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Art Review: Jack Whitten – Five Decades of Painting

Nora Kilbane Nora Kilbane Art Review: Jack Whitten – Five Decades of Painting
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This sweeping retrospective at The Wexner Center for the Arts provides an impressive overview of Jack Whitten’s career. Its 50 works dazzle with the wide variety of styles and techniques employed by Whitten, an artist who has been continually exploring new ways to exploit the properties of paint. “I cut paint, I laminate paint, I grind paint, I freeze paint, I boil paint,” says Whitten, who moved away from using the traditional brush and canvas in order to break free from the powerful influence of New York’s Abstract Expressionist movement. As you move through the galleries, you will see these ongoing experiments unfold.

art-04It is easy to appreciate Whitten’s works for their sheer physical beauty and innovative techniques alone, but they are so much more. Layered with meaning, they present poignant and powerful musings on race, politics, culture and the human condition. Because they are primarily abstract, rather than didactic or narrative, you first become immersed in the richly worked surfaces alive with color and texture. As you are drawn closer to better examine their intricacies, you read the titles— NY Battle Ground, Head IV Lynching, Flying High: Betty Carter, Apps for Obama — and realize, that although Whitten is working in abstract terms, these works are highly topical. Although the visual language is not representational, Whitten is speaking to you about the subjects—the people and politics, the racism, violence, and struggle, the art and music, time and place—that have moved and affected him.

Growing up in Alabama, Whitten met Martin Luther King and became involved in the Civil Rights movement. He also experienced first-hand the ugliness of racial segregation, which prompted him to move to New York City in 1960. The legacy of his experiences are found throughout his work.


The show begins with a series of canvases produced shortly after Whitten’s arrival in New York. They have a vaguely photographic quality to them, as if the artist is freezing forms in motion with an out-of-focus lens. Grey and white shapes shift elusively as they emerge and then fade back into the dark background. Dubbed the “ghost” series, these works conjure up pale phantoms. It is the titles, Head VII, Christ, Hide and Seek, Psychic Eclipse, 1964, that help us to see these nebulous abstractions as contorted faces with vacant eyes and gaping mouths, but they are not shouting about the violent history of American racism. They recount this pain in a whisper, and it is heartbreaking.

In the 1970s, Whitten moved away from the gestural style of the paintbrush, and turned toward a more mechanical means of manipulating paint. Placing the canvas on the floor or table top, Whitten would pour troughs of paint and then drag it across the canvas surface using squeegees, rakes, afro picks, or his own invention, a twelve foot wide tool called the “developer.” The dragging would create linear patterns, activating the entire surface and creating rich layers of striated pigment. Periodically, this seamless flow is broken by objects placed under the canvas, creating anomalies in the surface. In Prime Mover, 1974, the contrast between the linear grooves and the dips and peaks created by these breaks has an effect much like looking over a lake or river. You see the sky reflected in the rippling surface, broken by rocks and branches, and at the same time you are aware of the depths hidden below the swiftly moving surface.

In subsequent decades, Whitten began expanding on the sculptural potential of paint by creating casts of objects that he would then attach, collage style, to the surface of his canvas. Further experimentation with turning paint into an “object,” which could then be used to create a painting, led to his more recent series of works which are constructed from hundreds of individual tiles. Whitten creates them from sheets of hardened acrylic paint, and then applies them carefully to the surface of the canvas one by one like the tesserae of a Roman mosaic. This connection to an ancient art form is fitting for these large-scale, honorary tributes to both friends and public figures.


The acrylic tiles Whitten uses to create these images come in an incredible variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and textures, causing us to revel in the exuberant materiality of their surfaces as they slowly reveal a deeper theme. Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man is a compelling, if inscrutable, portrait. Surrounded by a pale aqua frame of clear, luminous tiles, the silhouette-like central form is dark, featureless, and impenetrable.  It dominates the center of the canvas, but as more of an absence than a presence. The tiles used for the figure are rough and tactile. Their physical, tangible state implies a person, and yet never quite materializes into one. In the center of this form, where we imagine the head to be, is a single razor blade embedded in a layer of clear acrylic. An allusion, perhaps, to Ellison’s sharp mind, or perhaps to the wounds inflicted on African-Americans, like his book’s hero, living in a society plagued by racial inequity.

You still have time to catch this spectacular show which is on view at The Wexner Center until August 2nd. Believe me, you should. There is so much more to experience than I can adequately to describe here. Go, and give yourself over to these big paintings, they have much to give you in return.

For more information, visit wexarts.org/exhibitions/jack-whitten-five-decades-painting.

Image Credits:

Jack Whitten, Psychic Eclipse, 1964, nylon fabric and acrylic on canvas, 26 1/8 x 25in. (66.4 x 63.5cm). Courtesy the artist, Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Zeno X Gallery,

Antwerp. ©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jack Whitten, Prime Mover, 1974, acrylic on canvas, 54 1/4 x 75 1/4in. (137.8 x 191.1cm). Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan ©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jack Whitten, Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, 1994, acrylic, molasses, copper, salt, coal, ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade on canvas, 58 x 52in. (147.3 x 132.1cm). Brooklyn Museum, William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund 2014.65.  © 2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jack Whitten, Apps for Obama, 2011, acrylic on hollow core door, 84 x 91in. (213.4 x 231.1cm). Collection of Danny First, Los Angeles. ©2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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