Museum  September 7, 2018  Megan D Robinson

A Sculptural "Odyssey" into the World of Jack Whitten

© The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), The Afro American Thunderbolt, 1983-84. Black Mulberry, copper plate, nails. Collection of the artist.

© The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Black Monolith II (For Ralph Ellison), 1994. Acrylic, molasses, copper, salt, coal, ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade on canvas. The Brooklyn Museum; William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund.

An extensive exhibition at the Met Breuer, Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963–2017 introduces viewers to the acclaimed painter’s previously unknown sculpture. A groundbreaking innovator in abstract painting, Whitten also created striking sculpture utilizing wood, nails, fish bones, and other materials. Odyssey is the first New York City exhibition to cover Whitten’s entire and full career. Featuring 40 sculptures and 18 of his most notable paintings, the exhibition includes Whitten’s complete Black Monolith series (1988–2017), displayed together for the first time. The series is named for a black rocky outcropping outside his studio in Crete, where he and his family spent summers since 1969. These mosaic-like paintings, assembled from chips of acrylic paint and found objects, memorialize important African American innovators.

Whitten was very concerned with our environmental, technological and political future, and crafted his work to both honor the past and imagine a hopeful future. His sculptures are a potent combination of African and European art and artifacts. Created over the past five decades during his summers on Crete, they merge Grecian and African mythology with ritualistic tribal objects, European sculpture and modernist sensibility. His wooden forms adorned with cell phone parts, chip cards, remote controls, and digital detritus, merge past and present. The ritualistic feel of the pieces hints at the transformative power of art. Whitten firmly believed art could open our consciousness to new possibilities, helping us save ourselves from the coming crisis.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Bosom, For Aunt Surlina, 1985
© The Estate of Jack Whitten Courtesy. The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Bosom, For Aunt Surlina, 1985. Black Mulberry, cherry wood, metal, mixed media. Collection of the artist.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Bush Woman, 1974–75
© The Estate of Jack Whitten Courtesy. The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Bush Woman, 1974–75. Black mulberry and wire. Collection of the artist.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Lichnos, 2008
© The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Lichnos, 2008. Black mulberry, carob wood, whitewashed cinder block, mixed media.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal), 2016
© The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal), 2016. Marble, Cretan walnut, Serbian oak, lead acrylic, mixed media. Collection of the artist.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), The Tomb of Socrates, 2009
© The Estate of Jack Whitten Courtesy. The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), The Tomb of Socrates, 2009. Wild cypress, black mulberry, marble, brass, mixed media.

Honoring Whitten’s cross-disciplinary interests and the inspiration he took from science and history, Odyssey also features 16 objects from The Met’s collection of African, Greek, and American art, strategically placed throughout the exhibition.

Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, and passed away in January 2018. He studied at Alabama’s Tuskegee University and Louisiana’s Southern University, in the late 1950s, before moving to New York to finish his degree in 1964 at the Cooper Union. Whitten worked as a visiting artist and professor. He first encountered African art at the Met, which had a lasting impact on his work. His unconventional, process-based work pushed the boundaries of abstractionism. He received many honors, including the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015.

© The Estate of Jack Whitten Courtesy. The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth.

Jack Whitten (American, 1939–2018), Shark Bait, 2016. Black Mulberry, marble, Iroko, acrylic. Collection of the artist.

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 is on view at The Met Breuer from September 6 through December 2, 2018.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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