Hauser & Wirth is pleased to present its first exhibition devoted to the work of American abstractionist Jack Whitten. The show will feature selections from the artist’s newest bodies of work from 2015 – 2017, including tessellated paintings from the series Spatial Dialogues, Quantum Walls, and Portals; a piece from Whitten’s ongoing Black Monolith project honoring African-American visionaries; and assorted lenticular works on evolon. Lushly material explorations of space and its apertures, these works celebrate the distinctive painterly language that Whitten has developed over the course of a five-decade career.
Moving to New York City to study art at Cooper Union in the early 1960s, Whitten was exposed to a range of influences, from the vigorous paintings of fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis, to the rich complexity of bebop. Within this cultural milieu he developed an experimental style that combined the expressive physicality of gestural abstraction with the conceptual rigor of systems art. A radical breakthrough in 1970 provided the basis for his mode of working today: lifting a thick slab of acrylic paint off its support, Whitten realized that paint could be coaxed into the form of an independent object, challenging preexisting ideas about dimensionality in visual art. He began to lay sliced acrylic ribbons in wet, uneven elds of paint, mimicking the setting of mosaic tessarae into wet masonry. ‘For painting, that’s a new space,’ Whitten once said. ‘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.’
It is no coincidence that the tessellated appearance of the new paintings on view at Hauser & Wirth calls to mind satellite imagery of topographies rendered in pixels and bits. Whitten, who nurtures a passion for astrophysics, views abstraction as an area in which he can probe space and time as both scientist and mystic. Works from the Portals series, begun in 2015 with ‘First Portal’, explicitly tempt the viewer into cosmological rabbit holes; their effects evoke planetary passageways as seen through a telescope. These works seductively imply partially veiled other worlds. ‘I practice thought experiments in abstract painting,’ Whitten has said of this series: ‘Thought experiments allow me to…travel anywhere I want without the encumbrance of matter.’
The Portals series led Whitten to his majestically-scaled Quantum Walls paintings, a series of five works begun in 2016, with the fth completed in January 2017. Shimmering with brilliantly colored acrylic tiles, these works celebrate the beauty of the universe’s fundamental opposition to closure. ‘Quantum mechanics has rendered obsolete any notion of a wall,’ Whitten explained. ‘Quantum Walls is not to be misunderstood as a stand-in for utopia… I only want that which is possible.’
The exhibition introduces viewers to Whitten’s little-known sculptural practice with ‘Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal)’ (2016), a work that combines such disparate materials as marble, Cretan walnut, Serbian oak, lead, and acrylic, to startling effect. The sculpture’s human scale invites reflection upon how our bodies exist in space and, by extension, in relationship to other bodies, other souls.
The exhibition forays into a celebration of humanity with the painting ‘Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali’ (2016). This work is part of Whitten’s ongoing Black Monolith series, which memorializes important black artists, writers, thinkers, and poets. Whitten has said that this body of work uses abstract symbols to ‘honor our own and
grieve our own,’ adding a very personal note: ‘The passing of Muhammad Ali was extremely painful for me. His raw, primal power channeled through the plasticity of boxing is something I seek in painting.’
Holes, apertures, and coded space are the subject of Whitten’s Spatial Dialogue works. In these paintings forms double as voids in opalescent fields of tessarae. The artist’s engagement with astrophysics and metaphysics informs the series The Folding of Spacetime, in which the titular folds evoke wormholes in deep space, as well as his drawings on evolon, including the series Presence and The Third Entity. Here we see Whitten combining the smudged abstraction and ethereality of his 1964 Head series, with the highly processed effects of his 1970s experiments with Xerox’s dry electrostatic printing technology. The resulting images here have an otherworldly and even hypnotic appearance. Drawing the viewer in, they create doors to other states of consciousness.
The exhibition comes to a thematic head in the 2016 series The Doubt of Being, comprising six tessellated canvases in a gleaming aquatic blue, and Three Stages of Doubt, three grisaille drawings made of Renaissance wax and dry pigment on evolon. In these we find Whitten giving form to the natural predilection for questioning that is so fundamental to artists and scientists; in so doing, he renders paintings with the authority of philosophical inquiry.
Jack Whitten’s work is held in numerous major museum collections including Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas TX; Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York NY; MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York NY; SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco CA; Tate Modern, London, UK; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY. Recent solo exhibitions include: ‘Five Decades of Painting’ Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego CA (2014) which traveled to Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN (2015), and Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus OH (2015); ‘Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971 – 1973’, The Rose Art Museum, Waltham MA (2013); ‘Erasures, Paintings from 1975 – 1979’, SCAD Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah GA; ‘Jack Whitten’, Art 41 Basel, Switzerland (2010), and ‘Jack Whitten’, MoMA PS1, Long Island City NY.
About the Artist
Born in Bessemer AL, in 1939, Jack Whitten was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement before moving north to New York City in the early 1960s and enrolling at Cooper Union. He mingled downtown with the Abstract Expressionists, absorbing the in uence of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Klein, and Philip Guston, while engaging uptown with Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden. But Whitten would soon prioritize his own distinctly experimental vision, engineering breakthrough after breakthrough with techniques and materials, articulating new pathways between artworks and their inspirations. At times he has pursued quickly applied gestural techniques akin to photography or printmaking. At other times, the deliberative and constructive hand is evident. From his series of small Ghost canvases of the 1960s and subsequent pulled Slabs and dragged canvases of the 1970s, Whitten moved on to collaged acrylic Skins of the 1980s, and eventually to his more recent tessellated constructions – paintings that look like mosaics but are actually composed of dried-acrylic paint chips as tesserae unevenly set in wet paint.
The common denominators across the many phases of Whitten’s artistic practice – which he describes as ‘conceptual’ – are the avidity of his technical explorations and his mastery of abstraction’s potential to map geographic, social, and psychological locations, particularly within the African-American experience. Recalling his time as a pre-medical student at Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) in the 1950s, he once said, ‘[It was] 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.’