There is a somewhat mystifying, what-am-I-looking-at quality to Jack Whitten’s paintings, and this spirit hovers over the exhibition “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017,” now at the Met Breuer. Whitten, who died this past January at seventy-eight, was a highly respected member of the art world, though his renown was, I think, largely among artists. He was known for making quite large abstract works that often looked at a glance like vast fields of mosaics, but they were not composed of thousands of little tiles, set one after the other by hand. They were created in a fashion Whitten invented, in which liquid acrylic was poured over surfaces that had been set with chunky, net-like, or stringy bits, and before the acrylic hardened it was raked and incised by the artist, who employed large tools that he devised for this purpose. Even after learning that Whitten’s paintings are not composed of countless tiles, however, you might see them in your mind’s eye as mosaics.
Now Whitten, speaking as it were from beyond the grave, has given his audience a kind of double surprise—the first being that he made sculpture at all. Apart from his family and friends, hardly anyone seems to have known this, let alone that he was involved in the endeavor for decades. And perhaps unexpected as well is the human warmth and wit, and the sheer formal variety—and the plain fun—of Whitten’s sculptures, all of which are made from carved wood and some of which have been affixed with pieces of metal, glass, and even leftover electronic equipment.
In a show that presents some forty sculptures and, helpfully, nearly twenty paintings from the last thirty years, we look at carvings that can be over six feet high but more often are tabletop size, or meant, masklike, to hang on the wall. They are works that can suggest the human figure or animals, or might hover between being abstract and suggesting a spirit or force. The playful and uncategorizable Kritiko Spiti (1974–1975), which is like a kind of inebriated totem pole, seems to be collapsing against the wall. African art is definitely in the air, particularly in Whitten’s feeling for angular and for beak- and prong-like shapes, and Northwest Coast art is suggested in a strong early totem pole.
Some of the most alluring works include little glass-covered boxes that have been built into the wood. We peer in and find keys, say, or snapshots, even rice or a spark plug. Joseph Cornell’s boxes might come to mind, even though whatever is in a Cornell box has its own breathing room, while Whitten crowds and jumbles things. Both artists, though, transport us to some foreign place. Where Cornell is the impresario of ballerinas, symbolic birds, and Renaissance princes, Whitten takes us in some ways to a small town on the Mediterranean island of Crete.
Whitten made a few sculptures in upstate New York in the 1960s, when he was first thinking of this art form. But beginning in 1969, when he and his wife, Mary, went to Crete for the summer, sculpture took on a new importance for him. Mary is Greek-American—Jack was African-American—and their trip to Crete had to do with a desire to look into Mary’s ancestry. On their first trip, the Whittens soon landed (not exactly by design) in the small town of Agia Galini, on the island’s southern coast, and it was to this port, set at the edge of the Mediterranean, with mountains at its back, that the couple returned most summers. In time, they built a house there.
In the fall and winter months, in New York, Whitten painted but made no sculpture. Come May, Jack and Mary and eventually their daughter, Mirsini, returned to Crete, where he worked only on his sculpture. Over the years he was interviewed and had articles written about him. In 1974 he had a one-person show at the Whitney, and there was a large retrospective, entitled “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting,” that traveled to three important US museums beginning in 2014. But his work as a sculptor was essentially never mentioned. From the numerous essays in the exceptional catalog of “Odyssey”—besides its great informational value, it contains a treasure trove of family photographs—one doesn’t get the sense that Whitten wanted to keep his sculpture a secret or that he had mixed feelings about it. The work he did in Agia Galini simply had no need to be discussed.
For some time before he died, Whitten knew that the Met and the Baltimore Museum of Art were jointly planning the current show. When the subject of his somewhat two-sided life is brought up in an interview with Courtney Martin that was done with the show in mind (and is in the catalog), Whitten says with finality that he didn’t make his sculpture in New York because it would not have found a place in the city’s art world. He adds, dryly, that he couldn’t make sculpture in New York because the actual activity, at least as he went at it, was too “noisy.” He seems never to have sold any of this work, and the most he made of it, when he lived in Soho or later in Woodside, was to have some pieces placed on a counter or in the studio.
What may first draw viewers to Whitten’s sculpture is a particular satiny (but not too satiny) presence that he has given the various black, brown, tan, and blond woods he has used—that, and his unostentatiously masterful work as a carver, carpenter, and designer. Mirsini’s Doll, for example, which dates from around 1975, presents at once an ingenious structure and a haunting personage. Fashioned from walnut and mulberry and an appealing pale cider in color, it is a bit over a foot high and was made for Whitten’s daughter. It has a curved handlelike top, so that Mirsini, three years old at the time, could have cradled it or carried it about. In the center is the doll’s circular, simplified—and, with its heavy-lidded eyes, vaguely forbidding—face. Is the doll, whose shape in its entirety suggests a person whose arms have been raised up over her head and clasped together, meant also to be a protective spirit for Whitten’s child?
Whatever he may have had in mind, Mirsini’s Doll is as arrestingly ambiguous as it is adorable. It is now in part a souvenir of Mirsini’s past, and many of Whitten’s strongest pieces were meant from the beginning to commemorate, or simply to acknowledge, a person, a thing, or an event. Commentators on his paintings have long noted this desire to use his work as a way of paying tribute. With a few of his sculptures, Whitten is very clear about his feeling for remembrance.
Memory Container, a standing, sentinel-like sculpture dated 1972–1973, is just what its title promises. It has, built into its front and back, shallow glass-covered containers that hold family snapshots, a Greek banknote, seashells, and curled, parchment-colored leaves from olive trees. Intriguingly, the piece was done only a handful of years after the Whittens first went to Crete. The couple may have been thinking at the time that they would not be going back to the island, or perhaps, as seems possible, Whitten didn’t need a pressing reason to get into a commemorative frame of mind.
In other works, his desire to tip his hat to some person or creature dawns on the viewer only after a while, or because of a sculpture’s title. The Death of Fishing (2007), whose title refers to the fact that fishing barely exists anymore in the Mediterranean, is such a work. It resembles a large, split-open pea pod (and, according to the catalog, possibly a lure, a boat, or a vulva). Nearly five feet long, carved from black mulberry, and hanging from the ceiling, the work has within its cavity a jumble of delicate and mostly pale-colored leftovers, whether fish bones or the lures and hooks and wire needed for fishing. Whitten’s title makes clear that his subject is loss but, much to the benefit of his piece, the theme is felt largely because of the title. The work would be a marvelous sculpture even if it were untitled.
Easily as strong is Reliquary for Orfos (1978), which holds the remains of a fish, an orfos, which Whitten, a practiced diver, would hunt in “dark underwater caves,” using a speargun. With its wonderfully suggestive architectural form, the sculpture could be a trophy or even a bird standing on a soapbox and making a speech. The witty, nearly seven-foot-high Technological Totem Pole (2013), meanwhile, manages to be a memorial to outdated electronics, including a flip phone and a TV remote. And the 1985 Homage to the Kri-Kri, which is nominally about a rare and disappearing Cretan goat, has—with its top half a crown-like mass of nails and screws driven into the wood—the presence of a portrait of a royal figure.
If a viewer has a working familiarity with African art, many of Whitten’s pieces will seem connected to it. Entering the show from the wrong end, I found myself responding primarily to the variety, assurance, and loveliness of his different sculptures. The connection with African art did not forcibly hit me until I was near the beginning of the exhibition, where a Kongo power figure, or nkisi n’kondi, was on view. It made clear that aspects of Whitten’s sculpture, especially his hammering nails and other pieces of metal into the wood in different places, and his incorporating in his pieces little glass-front containers, were derived from the carved and assembled sculptures of Central and West Africa. One learned, too, that for the African artists these details had symbolic meanings: the metal driven in was a way to release helpful powers, and the containers were meant to hold strong medicines.
The Kongo figure is one of a number of works of African art that the Met has included in the show, and they are joined by examples, also drawn from the museum’s collection, of works of Minoan, Cycladic, and Mycenaean art. As we learn in the catalog, Whitten’s sculpture shows as well the influence of these ancient traditions, which he knew from visits to museums in Crete and Greece. This exhibition is not the first in which the Met has added pieces that have an art-historical bearing on the subject at hand. Doing so has been part of the Met Breuer’s program in general. The museum did this, for instance, in a 2017 show entitled “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” in which American paintings and Japanese and French prints that Hartley was aware of became part of the presentation.
The practice might not be tolerated if the artist in question were alive, though Kerry James Marshall, in his exhibition at the Met Breuer in 2016, apparently wanted to have works from the museum’s collection on view. But in his case, the historical examples were corralled into their own space. In Whitten’s show, the pieces of African, Minoan, and other historic art forms have been interspersed with his own works, which makes it seem as if the museum wants to demonstrate that Whitten was knowledgeable and perspicacious. The effect is to suggest that his work needs toning up.
The low point is the label for an endearing, funny, and first-rate Whitten sculpture from 1985 called Bosom, For Aunt Surlina. This two-foot-high work, which is about an aunt of the artist’s who ran a thriving restaurant in Bessemer, Alabama, where he grew up, brings together lustrous, handsome woods and adds, in counterpoint, a mass of nails, twine, and other tiny items, set behind and around the wood. It is not an illustrational sculpture, but it might suggest, like a nude by Gaston Lachaise, a figure with a big chest who is rising up on dainty feet. Whitten’s intimate and affectionate title, taken along with the piece, practically makes us say to ourselves, “Yes, that’s Aunt Surlina.” But then to glance at the label, which not only says that Whitten was influenced here by Dogon sculpture of women but features a color photograph of a Dogon figure, is simply to deflate Whitten. It deflates our response to the piece. It is an art history lesson that belongs in a classroom.
Encountering the Kongo power figure can nevertheless shake your understanding of Whitten’s art, at least at first. Ultimately, I believe his rapport with other art forms comes to feel like influences he has used to his own ends. It takes a back seat to the larger story of what might be called Jack Whitten’s life and doings.
Yet African art was not a secondary issue to Whitten, and in some sense it lies behind his two-sided life. When he moved permanently to New York from Alabama in 1960, in his early twenties, Whitten was seeking freedom from a racist and segregated society. He had had run-ins with the police in demonstrations and felt certain that in time he would, as Katy Siegel notes in her catalog essay, “kill or be killed.” (It is pointed out in the catalog that unlike many other African-American artists, Whitten spent his childhood and much of his young manhood in the South.)
In New York, now a student at Cooper Union, he became part of two then-burgeoning, muscle-flexing realms. In the art scene, the achievements of the Abstract Expressionists were being taken as a glorious and not-to-be-questioned new chapter in worldwide modern art. Abstract art—and, for a painter, using large canvases—formed a way forward that seemed crowded with possibilities.
The more significant realm for Whitten, however, had to do with his race. The actions and words of Dr. King and others in the South, eventually to be built on in the 1960s by the urban Black Power movement, spread new awarenesses in black (and white) communities. Whitten at the time was getting to know senior black artists in New York such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who used the idioms of contemporary art to portray black life, and Norman Lewis, who provided a clear example of a black artist developing a distinctive, personal style of abstract painting. Through the photographer Roy DeCarava and Lewis, who would eventually spend time with the Whittens in Agia Galini, Whitten came to know Ralph Ellison.
Whitten was a musician, too. He played tenor sax and had helped organize a dance band, the Jazzettes, in high school, and in the 1960s in New York his “consciousness” was “expanded,” as he says, by hearing and in some cases knowing titans of jazz such as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. Of the many figures he was encountering, Whitten seems to have been especially buoyed by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, about whom Whitten wrote, “I had never met a Black man who spoke that way!” The creator of the Black Arts Movement of the time, Baraka sought to have a black point of view spread through all the arts.
It was in this atmosphere that Whitten thought about the African sculpture he had encountered at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum. This work, seen on his very first trips to the city, was a great revelation to him. In Alabama he barely had an idea of what an art museum was, and he probably would not have been allowed to visit one even if he had wanted to. Seeing African art in New York filled him with pride, and, a kind of lay theorist given to putting his thoughts in private logbooks, he came to believe that African sculpture as an art form had not exhausted its promise. He started making sculpture because, an inventive and superlative craftsperson to begin with, he felt the only way he could fully understand African traditions would be by handling wood himself.
In the works of African carvers and designers, he found (and he wasn’t of course alone in his perceptions) an essentially geometric, or gridded, conception of form. It was an understanding that, as Whitten wanted to point out, predated Picasso’s Cubism, itself based on non-Western traditions. African sculpture, Whitten saw, bespoke as well ethical, communal, and spiritual concerns that he believed had no place in Western modern art—or certainly not in the progressive art being done in New York at the time—and that he wanted for his own work. For him, African art seems to have formed a criticism of what he called “New York formalism.”
In a revealing footnote in the catalog, Whitten says of his sculptures that they “allowed me to escape Clem Greenberg”—meaning that working with wood enabled him not to have to follow the dictates of the writer whose thinking could stand as a symbol of the purely aesthetic values that held sway in American art of the time. But did Whitten escape these values when he made his paintings in New York? Looking at the pictures in the show, one feels that they would have passed the Greenberg test. They are of a piece with the work of many artists who came after the Abstract Expressionists and whose work had little to do with representational images, let alone aspects of the artist’s own life. The paintings seem largely to do with the properties of the artistic materials being employed.
Done between 1988 and 2017, most of the pictures we see at the Met are from a series called Black Monoliths. They were inspired to a degree by a stone outcropping not far from where the Whittens lived in Agia Galini. As a photo in the catalog shows, it is black in color, extremely imposing, and, a little oddly, unconnected to anything in the surrounding tan and green landscape. From this isolated dark wonder of the natural world it probably wasn’t a leap for Whitten to come to his Black Monoliths series, each example of which is prominently associated in its title with a black person of considerable achievement.
The earliest painting is a “tribute” to James Baldwin. The last is “for” Chuck Berry. In between there are paintings in honor of, to take a few examples, Barbara Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The painting for Ralph Ellison suggests a faceless head and shoulders, but most of the works are pure abstractions, done in Whitten’s preferred and not totally fathomable manner, in which various little substances are held in place by a membrane of acrylic. The pictures give a sense that, as Kwame Anthony Appiah says in the catalog, a terrain is being “viewed from the air.” We are prompted to think of how these different historical figures might relate to the paintings associated with their names. The exercise, though, is slightly vaporous.
But there is nothing vaporous about Whitten’s sculpture. A little like Billy Budd, which was found among Melville’s papers and first published decades after his death, Whitten’s carvings are more than a late-innings bonus. Their existence might alter the story of American sculpture of the past half-century, and they will of course change our overall sense of the artist. One wonders, for example, how in the future his two kinds of work will, or won’t, be brought together. For organizers of exhibitions, it will provide a fine challenge. As the current show indicates, taking in Whitten’s paintings and sculptures at the same time can have topsy-turvy results. On the one hand, it is undeniably valuable to think of the many large achievements Whitten is honoring in his Black Monoliths canvases. On the other, none of these honorees is made as real to us as Aunt Surlina.