG Art has traditionally taken a long time to assimilate—if it ever does within an artist’s lifetime—which was absolutely not the case in the last 15 years or so, where you saw people reaping fortunes and benefits instantly.
JW When I came to New York and first met Bill de Kooning I was 19 years old, and the man was in his upper fifties before anything started truly happening for him. I know artists today that have been working 40, 50 years and nothing happens. But there’s that love there that keeps them going. But there are no guarantees in art. There’s nothing out there which says, you work 20 years, 30 years, you’re going to get this fantastic benefit. There’s no such thing.
KG You have emerged in a big way in the ‘90s. Did those ten years of interior work strengthen your projects and strengthen your resolve?
JW Sure. It strengthened me spiritually, it strengthened me conceptually. Those site paintings, which were acrylic skins, came out of the early ‘80s when I first started laminating a piece of acrylic back down to the canvas. I took the paint up off the canvas and then put it back down on the canvas. This was a major breakthrough. I’m dealing now with paint as a collage, paint as sculpture. I have changed the verb “to paint”: I don’t paint a painting, I make a painting. So the verb has changed. And in doing that, I’ve broken through a lot of illusionistic qualities.
KG Dancers always talk about “making” dances. There is a physicality involved in the word make that reflects in your work. What role does the construction process play in your work?
JW Well, it’s how I made my living. And in terms of my art, my building that big platform in the ‘70s, that came out of carpentry…
KG What big platform?
JW Those paintings came out of that Whitney Museum show in 1974—I built a drawing board, a heavy duty drawing board, which was 14 feet by 20 feet. I built it out of 16-inch honeycomb centers of 2 by 4, covered with 3/4 inch plywood and industrial grade linoleum. I built it to my specifications, as flat and as level and as accurate as I could get it. And all those experiments in the ‘70s took place on this drawing board.
KG So you would stretch a huge piece of canvas over this?
JW Yes, I would stretch canvas right down over this thing. All those marks that you see coming out of those paintings, those are not arbitrary markings, those are set up conceptually. I developed a process of drawing where I would place things beneath the canvas, between the canvas and the board, and that way, I would get a shape to come through, that’s how I would get line and form. I was using a process of drawing where the shapes, a piece of wire or a piece of pebble is placed beneath the canvas in a very precise pattern, wedged against the board. And when that big tool I was using would come across with that much acrylic—
KG It would print, like photography—
JW It would print, you got it, it would be like a kid working with a rubbing. All I’ve done in the new works is to lift that skin of paint up off the canvas and put it back down. And that’s a revolutionary step.
KG I keep coming back to the idea of integration with you, it’s hard to separate things in your life and your attitudes and your furniture and your house. I look at these cabinets that you built, that are built with as much attention, and love, as the painting, as the music that you’re talking about. It is really remarkable, really, admirable and rare.
JW It’s very simple, Kenny. The reason for this is survival. I found out at an early date that in order for me to survive and to do what I wanted to do as an artist, first I had to establish priorities. I had to send a clear signal to people around me what I wanted to do. And I knew that I had to set up my life and a lifestyle that was totally integrated to serve this purpose. So I wouldn’t have any hassles. There’s a lot of shit out there I can’t control. I don’t fight the world. I’m in it. I’m in the world. I don’t fight it.
KG I’m wondering if it wasn’t some person who helped you bridge into this philosophy.
JW My mom, and growing up in the South in a segregated racial society. When you are raised with hate all around you, and then you got a family who teaches you love, you have people in the church who are teaching you love, you got a family network. And making an emphasis on how much hate surrounds you, you don’t have to be that way. That’s a sickness, when people hate, when people get all into this racial stuff, that’s a sickness. My mom and grandmom would quote from the Bible: “Revenge is mine, said the Lord.” You can’t go out there seeking revenge, you can’t go the hate pattern, it’s just gonna destroy you. If you get involved with that, you self-destruct.
KG It’s a very Eastern idea.
JW I very much enjoy your bringing me Ulysses, that completes a circle in my mind. I love experiences like this, my life is built on experiences of this nature. I learn primarily through revelation. And I’ve just experienced one. Even today, a lot of things in society still bother me, racial issues and so forth. I’m not pleased with what I see. I’m not. I was thinking in my little naive mind, 35, 40 years ago, that things would be much better but hey, it’s depressing, I must admit. One of the most depressing aspects of my life at this point is that society has proven me wrong. Growing up with what I grew up with in Alabama, whoa, I figured, “My God, man, another 40 years, this shit will be over with,” and it’s not, man, it’s not. Don’t kid yourself, it’s not. And when I look back and see what’s happening in Germany, to think that young people in Germany today would get involved in that kind of action. I don’t have the hope that I had. I don’t have the optimism that I had 40 years ago, that it will not repeat itself. It can repeat itself and all of us better wake up to the fact that it can repeat itself, the handwriting is on the wall. I see art as the only hope. That’s what I see. I don’t see religion, or politics.
KG You see art as something that can heal?
JW You ask me, What’s the purpose? What purpose does it serve? I’m not in art for art’s sake, or for decoration. It’s about dialogue. Romare Bearden spoke about art as a bridge. Art is the last hope.
KG Do you see, then, art as being a social experience?
JW Well, any involvement among two people is social.
KG But a lot of the time you’re alone in the studio…
JW We are alone, but the object is there. We are doing what we do now because of art. I never would have known you if it hadn’t been for art.
KG So when you send your work out to the gallery, you’re feeling that it’s a stand-in, that it’s an energy of Jack Whitten. And it’s communication even if you’re not there.
JW It communicates.
Jack Whitten, 28 Black Holes, 1993–94, acrylic, mixed media on canvas, 60” x 60”.
KG Did you get a lot of critical attention from your show at the Whitney Museum in ‘74?
JW No, no. Black artists at that period were not getting any kind of attention. My having that show at the Whitney Museum was primarily because of Marsha Tucker, a curator at the Whitney. There was a social consciousness in ‘74. The gallery at the Whitney that I used was set aside for people who did not have commercial representation, and I fit the bill.
KG It seems that stuff would have been snapped up and sold, with the museum confirming a sort of status and value of the artwork.
JW Only if you have commercial representation and you have someone who is a believer in you and the work, and is willing to promote it, is work sold. Work sold through gallery situations comes through an endorsement of the gallery/museum world with a bag of collectors to back it up. If you don’t have that kind of an interest, you can stand on your head out there for 20 years, and it won’t sell. It’s just recent, what you see, people like Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Martin Puryear, myself, David Hammons… This is recent man, very recent. We’ve had to live with this right from the beginning.
KG So why not become an artist… It’s a crapshoot, anyway—it’s like that old Dylan line, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
JW Yeah, but you see most kids coming out of the African-American community will take that line, and you know where they take it? Over into violence and criminality and drugs… It’s the other end of your coin, I’ll go the other way, I’ve got nothing to lose.
KG Coming from a ‘60s experience, that whole “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” was strong. There was an idealization about dropping out. How, as an African-American, did you feel about “dropping out?” Or were you already dropped out in some sense?
JW One thing you have to remember about Jack Whitten is that I have a southern sensibility. That’s different from north, east, west, white or black. There is something instilled in you from the beginning. Where I grew up you didn’t ask for nothing. You worked for it. I remember as a kid, my uncle didn’t have any money to buy a Chevrolet. He went to the junk yard, bought a chassis, a motor; he bought some doors, he bought a frame. He made the damned thing. He took a paint brush and he painted it. He drove to work in it.
JW You understand what I’m saying to you? This is my ground. My mom, when we needed clothes and we didn’t have any money, you know what she would do? She would go to the army surplus store and buy old clothing, bring them home, take them apart seam by seam, and rebuild them. And when I hit the street, hey Kenny, I had a new pair of pants on.
KG There was this positive idea coming from your home that said you were somebody—that you could get by in the face of adverse conditions. We come back to the word make again. It brings us back to the idea of the hand.
JW This is beautiful. You see when I speak today of the processes I use in painting, when I use words like construct and deconstruct, reconstruct, I’m doing what my mom did. My mom was the first great recycler.
You know, speaking of my home, when I got out of high school, I went to Tuskegee Institute as a pre-med student, on what was called a work scholarship program…an all-black college where the African-American scientist George Washington Carver did all his experiments. His laboratory is still intact. He was also a painter. I’m convinced today that a lot of my attitudes toward painting and making, and experimentation came from George Washington Carver. He made his own pigments, his own paints, from his inventions with peanuts. The obsession with invention and discovery impressed me.
KG So what happened after Tuskegee?
JW Went down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as an art student. Stayed there for a year. Got involved with sit-down demonstrations and all the upheaval that was going on down in the South. I’m one of the people who lead a march through downtown Baton Rouge. Horrible experience…we marched to the state capital, with people throwing shit on you, piss on you, hitting you with pipes and shit, people bleeding. Horrific experience. I will never forget at the steps of the state capital building, praying, and people throwing piss out of the offices, bottles and eggs, all kinds of shit… Then I took a bus from Baton Rouge to New York City. Ended up on the Lower East Side. In 1960, beautiful artists down there; poets, writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reid…there is a community in the arts. A lot of people don’t know this. A lot of people read things in glossy magazines, they read about the exciting lives of certain artists who are making a lot of money, but they fail to point out that there is a community in the arts. I had a brother here, dying in St. Vincent. He was in a bad fire. Took him 28 days to die in intensive care. He needed blood. All I had to do was pick up the phone and people in the art world, (bangs on the table) as much blood we needed. That’s real stuff.
KG Do you find your life to be glamourous?
JW People think so. People in western society have this view of the artist, some romantic thing. We live our lives and we do what we have to. But people outside see us as some glamorous, exotic creature. I don’t see that… (laughter) I work. I do my work. I teach. Art is something we do. It’s like we have a purpose in life, being artists. That’s a position. That’s a job. So where’s the glamour? We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. People do not understand the sacrifice that artists go through to do what they have to do. If they went into the artist’s life and saw what the artist has to do on a daily basis to keep their act together…
KG Not to mention the psychic torments.
JW Which we have no way of measuring.
KG You must have a feeling of satisfaction to see that the work you have been doing all these years is now being recognized by a lot younger abstract artists.
JW It’s a confirmation. It says your intentions were right, your feelings were correct. Even though it took 20 years for it to surface, for it to complete the circle. Artists tend to remove the notion of doubt from their vocabulary. We do that for self-preservation.
KG And the future for you?
JW I’m desperately trying to erase notions of past/present/future. I’m in something that’s going back to Zen. I’m into factualism. I’m sensing time now as being compressed. I want to erase in my mind this presence of past/present/future. I want to learn to do that. I would like my being totally immersed in the act of what I’m doing. No past. No present. No future.
NEW YORK TIMES
Art In Review
Alexander Gray Associates, New York
“Nine Cosmic CDs: For the Firespitter (Jayne Cortez),” 2013, in Jack Whitten’s show at Alexander Gray Associates.
Published: October 3, 2013
Alexander Gray Associates
508 West 26th Street, Room 215, Chelsea
Through Oct. 12
With a career grazing the 50-year mark, Jack Whitten is still making work that looks like no one else’s, which is saying something, given the flood of abstract painting in New York in the past few years. He invented new forms of abstraction and standards of beauty to match them. Even more to his credit, he’s still restless enough to make every picture a complex one-off formal event. And he’s stayed invested enough in art as an intimate medium to make those events personal.
Several of the new pieces in his current solo show commemorate people who have been important to him. A beautiful painting dedicated to the artist Alan Shields (1944-2005) is a little ocean of cresting waves with a thin, multicolor necklace of paint, of a sort Shields might have used to adorn his cloth sculptures, floating over it. A tribute to Jayne Cortez (1934-2012) — poet, performer and wife of the sculptor Melvin Edwards — is a smoldering red and black paint field implanted with circular forms that suggest both CDs — Mr. Cortez recorded with a band called the Firespitters — and life preservers.
Ms. Cortez was an artist-activist; in a quieter way, Mr. Whitten always has been, too. Some of his very early work, like that seen in a survey called “Light Years: Jack Whitten 1971-73,” at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University through Dec. 15, emerged from the civil rights movement. And a new painting like the 2013 “Remote Control” at Gray is alert to politics right now. A sheet of darkness studded with gears and knobs like watching eyes, it says a lot of what abstraction can say about limitless surveillance and push-button annihilation.