On Art: Jack Whitten, Secret Sculptor

Jack Whitten, “Homage To Malcolm, 1965.” American elm partly stained, coiled wire, nails, mixed media, 80 x 18 x 14 in. 
© The Estate of Jack Whitten.

Shortly before his death this past January, Jack Whitten agreed to an exhibition primarily devoted to his sculpture, a body of work known only to his family and close friends. After its premier at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the spring, “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017” is now on view through December 2 at the Met Breuer. We’re fortunate that, near the end of his life, Whitten invited us to visit his secret garden of earthly delights.

An abstract painter who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the art world was dominated by Minimalism and Conceptualism, Whitten persisted in the subjective, improvisational spirit of the Abstract Expressionists. Far from following in their footsteps, however, he developed his own vocabulary of sensuous forms and tactile materials, including dragged pigment and acrylic-chip mosaics. According to ARTnews, his “process-based canvases pushed abstraction into new territory.” But while his paintings have been widely exhibited, his sculptures remained sequestered in his New York studio and on his property on Crete, where he began summering with his Greek-American wife, Mary, in 1969. Like Odysseus, the voyager invoked in the exhibition’s title, his artistic journey took him far from home.

Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, a steel town near Birmingham. To escape the South’s racism, which he referred to as “American apartheid,” at age 21 he moved to New York City and graduated from The Cooper Union in 1964. While still a student, he began experimenting with sculpture inspired by his African-American heritage. In the current show, his two “Jug Head” carvings reference both African masks and the grotesque 19thcentury face jugs made by enslaved potters in the rural South. Examples from the Met’s collection, well know to the artist, are included for comparison.

Indeed, the show is rich in such juxtapositions, illustrating Whitten’s adaptations of indigenous African and Mediterranean precedents. Several of his wood pieces are studded with nails, wire, razor blades and other sharp metal objects, paraphrasing Congolese nkisi power fetishes, one of which is also on view. “Homage to Malcolm, 1965,” for example, memorializes Malcolm X following his assassination. More than six feet long, constructed of wood and found objects, the sculpture’s head end is encrusted with nkisi-like elements, clearly linking the subject to his African forebears. At the other end, a curving shape suggests a blade, or perhaps the sharpness of the slain activist’s rhetoric.

Several of Whitten’s “Black Monolith” abstract mosaic portraits, including those of the authors Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, and the musicians Ornette Coleman and Chuck Berry, are also in the show. Like them, his nkisi-inspired carvings pay respects to figures he admired, from John Lennon to his Aunt Surlina. Among other droll touches, his tribute to the kri-kri, a type of wild goat native to Crete, prominently features his expired American Express credit card. A series of reliquaries contain bones from the island’s fish and birds; in one, a lock of his wife Mary’s hair is tenderly preserved. Two carvings are dedicated to his daughter, Mirsini. Effigies, totems, masks and weapons from other cultures and eras are mined for their potent symbolism and adapted to serve the artist’s fruitful imagination.

Considering how personal such works were to Whitten, and that he kept them from public view for decades, it’s no exaggeration to describe his sculptural practice as a labor of love: love for the materials themselves, and love of the physical act of transforming them from their natural state into works of art. Much of the wood comes from the area around his studio in Agia Galini, the Cretan village where he built a summer home in the mid 1980s. Using only hand tools, skillfully blending historical references with contemporary themes — sometimes whimsical, sometimes confrontational, and sometimes deeply spiritual — he fashioned what amounts to a multi-faceted monument to his experience of the places and the people he cherished.