San­ford Schwartz

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Odyssey:

Jack Whit­ten Sculp­ture, 1963–2017 an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bal­ti­more

Mu­seum of Art, April 22–July 29, 2018; and the Met Breuer, New York City, Septem­ber 6–De­cem­ber 2, 2018. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Katy Siegel, with con­tri­bu­tions by Aleesa Alexan­der, Kwame Anthony Ap­piah, Kelly Baum, and oth­ers.

Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art/

Gre­gory R. Miller, 191 pp., $55.00

There is a some­what mys­ti­fy­ing, whatam-I-look­ing-at qual­ity to Jack Whit­ten’s paint­ings, and this spirit hov­ers over the ex­hi­bi­tion “Odyssey: Jack Whit­ten Sculp­ture, 1963–2017,” now at the Met Breuer. Whit­ten, who died this past Jan­uary at sev­enty-eight, was a highly re­spected mem­ber of the art world, though his renown was, I think, largely among artists. He was known for mak­ing quite large ab­stract works that of­ten looked at a glance like vast fields of mo­saics, but they were not com­posed of thou­sands of lit­tle tiles, set one after the other by hand. They were cre­ated in a fash­ion Whit­ten in­vented, in which liq­uid acrylic was poured over sur­faces that had been set with chunky, net-like, or stringy bits, and be­fore the acrylic hard­ened it was raked and in­cised by the artist, who em­ployed large tools that he de­vised for this pur­pose. Even after learn­ing that Whit­ten’s paint­ings are not com­posed of count­less tiles, how­ever, you might see them in your mind’s eye as mo­saics.

Now Whit­ten, speak­ing as it were from be­yond the grave, has given his au­di­ence a kind of dou­ble sur­prise— the first be­ing that he made sculp­ture at all. Apart from his fam­ily and friends, hardly any­one seems to have known this, let alone that he was in­volved in the en­deavor for decades. And per­haps un­ex­pected as well is the hu­man warmth and wit, and the sheer for­mal va­ri­ety—and the plain fun—of Whit­ten’s sculp­tures, all of which are made from carved wood and some of which have been af­fixed with pieces of metal, glass, and even left­over elec­tronic equip­ment.

In a show that presents some forty sculp­tures and, help­fully, nearly twenty paint­ings from the last thirty years, we look at carv­ings that can be over six feet high but more of­ten are table­top size, or meant, mask­like, to hang on the wall. They are works that can sug­gest the hu­man fig­ure or an­i­mals, or might hover be­tween be­ing ab­stract and sug­gest­ing a spirit or force. The play­ful and un­cat­e­go­riz­able Kri­tiko Spiti (1974–1975), which is like a kind of ine­bri­ated totem pole, seems to be col­laps­ing against the wall. African art is def­i­nitely in the air, par­tic­u­larly in Whit­ten’s feel­ing for an­gu­lar and for beak- and prong-like shapes, and North­west Coast art is sug­gested in a strong early totem pole.

Some of the most al­lur­ing works in­clude lit­tle glass-cov­ered boxes that have been built into the wood. We peer in and find keys, say, or snap­shots, even rice or a spark plug. Joseph Cor­nell’s boxes might come to mind, even though what­ever is in a Cor­nell box has its own breath­ing room, while Whit­ten crowds and jum­bles things. Both artists, though, trans­port us to some for­eign place. Where Cor­nell is the im­pre­sario of bal­leri­nas, sym­bolic birds, and Re­nais­sance princes, Whit­ten takes us in some ways to a small town on the Mediter­ranean is­land of Crete.

Whit­ten made a few sculp­tures in up­state New York in the 1960s, when he was first think­ing of this art form. But be­gin­ning in 1969, when he and his wife, Mary, went to Crete for the sum­mer, sculp­ture took on a new im­por­tance for him. Mary is Greek-Amer­i­can— Jack was African-Amer­i­can —and their trip to Crete had to do with a de­sire to look into Mary’s ances­try. On their first trip, the Whit­tens soon landed (not ex­actly by de­sign) in the small town of Agia Galini, on the is­land’s south­ern coast, and it was to this port, set at the edge of the Mediter­ranean, with moun­tains at its back, that the cou­ple re­turned most sum­mers. In time, they built a house there. In the fall and win­ter months, in New York, Whit­ten painted but made no sculp­ture. Come May, Jack and Mary and even­tu­ally their daugh­ter, Mirsini, re­turned to Crete, where he worked only on his sculp­ture. Over the years he was in­ter­viewed and had ar­ti­cles writ­ten about him. In 1974 he had a one-per­son show at the Whit­ney, and there was a large ret­ro­spec­tive, en­ti­tled “Jack Whit­ten: Five Decades of Paint­ing,” that trav­eled to three im­por­tant US mu­se­ums be­gin­ning in 2014. But his work as a sculp­tor was es­sen­tially never men­tioned. From the nu­mer­ous es­says in the ex­cep­tional cat­a­log of “Odyssey”—be­sides its great in­for­ma­tional value, it con­tains a trea­sure trove of fam­ily pho­to­graphs—one doesn’t get the sense that Whit­ten wanted to keep his sculp­ture a se­cret or that he had mixed feel­ings about it. The work he did in Agia Galini sim­ply had no need to be dis­cussed. For some time be­fore he died, Whit­ten knew that the Met and the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art were jointly plan­ning the cur­rent show. When the sub­ject of his some­what two-sided life is brought up in an in­ter­view with Courtney Martin that was done with the show in mind (and is in the cat­a­log), Whit­ten says with fi­nal­ity that he didn’t make his sculp­ture in New York be­cause it would not have found a place in the city’s art world. He adds, dryly, that he couldn’t make sculp­ture in New York be­cause the ac­tual ac­tiv­ity, at least as he went at it, was too “noisy.” He seems never to have sold any of this work, and the most he made of it, when he lived in Soho or later in Wood­side, was to have some pieces placed on a counter or in the stu­dio.

What may first draw view­ers to Whit­ten’s sculp­ture is a par­tic­u­lar satiny (but not too satiny) pres­ence that he has given the var­i­ous black, brown, tan, and blond woods he has used—that, and his un­os­ten­ta­tiously mas­ter­ful work as a carver, car­pen­ter, and de­signer. Mirsini’s Doll, for ex­am­ple, which dates

from around 1975, presents at once an in­ge­nious struc­ture and a haunt­ing per­son­age. Fash­ioned from wal­nut and mul­berry and an ap­peal­ing pale cider in color, it is a bit over a foot high and was made for Whit­ten’s daugh­ter. It has a curved han­dle­like top, so that Mirsini, three years old at the time, could have cra­dled it or car­ried it about. In the cen­ter is the doll’s cir­cu­lar, sim­pli­fied—and, with its heavy-lid­ded eyes, vaguely for­bid­ding—face. Is the doll, whose shape in its en­tirety sug­gests a per­son whose arms have been raised up over her head and clasped to­gether, meant also to be a pro­tec­tive spirit for Whit­ten’s child?

What­ever he may have had in mind, Mirsini’s Doll is as ar­rest­ingly am­bigu­ous as it is adorable. It is now in part a sou­venir of Mirsini’s past, and many of Whit­ten’s strong­est pieces were meant from the be­gin­ning to com­mem­o­rate, or sim­ply to ac­knowl­edge, a per­son, a thing, or an event. Com­men­ta­tors on his paint­ings have long noted this de­sire to use his work as a way of pay­ing trib­ute. With a few of his sculp­tures, Whit­ten is very clear about his feel­ing for re­mem­brance. Mem­ory Con­tainer, a stand­ing, sen­tinel-like sculp­ture dated 1972–1973, is just what its ti­tle prom­ises. It has, built into its front and back, shal­low glass­cov­ered con­tain­ers that hold fam­ily snap­shots, a Greek ban­knote, seashells, and curled, parch­ment-colored leaves from olive trees. In­trigu­ingly, the piece was done only a hand­ful of years after the Whit­tens first went to Crete. The cou­ple may have been think­ing at the time that they would not be go­ing back to the is­land, or per­haps, as seems pos­si­ble, Whit­ten didn’t need a press­ing rea­son to get into a com­mem­o­ra­tive frame of mind.

In other works, his de­sire to tip his hat to some per­son or crea­ture dawns on the viewer only after a while, or be­cause of a sculp­ture’s ti­tle. The Death of Fish­ing (2007), whose ti­tle refers to the fact that fish­ing barely ex­ists any­more in the Mediter­ranean, is such a work. It re­sem­bles a large, split-open pea pod (and, ac­cord­ing to the cat­a­log, pos­si­bly a lure, a boat, or a vulva). Nearly five feet long, carved from black mul­berry, and hang­ing from the ceil­ing, the work has within its cav­ity a jum­ble of del­i­cate and mostly pale-colored left­overs, whether fish bones or the lures and hooks and wire needed for fish­ing. Whit­ten’s ti­tle makes clear that his sub­ject is loss but, much to the ben­e­fit of his piece, the theme is felt largely be­cause of the ti­tle. The work would be a mar­velous sculp­ture even if it were un­ti­tled. Eas­ily as strong is Reli­quary for Or­fos (1978), which holds the re­mains of a fish, an or­fos, which Whit­ten, a prac­ticed diver, would hunt in “dark un­der­wa­ter caves,” us­ing a spear­gun. With its won­der­fully sug­ges­tive ar­chi­tec­tural form, the sculp­ture could be a tro­phy or even a bird stand­ing on a soap­box and mak­ing a speech. The witty, nearly seven-foot-high Tech­no­log­i­cal Totem Pole (2013), mean­while, man­ages to be a me­mo­rial to out­dated elec­tron­ics, in­clud­ing a flip phone and a TV re­mote. And the 1985 Homage to the Kri-Kri, which is nom­i­nally about a rare and dis­ap­pear­ing Cre­tan goat,

has—with its top half a crown-like mass of nails and screws driven into the wood—the pres­ence of a por­trait of a royal fig­ure.

If a viewer has a work­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with African art, many of Whit­ten’s pieces will seem con­nected to it. En­ter­ing the show from the wrong end, I found my­self re­spond­ing pri­mar­ily to the va­ri­ety, as­sur­ance, and love­li­ness of his dif­fer­ent sculp­tures. The con­nec­tion with African art did not forcibly hit me un­til I was near the be­gin­ning of the ex­hi­bi­tion, where a Kongo power fig­ure, or nkisi n’kondi, was on view. It made clear that as­pects of Whit­ten’s sculp­ture, es­pe­cially his ham­mer­ing nails and other pieces of metal into the wood in dif­fer­ent places, and his in­cor­po­rat­ing in his pieces lit­tle glass-front con­tain­ers, were de­rived from the carved and as­sem­bled sculp­tures of Cen­tral and West Africa. One learned, too, that for the African artists these de­tails had sym­bolic mean­ings: the metal driven in was a way to re­lease help­ful pow­ers, and the con­tain­ers were meant to hold strong medicines.

The Kongo fig­ure is one of a num­ber of works of African art that the Met has in­cluded in the show, and they are joined by ex­am­ples, also drawn from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, of works of Mi­noan, Cy­cladic, and Myce­naean art. As we learn in the cat­a­log, Whit­ten’s sculp­ture shows as well the in­flu­ence of these an­cient tra­di­tions, which he knew from vis­its to mu­se­ums in Crete and Greece. This ex­hi­bi­tion is not the first in which the Met has added pieces that have an art-his­tor­i­cal bear­ing on the sub­ject at hand. Do­ing so has been part of the Met Breuer’s pro­gram in gen­eral. The mu­seum did this, for in­stance, in a 2017 show en­ti­tled “Mars­den Hart­ley’s Maine,” in which Amer­i­can paint­ings and Ja­panese and French prints that Hart­ley was aware of be­came part of the pre­sen­ta­tion.

The prac­tice might not be tol­er­ated if the artist in ques­tion were alive, though Kerry James Mar­shall, in his ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer in 2016, ap­par­ently wanted to have works from the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion on view. But in his case, the his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples were cor­ralled into their own space. In Whit­ten’s show, the pieces of African, Mi­noan, and other his­toric art forms have been in­ter­spersed with his own works, which makes it seem as if the mu­seum wants to demon­strate that Whit­ten was knowl­edge­able and per­spi­ca­cious. The ef­fect is to sug­gest that his work needs ton­ing up.

The low point is the la­bel for an en­dear­ing, funny, and first-rate Whit­ten sculp­ture from 1985 called Bo­som, For Aunt Surlina. This two-foot-high work, which is about an aunt of the artist’s who ran a thriv­ing res­tau­rant in Besse­mer, Alabama, where he grew up, brings to­gether lus­trous, hand­some woods and adds, in coun­ter­point, a mass of nails, twine, and other tiny items, set be­hind and around the wood. It is not an il­lus­tra­tional sculp­ture, but it might sug­gest, like a nude by Gas­ton Lachaise, a fig­ure with a big chest who is ris­ing up on dainty feet. Whit­ten’s in­ti­mate and af­fec­tion­ate ti­tle, taken along with the piece, prac­ti­cally makes us say to our­selves, “Yes, that’s Aunt Surlina.” But then to glance at the la­bel, which not only says that Whit­ten was in­flu­enced here by Do­gon sculp­ture of women but fea­tures a color pho­to­graph of a Do­gon fig­ure, is sim­ply to de­flate Whit­ten. It de­flates our re­sponse to the piece. It is an art his­tory les­son that be­longs in a class­room.

En­coun­ter­ing the Kongo power fig­ure can nev­er­the­less shake your un­der­stand­ing of Whit­ten’s art, at least at first. Ul­ti­mately, I be­lieve his rap­port with other art forms comes to feel like in­flu­ences he has used to his own ends. It takes a back seat to the larger story of what might be called Jack Whit­ten’s life and do­ings.

Yet African art was not a se­condary is­sue to Whit­ten, and in some sense it lies be­hind his two-sided life. When he moved per­ma­nently to New York from Alabama in 1960, in his early twen­ties, Whit­ten was seek­ing free­dom from a racist and seg­re­gated so­ci­ety. He had had run-ins with the po­lice in demon­stra­tions and felt cer­tain that in time he would, as Katy Siegel notes in her cat­a­log es­say, “kill or be killed.” (It is pointed out in the cat­a­log that un­like many other African-Amer­i­can artists, Whit­ten spent his child­hood and much of his young man­hood in the South.) In New York, now a stu­dent at Cooper Union, he be­came part of two then­bur­geon­ing, mus­cle-flex­ing realms. In the art scene, the achieve­ments of the Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ists were be­ing taken as a glo­ri­ous and not-to-be­ques­tioned new chap­ter in world­wide mod­ern art. Ab­stract art—and, for a pain­ter, us­ing large can­vases—formed a way for­ward that seemed crowded with pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The more sig­nif­i­cant realm for Whit­ten, how­ever, had to do with his race. The ac­tions and words of Dr. King and oth­ers in the South, even­tu­ally to be built on in the 1960s by the ur­ban Black Power move­ment, spread new aware­nesses in black (and white) com­mu­ni­ties. Whit­ten at the time was get­ting to know se­nior black artists in New York such as Ja­cob Lawrence and Ro­mare Bear­den, who used the id­ioms of con­tem­po­rary art to por­tray black life, and Nor­man Lewis, who pro­vided a clear ex­am­ple of a black artist de­vel­op­ing a dis­tinc­tive, per­sonal style of ab­stract paint­ing. Through the pho­tog­ra­pher Roy DeCar­ava and Lewis, who would even­tu­ally spend time with the Whit­tens in Agia Galini, Whit­ten came to know Ralph El­li­son.

Whit­ten was a mu­si­cian, too. He played tenor sax and had helped or­ga­nize a dance band, the Jazzettes, in high school, and in the 1960s in New York his “con­scious­ness” was “ex­panded,” as he says, by hear­ing and in some cases know­ing ti­tans of jazz such as Th­elo­nious Monk, Or­nette Cole­man, and John Coltrane. Of the many fig­ures he was en­coun­ter­ing, Whit­ten seems to have been es­pe­cially buoyed by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, about whom Whit­ten wrote, “I had never met a Black man who spoke that way!” The cre­ator of the Black Arts Move­ment of the time, Baraka sought to have a black point of view spread through all the arts.

It was in this at­mos­phere that Whit­ten thought about the African sculp­ture he had en­coun­tered at the Met and the Brook­lyn Mu­seum. This work, seen on his very first trips to the city, was a great rev­e­la­tion to him. In Alabama he barely had an idea of what an art mu­seum was, and he prob­a­bly would not have been al­lowed to visit one even if he had wanted to. See­ing African art in New York filled him with pride, and, a kind of lay the­o­rist given to putting his thoughts in pri­vate log­books, he came to be­lieve that African sculp­ture as an art form had not ex­hausted its prom­ise. He started mak­ing sculp­ture be­cause, an in­ven­tive and su­perla­tive craftsper­son to be­gin with, he felt the only way he could fully un­der­stand African tra­di­tions would be by han­dling wood him­self.

In the works of African carvers and de­sign­ers, he found (and he wasn’t of course alone in his per­cep­tions) an es­sen­tially geo­met­ric, or grid­ded, con­cep­tion of form. It was an un­der­stand­ing that, as Whit­ten wanted to point out, pre­dated Pi­casso’s Cu­bism, it­self based on non-Western tra­di­tions. African sculp­ture, Whit­ten saw, be­spoke as well eth­i­cal, com­mu­nal, and spir­i­tual con­cerns that he be­lieved had no place in Western mod­ern art—or cer­tainly not in the pro­gres­sive art be­ing done in New York at the time—and that he wanted for his own work. For him, African art seems to have formed a crit­i­cism of what he called “New York for­mal­ism.”

In a re­veal­ing foot­note in the cat­a­log, Whit­ten says of his sculp­tures that they “al­lowed me to es­cape Clem Green­berg”—mean­ing that work­ing with wood en­abled him not to have to fol­low the dic­tates of the writer whose think­ing could stand as a sym­bol of the purely aes­thetic val­ues that held sway in Amer­i­can art of the time. But did Whit­ten es­cape these val­ues when he made his paint­ings in New York? Look­ing at the pic­tures in the show, one feels that they would have passed the Green­berg test. They are of a piece with the work of many artists who came after the Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ists and whose work had lit­tle to do with rep­re­sen­ta­tional im­ages, let alone as­pects of the artist’s own life. The paint­ings seem largely to do with the prop­er­ties of the artis­tic ma­te­ri­als be­ing em­ployed. Done be­tween 1988 and 2017, most of the pic­tures we see at the Met are from a se­ries called Black Mono­liths. They were in­spired to a de­gree by a stone out­crop­ping not far from where the Whit­tens lived in Agia Galini. As a photo in the cat­a­log shows, it is black in color, ex­tremely im­pos­ing, and, a lit­tle oddly, un­con­nected to any­thing in the sur­round­ing tan and green land­scape. From this iso­lated dark won­der of the nat­u­ral world it prob­a­bly wasn’t a leap for Whit­ten to come to his Black Mono­liths se­ries, each ex­am­ple of which is promi­nently as­so­ci­ated in its ti­tle with a black per­son of con­sid­er­able achieve­ment.

The ear­li­est paint­ing is a “trib­ute” to James Bald­win. The last is “for” Chuck Berry. In be­tween there are paint­ings in honor of, to take a few ex­am­ples, Bar­bara Jor­dan, Muham­mad Ali, Maya An­gelou, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The paint­ing for Ralph El­li­son sug­gests a face­less head and shoul­ders, but most of the works are pure ab­strac­tions, done in Whit­ten’s pre­ferred and not to­tally fath­omable man­ner, in which var­i­ous lit­tle sub­stances are held in place by a mem­brane of acrylic. The pic­tures give a sense that, as Kwame Anthony Ap­piah says in the cat­a­log, a ter­rain is be­ing “viewed from the air.” We are prompted to think of how these dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal fig­ures might re­late to the paint­ings as­so­ci­ated with their names. The ex­er­cise, though, is slightly va­porous.

But there is noth­ing va­porous about Whit­ten’s sculp­ture. A lit­tle like Billy Budd, which was found among Melville’s papers and first pub­lished decades after his death, Whit­ten’s carv­ings are more than a late-in­nings bonus. Their ex­is­tence might al­ter the story of Amer­i­can sculp­ture of the past half-cen­tury, and they will of course change our over­all sense of the artist. One won­ders, for ex­am­ple, how in the fu­ture his two kinds of work will, or won’t, be brought to­gether. For or­ga­niz­ers of ex­hi­bi­tions, it will pro­vide a fine chal­lenge. As the cur­rent show in­di­cates, tak­ing in Whit­ten’s paint­ings and sculp­tures at the same time can have topsy-turvy re­sults. On the one hand, it is un­de­ni­ably valu­able to think of the many large achieve­ments Whit­ten is hon­or­ing in his Black Mono­liths can­vases. On the other, none of these honorees is made as real to us as Aunt Surlina.

Jack Whit­ten: Homage to the Kri-Kri, 25 x 8 x 13 inches, 1985

Jack Whit­ten: The Death of Fish­ing,56 3/4 x 7 7/8 x 6 1/4 inches, 2007

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