Down the optic rabbit hole
In a talk he gave at Boston University last year, Jack Whitten referred to himself as “neither nor,” exposing his aversion to strict binaries. His solo show at Hauser & Wirth highlights this evasion as well as his lifelong quest to break new ground in art. The show is a collection of his latest work from series like “Quantum Wall” and “Portal.” Whitten goes deep into his element here, mining the optic rabbit hole for the crux of sight. The pieces range from small (76.2 x 55.9 cm) to large (213.4 x 482.6 cm), orderly and erratic, and are given ample room on each wall in this big white space. Initially, the gallery’s size is a problem for me. I feel like it diminishes the show and induces a gut feeling of disappointment. The pieces are nonfigurative, and they don’t exactly leap out like works by Mickalene Thomas or Trenton Doyle Hancock. The paintings more so favor the work by Gerhard Richter. But I’ve come to accept this excess space as inextricably tied to the works themselves. Here’s what I mean:
Whitten’s work as well as most modern art is concerned with working to view. In Whitten’s case, this working to view concerns traversing some space in order to view. For example, I’m working my legs, the living tripod to get to a place, to see what I want to see. Scientists do this with say electron microscopes, the aid of lenses—an additional mechanism.
In “Quantum Wall (A Gift for Prince),” the largest piece in the show, I’m first pulled to its location by an optical imperative. A large rectangle plot of blue or purple hangs on a stark white wall. I work past my first thought of the work as a big blue monolith, like the black one in 2001: A Space Odyssey turned sideways. But as I close in on it I see that this is not the case. From an angle, the entire piece looks purple, another optical treat. The piece is a collection of little acrylic blocks, arranged like bricks on a canvas. And within each acrylic block, a mixture of blue and black, light blue and other shades of black swirl together harmoniously. It’s the sort of thing a connoisseur would marvel at in a traditional painting of a sea or a beached blue whale. Here it’s used as fodder for newer art.
Whitten, 77, a former cadet in the Air Force ROTC, talked about the studio as a battle zone or its potential to be one. The abstract expressionist works he made in the 60’s were born out of a psychological necessity; Whitten was raised in what he refers to as “strict apartheid,” in Alabama, the Jim Crow south. He attended the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university with a deep scientific culture. It’s also the alma mater of the late highly esteemed botanist George Washington Carver, whom Whitten cites as an influence. It’s this experimental mindset that Whitten took with him to Cooper Union, New York City, in 1960. The Big Apple is where he rubbed shoulders with art world giants like Clement Greenberg and Romare Bearden. It’s where his work would later evolve into single gesture paintings, or works more closely associated with post-painterly abstraction. And The Big Apple is where he currently resides. Oddly enough, Jack Whitten is in the only video of that first plane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11. He’s the one who shouts “Oh shit!”
This is the same way I feel about “Quantum Wall.” Wow! The acrylic bricks of blue and black are situated on the canvas to depict congruent splotches of dark and light, an image of something. It looks like smoke. What’s here is the work as the subject—it begs to be considered—but also a literal subject and a symbolic subject vying for resonance. The piece evokes an idea of the kind of work performed to accomplish each “stroke,” the work to arrange the bricks, and the intuitive work of the artist. Of course, this is paint as sculpture, but it does also highlight the fact that paint and sculpture were never truly separate disciplines. The viewer is gifted with a multi-dimensional encounter, a multi-layered appreciation for Whitten’s work.
Birth and creation
And this first encounter prepares me for subsequent encounters. In the adjacent piece “Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali,” I see a sperm pressed against the wall of a bell-shaped egg. I’m prompted by the piece’s title to see this. Even the greatest of human beings, the Ali’s and Einstein’s, start at the microscopic level. At this level, the level of close inspection, I find the mosaic is a cluster of multi-colored acrylic blocks. Vast portions of the canvas are black, mostly where the egg and sperm are. Here, acrylic paint is handsomely pushed to canvas, caked on and fractured like asphalt. I’m tempted to consider Whitten’s take on the act of creation as a comment on artistic creation, and how it fails against the natural reproductive process, or never breaks through. Let me explain:
What Whitten is doing is a kind of expressionism, not abstract because it doesn’t lack a specific subject, but naturalistic beyond simple depiction. In the mosaic of “Black Monolith,” for instance in its lower right hand corner, at the very corner of it, a yellowish rectangular block about an inch in length is flanked by a light blue block infused with black and grey flourishes. The corner’s point is a maroon and grey marble blend of acrylic adorned with glitter. And this is all in an area of about nine inches. The piece has a topography: it reminds me of the erosion of canyons and the peaks of mountains. There’s a tendency for artists to be drawn to the processes of nature, the original impetus for sight. These tessellated paintings are naturalistic by an abstractly-expressive-mimetic process, a reconciliation of the human creative impulse with the superior natural forces of creation that encompass it. In other words, Whitten’s work seems to be at an ethereal place, where art production rhymes with the ebb of creation at its highest state.
This could be simply the materiality of art harnessed and reworked in the vein of inevitability—the creational behavior tailored to the necessities of an arts production imperative—the arts as a force of nature, but not really. There’s a consideration for the elements of a medium that allows for a work to escape from it unscathed. It’s the natural will of the medium that Whitten directs rather than enslaves. He puts the acrylic paint to work, but he also lets the acrylic paint be.
Culmination and conclusion
In Jack Whitten at Hauser & Wirth, there’s evidence for the culmination of a lifetime of painting. “The Quantum Wall” and “Portal” series seem like a natural extension of the experimenter’s mind. In fact, it’s a combination of intuitive tinkering and scientific observation. It could be that “Black Monolith” and “Quantum Wall (A Gift for Prince)” is the universe mocking itself. That’s both jarring and wonderful.
I’m looking at a couple of small pieces in the Hauser & Wirth office, in a separate room, separate from the show. These are both by Jack Whitten, a triptych and a continuation of his “Portal” series. There’s a much shorter distance to travel to get to each piece. The room is actually a little cramped. But it’s a serendipitous find for me. A husky security guard, however, tells me I can’t stay long. But before I leave, he tells me there are two more of Whitten’s pieces on another floor. He tells me to come back, and I think about all of the work it would take to get here again to see only two paintings. Is it worth the effort? That’s something to consider.