Lead Image: Jack Whitten, Cherrypicker (1990), acrylic on canvas
Last night, my buddy and I were catching up over beers at a bar in Brooklyn and as he excused himself to the restroom, I absentmindedly opened Twitter on my phone. At the top of my timeline, writer Antwaun Sargent had tweeted, "Omg jack whitten died." It was sad news, to be sure. Whitten was a pioneering abstract painter who, like many Black artists in the United States, wasn't given nearly the credit he deserved for his prescient experimentations with paint on canvas. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I had any type of relationship with Whitten, but I was reminded of the one opportunity that I had to meet the man, an experience that's stuck with me over the years because of his magnetic energy and crackling sense of humor.
In 2012, I was working as the Program Manager for the MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR. As part of the curriculum, each spring the first-year graduate students would embark on a week-long field trip to explore New York. I'd organize the itinerary with the Program Chair, who at that time was artist Arnold J. Kemp (now the Dean of Graduate Studies at the School of the Art Institute Chicago). Arnold was an old friend of Jack Whitten's, and he got us in touch through the gallery that was currently representing his work, Alexander Gray Associates. With help from the gallery and Jack's super cool wife, Mary, we were able to schedule a time for the students to visit Whitten's expansive studio in the lower level of a remodeled firehouse that he and Mary had made into their home in Woodside, Queens.
On the day that we visited, Whitten greeted us at the door upon our arrival and welcomed fifteen wide-eyed millennials into his space. Studio visits with students can go a lot of ways, and sometimes it feels a little invasive to bring so many individuals into someone's workshop. But Whitten was genuinely excited to see us and hurriedly began pouring us tea and offering biscotti he'd picked up that morning from a nearby bakery in anticipation of our visit. He put on some music and encouraged everyone to take a few minutes and just poke around. He floated from group to group, offering behind-the-scenes insight on works from decades prior to ones he was wrestling with currently. He then gathered us all and gave us a brief, but captivating, history of his life.
Whitten was born in 1939 in Alabama and came of age as the Civil Rights Movement directly challenged Jim Crow laws and broader white supremacy in the United States. He'd originally planned to be a doctor in the military, he told us, and initially trained at the Tuskegee University and then Southern University in Louisiana. He began to study art and got involved in the Civl Rights Movement, having had the opportunity to hear Martin Luther King, Jr speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In his very early twenties, Whitten decided to leave the South and was accepted to Cooper Union in New York. After graduating, he stayed in New York and committed himself to exploring abstract painting, a pursuit that would lead to him experimenting with novel techniques for the next five decades.
Art News' Alex Greenberger posted a brief, but thoughtful, narrative of Whitten's career yesterday for anyone unfamiliar with his practice and influence. During our visit, Whitten shared many stories from over the years, and talked with unbridled enthusiasm about the portion of every year that he and Mary spent at their house on the Greek Island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. The island's isolation from Europe, Africa, and Asia, he said, resulted in a truly unique landscape with an interesting biodiversity. If I'm remembering correctly, he and Mary had olive trees that they cared for and he described in great detail their flavors that few of us would ever have the opportunity to encounter. Whitten was a gifted orator, and I think I could have listened to him talk about anything for hours; I don't even particularly like olives.
He spoke about is relationship to acrylic paint, and how while using the "less fancy" medium resulted in some particular hurdles for a painter, it also presented some interesting opportunities. Whitten's acrylic mosaic paintings are unlike anything else out there, and one has to get inches away from the canvas to truly appreciate how integral process-based approaches were to this part of his oeuvre. He encouraged us to touch his work intimately, something I'll always remember. The surfaces felt simultaneously sharp but inviting, like movie prop sugar glass that lets you break a bottle over someone's head without actually having to hurt them.
Near the end of our conversation, he showed off a new approach that he hadn't quite figured out what to do with just yet. I can't remember exactly if it was acrylic paint or resin, but he'd been pouring it into the "punt" of wine bottles. I'd never really given any thought to why there was an indentation on the bottom of a wine bottle, but Whitten offered a few possible explanations including that glassblowers used to push the bottle's seam up on the bottom which allowed it to stand upright and also ensured nothing would be poking out at the bottom to cut people. Whitten was letting the paint or resin dry in the punt, creating a negative cast. He'd then peel it out and have a kind of mound-shaped "tile" he wanted to try affixing to the surfaces of his paintings.
"Does the form have any particular significance?" one student asked.
"Oh, sure it does," Whitten replied with a wry smile. He stared at the student with that look somebody gets when trying their damnedest to stifle an oncoming outburst of laughter in church. He finally broke and exploded out with a bellowing laugh. "The other day my wife and I decided it remind us of a titty!"
At that point I, and everyone else in the room, completely lost their shit. I was literally sobbing from laughing so hard. Whitten couldn't stop laughing, and Arnold was absolutely howling, which of course meant that nobody else could stop laughing, and the whole ordeal must have gone one for at least two minutes straight. He calmed down and we all eventually collected ourselves. Arnold thanked Whitten for his time and we all stepped outside into the spring sun in Woodside. We had plans to go see some shows or something, but I think Arnold knew that there wasn't much else that anybody needed to learn that day. He turned the students loose, and he and I hopped a train back into Manhattan, breaking out into intense laughter every time we made eye contact as Arnold mouthed, "A titty."