Jack Whitten will be 76 years old in December, but he doesn’t act a day over it. He moves too fast. Whitten has been painting for over 50 years, and he’s never retraced a single step. Addressing a crowd at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) last Wednesday, Whitten spoke about living through a number of events that have shaped his life and art. Listening to him speak, it’s no wonder why the works he creates are so fun to look at – the art is in the artist. Whitten is unabashedly bold and had the audience in fits with his stories and jokes. Being an excellent swearer helped.
Whitten is an action painter, but not in the Jackson Pollock, ’50s AbEx – abstract expressionism – sense of the term. He’s an action painter in that he never sits still; he’s always thinking, making. His retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting first opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego last September. Since then, it has traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and is now on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn. – and yet Whitten has still been able to paint in between.
The work “Soul Map” was born as a result of a call from Walker Art Center Associate Curator Eric Crosby several months before the show was set to open. Whitten says that Crosby told him he’d been doing the layout for the exhibition, discovered he had an extra 21-foot wall and asked him if he was interested.
“I said to him, ‘Man, are you f***ing kidding me?’” Whitten said in his lecture. “In painting, this is what we call a mafia proposal – something so good you can’t say no. Which painter in God’s name would say no to a 21-foot wall at the Walker Art Center?”
It’s a good thing Whitten said yes. “Soul Map” has a presence. A diptych, the left side looks sleek but has some subtle texture to it, as if there are bits of metal under the gray and white acrylic. The right side is a whole different story. What looks like shards of glass and colored stones is actually paint, and paint only. Whitten calls these his acrylic “tesserae,” made by freezing slabs of acrylic, cutting some of it into tiles and smashing the rest – leaving a beautiful mess all over the rest of the canvas.
“As an abstract painter, I work with things that I cannot see,” Whitten said in an interview published by the Walker Art Center. “Google has mapped the whole earth, we have maps of Mars – so we’ve done a lot of mapping. We do not have a map of the soul. I can’t see the soul. I can feel it, though.”
Whitten began his career as an art student at The Cooper Union in New York in the 1960s, and graduated when abstract expressionism was at its peak. Gestural painting was in; art was all about dynamic movements of the brush and putting down strokes (or drips) all in relation to one another. Whitten admired these painters and tried to paint like them, going as far as following Willem de Kooning and his friends around Greenwich Village.
But in 1970, Whitten realized he had to do something radical. The whole history of painting up to that point had been relational. Whitten came up with a new tool, 12 feet wide, made from a piece of two-by-four wood. He called it the Developer – a giant squeegee for paint, essentially. He figured a way to pour layers of acrylic straight onto the canvas. Then with one gesture, one movement, one pull across, he revealed all the colors underneath – and got around Bill de Kooning.
That’s how “April’s Shark” was birthed in 1974. Looking at it now, the picture is perfectly preserved, pristine, exactly how Whitten left it when he pulled the Developer up from the canvas 40 years ago. Waves of blue rush over the surface, with pockets of burnt orange peeking out from underneath, perhaps from where the Developer got snagged. The whole painting drips with a viscous quality; it’s a hot mess.
“Now, I don’t mind cursing. When I did those paintings, I said to myself, ‘Now take that, motherf***er!’ It was my way of getting around these [other abstract artists],” Whitten said.
Over the last 50 years, regardless of the process or approach to painting that Whitten has been exploring at any given time, he consistently created memorial paintings – paintings for friends, family or even just inspirational figures that have since passed. “Vibrations for Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson” is one of them.
“When he died I went to his funeral,” Whitten said. “His wife had laid him out in this magnificent, dark mahogany coffin. It was like a pharaoh’s Cadillac. She had folded his hands, and in his hands were these mallets. But I had never seen him play with these mallets before. They were brightly colored. His skin had turned to this dark, dark color, and it was all dried. I couldn’t help myself but to look down, and cry. And I said to him, ‘Bags, damnit, my painting is staring at me.’ The painting came out of that experience.”
Whitten started creating memorial paintings in the early ’60s. He told a story about his older brother, a jazz musician who came home one night, after a gig – drunk and high. The brother decided to have a smoke before going to sleep, setting his bed on fire. But he was so high, he wasn’t aware of it. The mattress started smoldering and a ball of fire engulfed him. He lived for 28 days in intensive care before he died.
“My first memorial painting was done for my brother Tommy,” Whitten said. “In the face of such grief, what can you do? I take it upon myself, as an artist, as a painter – I acknowledge that that person was here, and was important to me.”
Whitten spoke to the audience last Wednesday about the highs and lows of his career as an artist. Though indeed extremely clever and sharply hilarious, Whitten is equal parts wise and thoughtful. It’s worth hearing what he thinks it means to be an artist.
“It was pointed out to me as an art student, years and years ago, ‘Art is like a coin, it has heads and tails,’” Whitten said in the same interview published by the Walker. “On the one side of that coin is sensibility and on the other side is plasticity. We have feelings about some things, and we have to find a way of giving that feeling a structure. That’s where the plasticity comes in. Between sensibility and plasticity, we form and we make something out of who we are.”
At 75, Whitten has surely made hundreds of paintings – some good, some bad. But he’s still going. He can’t be stopped. Maybe because we keep making, we keep doing, we keep living because we’re not entirely sure when to stop. Not entirely sure when, exactly, we figure out something of who we are.