Gallery  February 19, 2020  Eva Zanardi

Jack Whitten Drawings show a Modern Master at Work

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, King's Garden #6, 1968. Watercolor on paper.

Hauser & Wirth presents New York City's most engrossing exhibition of 2020 thus far, Jack Whitten. Transitional Space. A Drawing Survey. The first major survey of Whitten’s works on paper, this landmark exhibition explores the evolution of the artist's drawing process through seventy-six works on paper from the 1960s to the late 2010s.

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, Geometric Collusion #1, 1981. Acrylic, pastel, and compressed charcoal on Rives paper.

 

Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten was a pioneer of abstract painting in the United States and embraced references as diverse as cartography, mosaics, collage, acrylic mold-making, and gestural abstraction. His inspirations were comparably varied and included the politics of race, quantum mechanics, ancient Mediterranean cultures, music, sports, and the search for identity.

In recent years, Whitten has achieved widespread recognition. The artist is now considered a giant within American painting, and the creator of a subtle language that bridges gestural abstraction, process art, mechanical automation, and personal expression.

Whitten is perhaps best known for the large abstractions he began producing in the '70s using a tool of his own creation, which he referred to as "the Developer." He dragged the tool across canvas to produce his signature "Slab" or "planes of light" works, in a process possibly inspired by John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound." Whitten had the analytical mind of a scientist and the improvisational skills of a free jazz musician; the exhibition references the artist's love for the genre with "A Gift to Ornette," Whitten's tribute to the noted pioneer of free jazz.

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, Vertical Landscape #3, 1967. Watercolor and pencil on paper.

Though primarily known as a painter and sculptor, Whitten was also a prolific draughtsman. In his seminal 1993 essay Working on Paper., the artist reflected, "I investigate everything and anything through the act of drawing."

Organized chronologically, Transitional Space begins with works from the '60s—a period of self-analysis for Whitten—that bring attention to his early gestural practice.

In the following decade, Whitten experimented with mechanical automation and the capacities of non-traditional tools for drawing and painting such as the electrostatic printing technology of Xerox machines. Whitten began working in collage at this time, building compositions with pieces of dried acrylic paint, which he referred to as "skins." Later Whitten expanded upon this practice and began to describe the paint chips as "tesserae," referencing Greco-Roman mosaic tiles.

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, Study For Atopolis E, 2014. Acrylic on Blotter paper.

By the '80s, Whitten’s predilection for the cosmic and quantum guided his focus toward advanced science, technology, and its relationship to spirituality. His artistic production functioned as a bridge between spirit and matter.

In the '90s, Whitten constructed, deconstructed, and reconfigured forms, experimenting with Sumi ink in the "Presence" series and metal filings in the Assassin series.

In the 2000s, Whitten combined wax and glitter with powdered pigment and acrylic to produce new expressive hybrids, as seen in Space Flower #9.

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, Broken Grid VIII, 1996. Sumi ink and acrylic on paper collage.

Transitional Space concludes with works from the 2010s, a period when Whitten confronted the past. Perceiving the body as a transmitter of cosmic data, he illuminated the relationship between space and time, and how the human brain engages with this concept. 

Throughout his five-decade career, Whitten maintained a fierce individuality and originality that challenged categorization. His restless curiosity and enthusiasm prompted him to journey across styles and mediums to seamlessly permeate the zeitgeist. Whitten was a perfect conduit for the Universe to manifest its abundant realities, its “Transitional Space.”

© Jack Whitten Estate Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Jack Whitten, Transitional Space 10, 1969. Oil and acrylic on glazed paper.

Jack Whitten. Transitional Space. A Drawing Survey. is on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street through April 4, 2020.

About the Author

Eva Zanardi

Eva Zanardi is a New York-based curator, art advisor and art writer specializing in Kinetic Art, Op Art and Minimalism.

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