Going down the rabbit hole following Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten art object on view at Hauser and Wirth in 2020


I was having some coffee and reading the latest issue of Bookforum this morning, and something in their coverage of “the season’s outstanding art books” caught my eye: a quote from the late artist Jack Whitten, in which he said, “The old symbols that we had from previous established religion, they’re not working anymore for this society. We have to invent new symbols.” That is a pretty bold statement, so it made me ask myself, who is Jack Whitten again?

A Google search brought me to this video, which dragged my curiosity deeper into what this artist is all about. Even the opening visuals, of him in his painter’s coveralls, or painter’s jumpsuit, the idea that making art is such an immersive experience that the paint and other supplies covers his whole body, I’m ready for more. Then he says, “I’m not a narrative painter, I don’t do the idea, or the painting being the illustration of an idea … it’s all about the materiality of the paint.” This got me thinking, because in my own painting lately, I’ve been painting more people, more moments, capturing events for my memory, and this idea of Whitten’s art being about the materials, the surface, and seeing close-ups of his work, I thought, that’s more than enough, I’m very engaged with his surfaces and his materials. Without going on too long on all of this, watch the video, and then scroll down for more.

Watching this video, it jump-started my memory, thinking that I was pretty sure I saw the exhibition with some of the works shown in the video, and sure enough, back in the winter of 2017, I did see his self-titled show at Hauser & Wirth, “Jack Whitten,” and it was Hauser & Wirth’s first exhibition dedicated to his work. You can see the gallery’s archive of the show on their website here, but I’ll also include a couple photographs that I took while visiting the show in March of 2017. The first one here below is a full view and detailed view of “Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali,” from 2016, from his series titled “Black Monolith,” which memorializes important black artists, writers, thinkers, and poets. I love the piece, but it brings up an interesting idea that feels like an initial conflict: he said that he doesn’t make a painting that is an illustration of an idea, yet this is an abstract “portrait” of Muhammad Ali, which is in some ways his illustrated idea, or his reflection, or reaction to the man.

Art by Jack Whitten titled Muhammad Ali
“Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali,” 2016, by Jack Whitten. Photographs taken by Artsology at the exhibition; art works are © The Jack Whitten Estate.

As I am revisiting the pictures I took at that 2017 exhibition, my memory is telling me that I’m sure I’ve seen other work by Jack Whitten since then, there’s something more-recent than almost 6 years ago that is registering with me, and sure enough, I also saw the 2020 exhibition of his work, titled “I Am The Object,” also at Hauser & Wirth. I remember this show quite well now, being really drawn in to view the work up close, to absorb all of the details. I don’t recall making a connection at that time between the 2020 show and what I saw in 2017, but I remember being quite taken by this show, and took plenty of pictures to enjoy later – such as now! I can’t find the title of this first piece I’m sharing from that show, but I love it: from the front, it can be seen, perhaps, as an “image,” but the side view definitely makes it an object with a solid presence. I love the different colors of tiles, and the idea that the bright red tiles on the side are only on the side, like one has to make their way around the object, all of the sides of this object, to take in the full experience.

Jack Whitten art object on view at Hauser and Wirth in 2020
Art by Jack Whitten (title unknown to me) at Hauser & Wirth in 2020; Photographs taken by Artsology at the exhibition; art works are © The Jack Whitten Estate.

I’ll include this next installation view, also from the 2020 show, to illustrate how the works are not all rectangular or simple “portrait or landscape” proportions but rather true objects that branch out in different directions as if they have a life of their own.

installation view of Jack Whitten exhibition in 2020
Installation view of “I Am The Object,” Jack Whitten, at Hauser & Wirth in 2020. Photo taken by Artsology, all artworks are © Jack Whitten Estate.

So, to circle back to my title for this blog post, as you can see, I really did fall down a rabbit hole: from a magazine article to a video interview to exhibitions from 3 and 6 years ago and all of the pictures I took while visiting the exhibitions (many more than what I’ve shown here). Now that I’ve put a name and a sense of the artist to the exhibition recollections floating around in my memory, I’d definitely like to study this artist some more.

To see and learn more about the artist Jack Whitten, check out all of the related content on the Hauser & Wirth website here.

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