Jack Whitten's black monoliths and painting without a brush

Tuesday Night Painting #13

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Jack Whitten, Black Monolith II (for Ralph Ellison), 1994

Hello painters, 

I hope you enjoyed our virtual field trip to Unsmoke in Braddock, PA from last week. I will be keeping my eye out for any other opportunities to get out of the house to see some art. But in the meantime, I have several more interviews with contemporary artists to share with you in the future.

What I want to share with you this week is the life and work of Jack Whitten, an artist whose work doesn't fit very simply or neatly into the box labeled "painting." Whitten was an American artist who passed away in 2018 at the age of 79. As a young man he embarked upon a decades long career of drawing, painting and sculpting, after having begun training as a pre-med student at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Whitten felt a strong urge to become an artist as a child, and although art-making at home was not discouraged, it wasn't seen as a viable career, thus explaining his pre-med direction. From Tuskegee he transferred to Southern University in Louisiana and was actively involved in civil rights protests and marches around Baton Rouge. These experiences would become subject matter for his early paintings. But these experiences also soured Whitten on life in the south, and as soon as he could he hopped on a Greyhound headed for NYC. He was accepted into art school at Cooper Union in NYC, but that's only the start of things.

You can learn more about Whitten's life story and his work by watching
this short 9-minute video from Art 21
Keep scrolling to see highlights from Whitten's career and to learn more about his working methods.

Red, Black, Green
1979-80, Acrylic on canvas, 64 x 64 in
Psychic Intersection
1975, Acrylic on canvas, 51 x 88 inches
Dead Reckoning I
1980, Acrylic on canvas
Whitten's early work in oil paint mixed the figure with the abstract and had distinct political and social themes. His early paintings had titles like NY Battleground and USA Oracle (Assasination of M.L. King).

But Whitten was dedicated to abstraction, and he made a big shift in his working method when he switched to acrylic paint. In the 70s, Whitten had ambitions to develop “a new spatial perception” by “experimenting with the possibilities of paint without imposing the added burden of psychological implications.” We can see that Whitten had the same impulses as Stanley Whitney (also from last week's newsletter): despite social pressures, both artists could not deny the urge to block out everything else and focus on art-making.
Slip Zone
1971, Acrylic on canvas, 39 x 39 in
April’s Shark
1974, Acrylic on Canvas, 72 x 52 in
Chinese Sincerity
1974, acrylic on canvas
However, in direct contrast to Stanley Whitney's style of painting, Whitten was not satisfied with putting down a color or gesture onto the canvas, and then responding to it. This was how he viewed Willem de Kooning's art-making process (de Kooning was someone Whitten had admired and encountered in NYC on numerous occasions). For de Kooning, and also for Stanley Whitney, each brushstroke laid down on the canvas was in some way a reaction to the previous brushstroke. Whitten wanted to create a painting made out of one single gesture.

To accomplish this, Whitten created a series of what he called "Energy Field" paintings using various tools like Afro picks and squeegees. He even created a giant twelve-foot long wooden rake - what he called his "developer" - to drag paint across surfaces. More of Whitten's work from this period, the results of these experiments coming out of his painting laboratory, can be seen at this link.
Black Monolith, X (The Birth of Muhammad Ali)
2016, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 63 x 3 in
Black Monolith, VII for W.E.B. du Bois
2014, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 63 x 3 in
Installation view: Black Monolith IV for Jacob Lawrence (right)
Later on in his career, Whitten developed a series he dubbed the "Black Monoliths" in which he sought to represent black icons who made a substantial contribution to American culture. These pieces are created out of many collaged elements sewn, glued, and pasted onto the canvas. They achieve a sculptural effect, sometimes projecting out into the space in front by several inches.

Whitten discussed his approach to making these and other works using the same technique in this interview. He considered himself a maker of paintings rather than a painter of paintings, having removed the paintbrush from the equation long ago.
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2016, ACRYLIC ON CANVAS, 48″ X 96″
Whitten continually sought new methods of image making over the course of his career. Sometimes that involved reaching back into history to find old methods. Whitten spent summers in Greece that eventually turned into years, studying Greek patterns and tile making techniques.

His methods also involved dipping into scientific research, both theoretical and technical. For his last major series, huge collaged pieces he called Quantum Walls, he used a special pigment called Pyrisma that would give his works a shimmer and a glitter, catching the light in different ways depending on the viewer's perspective.
Quantum Wall, VI (The Son of Jazz)
2017, Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 48 inches
A detail view of one of Whitten's Quantum Walls
For insights into the creation of these Quantum Wall type pieces, you can see Whitten's working method in the Art21 video I linked to earlier. You can watch Whitten affix the brightly colored chips of acrylic with some adhesive to the canvas. He'd build up these massive canvases one chip at a time, scraping a bit of mortar from a tray and pasting the chips onto the surface.

Click here to see more of Whitten's work from the 2010s, the last phase of his career. 

Asked what kept him focused on art-making throughout the decades, Whitten responded: "It’s the life force, of wanting something that exists outside of dualities. That’s what keeps me going."

This is usually the spot where I tell you that this newsletter is free but not cheap and to ask for donations to keep it running. I still commit several hours per week to compiling and writing these, but this month I will remind you of places where you can donate to support black lives and communities of color.
The work of Resa Blatman is on view at the Childs Gallery website
The obituary of art collector Ronald Ollie who donated a treasure trove of abstract works by black artists to the St. Louis Art Museum. Click to see the works of several artists, some we've covered in this newsletter and some new ones as well.

Boston-based Childs Gallery is hosting a virtual exhibit entitled Making Waves, showcasing the work of three artists whose works are organized around the theme of the climate change and the ocean.

NYC-based gallery The Hole is hosting a fundraiser for BLM. Pretty much all of these prices are out of my range but you can look at the artists and works listed here to see some cutting edge contemporary abstract work looks like. Visiting The Hole is always on my list whenever I visit NYC.

A whole week of special events hosted by Lesley University's MFA program. These will be must see discussions by a range of different abstract artists. These talks begin next Sunday the 21st and really shouldn't be missed.
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. This week I will provide you with some links to Jack Whitten's favorite jazz albums. Here are a few selections:

Miles Davis - Live at the Plugged Nickel
Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come
Thelonious Monk - Mysterioso

See you next time!
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