Critics’ Picks


Jack Whitten

Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive
April 22–July 29, 2018

“Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017” is a muscular first effort to assess the sculpture of an artist primarily known for his painting. During summer retreats in Crete, Whitten dedicated himself to sculpture. Two Central African Kongo nkisi figures—one from the nineteenth century, the other from the early twentieth—accompany this survey, along with a dozen other African and Greek referents the artist chose before his death earlier this year. In the Kongo tradition, nails driven into wooden nkisi figures—made to activate mystical forces—record disputes and treaties. Whitten embattled his own totemic sculptures with spikes. Of his forty wood carvings here, made from mulberry, elm, birch, butternut, oak, cypress, cherrywood, walnut, and olive wood, the most dynamic are those partially covered with nails or embellished and intricately embedded with metal, glass, ceramic, lead, and technological odds and ends. The Death of Fishing, 2007, is a hollowed, dried-out mulberry vessel stuffed with a jumble of wispy fishing lines, bones, and sharp lures. Memory Container, 1972-73, and Reliquary for Orfos, 1978, serve as stout seaside time capsules. Elsewhere, curves and protrusions of wood and marble suggest heads, hips, beaks, fins, antelope horns, or scythe blades.

Whitten, who grew up in segregated Alabama, participated in the American civil rights movement and worked to loosen the insistent color lines in the New York art world. Sometimes, he constructed powerful tributes to black trailblazers. Eight of his haunting tiled and textured canvases from the “Black Monolith” series, 1994–2018, are included in the final room of this show. While these dimensional mosaiclike pieces—each an homage to a literary, political, or musical luminary—at first seem an incongruous coda, they eventually begin to feel less firmly like paintings and more like sculptures, or at least they hover quite close.