The Secret Sculptor

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017

an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, April 22–July 29, 2018; and the Met Breuer, New York City, September 6–December 2, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition by Katy Siegel, with contributions by Aleesa Alexander, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kelly Baum, and others
Baltimore Museum of Art/ Gregory R. Miller, 191 pp., $55.00
Estate of Jack Whitten/Hauser and Wirth
Jack Whitten: Homage to the Kri-Kri, 25 x 8 x 13 inches, 1985

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,…

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