Odyssey: Jack Whitten at MET Breuer




Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017, now on view at MET Breuer, is an exhibition of Whitten’s sculptures, first created in New York and later at his summer home on Crete. Included in the exhibition are forty sculptures and eighteen of the artist’s lusciously layered paintings.

Jack Whitten moved to New York in 1960, fleeing the racial violence of the Jim Crow south. He enrolled at the Cooper Union, pursuing his study of African art.

Included in this exhibition will be Whitten’s entire Black Monolith series (1988–2017), displayed together as a group for the first time. “Named for a rocky outcropping visible from his studio on Crete, the Black Monolith paintings are composed of acrylic tesserae that Whitten painstakingly assembled by hand. Each work in the series honors a leader in the world of black music, art, literature, and politics, from James Baldwin and Jacob Lawrence to Maya Angelou and Chuck Berry. Whitten’s monument to postcolonial poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014), will also be on view, along with Bessemer Dreamer (1986), a poignant ode to the artist’s place of birth (Bessemer, Alabama) and The Met’s own Delta Group II (1975), acquired the year it was made. These and other paintings in the exhibition illuminate the technical, conceptual, and thematic parallels between Whitten’s work in two  and three dimensions, unifying his practice across media.” Below are a few of the Black Monolith paintings currently on view in this exhibition.

Black Monolith VIII (for Maya Angelou) 2015

Jack Whitten’s “Black Monolith VIII (for Maya Angelou) 2015 (above and a close-up below), pays tribute to the poet. Black Monolith VIII consists of thousands of deep black and rich brown acrylic tesserae mass in the center of the canvas, and framed by an oval made of lighter, shimmering tiles. “The work seems to stretch skyward, expressing both spiritual and intellectual uplift. As such, it recalls one of Angelou’s best-known poems ‘Still I Rise,’ published in 1978: ‘You my write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/ You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise’.”

Closeup of Black Monolith VIII
Mark III 1996, part of collection of the estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

It was interesting to read how Whitten, by the early 1970s, had ‘more or less’ “dispensed with brushes, choosing instead to pour, level, scrape, rake, impress, and incise acrylic paint with a variety of unconventional tools.” In the piece, above, he worked with Styrofoam, acrylic, hair, and eggshells on plywood. For Whitten, this combination ~ title, shape and relief ~ call to mind the African masks that had long captured the artist’s imagination.

Black Monolith V (Full Circle: For LeRoi Jones aka Amiri Baraka) 2014. Acrylic on canvas

The above image, Black Monolith V (Full Circle: For LeRoi Jones aka Amiri Baraka) 2014 is a piece created by the artist for his friend, LeRoi Jones. Sharing a love of jazz, this painting is both “fantasy and fantastical, a kind of futuristic homage to an important author, dramatist, music critic, civil rights activist, and leader of the Black Arts movement in New York and New Jersey.”

Black Monolith IV (For Jacob Lawrence) 2001

Taking it from the MET Breuer description, which describes Black Monolith IV best, “A towering figure in the history of modern art and a leader in the Harlem arts community, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2001) devoted his prints and paintings to the lives and histories of African Americans. Introduced by the artist Romare Bearden, Whitten met Lawrence several times after he moved to New York in 1960. He considered artists like Bearden and Lawrence his ‘first great mentors.’ As with the Black Monolith devoted to Ralph Ellison, this work features a central form reminiscent of both a human figure and the Cretan outcropping for which the series is names.”

Black Monolith VII DuBois Legacy: For W.E. Burghardt ~ Created from lustrous acrylic tiles which form the outer border of the shape. The heart is punctuated by bursts of bright color. Interspersed along the edge are small units of cured acrylic,, case from found objects and surfaces.

The above image, Black Monolith VII, is Whitten’s memorial to W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), the first African-American to earn a doctorate at Harvard University; one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); a leader of the Pan-Africann movement; and the author of The Souls of Black Folk (1902).

The piece in the center (above) is entitled Technological Totem Pole, with a close-up image below. “The work expresses a strong techno-utopian impulse, embracing the potential of technology to create an ideal society. Included in this piece ~ circuit boards, a Braun clock, flip cell phones, and a computer hard drive.

Closeup of Technological Totem Pole ~ collection of the estate of Jack Whitten, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017 will be on view at MET Breuer on the third floor to December 2, 2018. Met Breuer is located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, NYC.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue that includes essays by curators Kelly Baum and Katy Siegel as well as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kellie Jones, and Richard Shiff; an interview with Whitten conducted by Courtney J. Martin; and object entries by Aleesa Alexander, Meredith A. Brown, and Karli Wurzelbacher.

More interesting reading ~ Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed is the first publication devoted to Whitten’s writings. It takes its name from the heading Whitten scrawled across many of his texts.