Jack Whitten. Photo: Peter Bellamy.

Jack Whitten (1939–2018)

Jack Whitten, a conceptual painter who tested the medium’s limits for more than five decades, has died at seventy-eight. The artist was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2016 for “remaking the American canvas” and was dubbed “the father of new abstraction” by the New York Times. Throughout his career, Whitten eschewed the popular or marketable for what interested him philosophically, and was largely unrecognized by the mainstream until a major 2014 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, California.

Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten became engaged in activism while he was a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving to New York in 1960 to attend Cooper Union. There, influenced by Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis, he started making his earliest paintings, vaguely figural impressions that reflected on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. It was in the 1970s that Whitten became interested in abstraction, experimenting with forms of painting without conventionally gestural elements by employing combs, metal sheets, laminates, rakes, and a twelve-foot-long squeegee to administer acrylic on large canvases. These pieces, which he called his “Slab” works, were displayed in the lobby of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 for the artist’s first institutional solo show.

Whitten would later reference ancient mosaics in his art, combining chips of dried acrylic into monumental portraits of people important to him, such as Ralph Ellison and Miles Davis. In more recent works, Whitten used this technique to address the geometries of digital technology, as in his 2011 painting Apps for Obama, shown at Alexander Gray Associates in 2011. Since 2016, Whitten has been represented by Hauser & Wirth, where an exhibition of his work was shown early last year. Although deeply immersed in the possibilities of abstraction, Whitten’s art consistently involves a political dimension, an aspect he credited to growing up as an African American in the segregated South.

While his approach shifted throughout the years, Whitten remained committed to reinventing the techniques and materials of painting, meditating on the medium’s relationship to sculpture, dance, music, and photography. “In Whitten’s work, Jackson Pollock’s dance of dripping and slinging around and over the support turns into a single leveling, methodical movement from one end of the canvas to the other, producing the paintings’ smooth yet pitted faces,” Gregory Williams wrote in the December 2013 issue of Artforum.

“I have changed the verb ‘to paint,’” Whitten said in a 1994 interview in Bomb magazine. “I don’t paint a painting, I make a painting. So the verb has changed. And in doing that, I’ve broken through a lot of illusionistic qualities.”