By ZOE HOPKINS, January 2021
Jack Whitten (1939-2018) had a fierce love for jazz. I begin with this because his artwork is full of it. “I want the visual equivalence of jazz,” Whitten wrote in 1990. Gazing at his genre-defying artworks, which hum with fugitive musicality, it is hard not to feel that the artist was successful in his task. It is this quality which distinguishes Whitten as one of the most radically inventive Black abstract artists of his time.
“I AM THE OBJECT,” on view at Hauser & Wirth Chelsea through January 23, is the latest major exhibition of the artist’s work. An imaginative deliberation on time and memory, the exhibition focuses on Whitten’s creative production from 1991 to 2000. Though it is small in size and scope, there is incredible diversity among the works we encounter, a testament to Whitten’s vast set of creative influences—from Classical sculpture to Willem de Kooning—as well as his indefatigable commitment to experimentation. Each work is a maelstrom alive with Whitten’s syncopated rhythm. To see them is to feel his refusal to accord with a measured beat: his refusal to be still, his refusal to settle on one genre, style, medium, technique, or temporality. “We live in a quantum world; everything is interrelated. Nothing stands alone. There is no beginning + there is no end,” Whitten wrote in his studio notes. “I AM THE OBJECT” is suffused with this chase for infinity, this desire to be uncontained that is so present in Whitten’s body of work. The evocative sculptural constellations hold visual rhythms that grasp at the fantasy of quantum entanglement.
Primarily, the works in the exhibition manifest the technique Whitten is best known for: breaking down dried blocks of acrylic paint into small pieces, Whitten would create his own version of tesserae (an homage to Ancient Greek word for mosaic tiles), which he stitched together to create kaleidoscopic compositions, landscapes of richly varied color, texture, and shape. The first portion of the exhibition, which spills out across the West wall of the gallery, is largely focused on Whitten’s totem paintings. Raised slightly from the wall, these four rectangular works on plywood are dense with small, tightly packed tesserae. Each of them commemorates a deceased individual whom Whitten knew or admired. Totem 2000 VI Annunciation: For John Coltrane (2000) memorializes the great jazz musician whose arpeggios seem to move across the tesserae, which fall into oscillating patterns that wax and wane like scales in a musical score. Like gravestones, the totems at first give off an air of stillness in their seemingly rigid linearity. But simultaneously, they are teeming with activity. Totem 2000: For Amadou Diallo (2000), which honors the memory of the 23-year-old Black man killed by the NYPD in 1999, appears almost entirely monochromatic from a distance, but up close, it glints with color. Of this piece, Whitten remarked “the preservation of memory interests me. Memory is preserved in the paint.” Diallo’s memory is sounded in the painting, it bubbles up with the tesserae, which levitate, fall, and vibrate with energy.
The South wall of the gallery is a tour de force of breathtaking, large-scale works. The most imposing of these, Memory Sites (1995) is a wayward gathering of irregularly shaped tesserae that feels at once improvisatory and methodically composed. The center of the work threatens to drown the viewer. A churn of mostly white and beige tiles, it pirouettes with undulating, circular patterns fashioned out of mostly white and beige tiles. Scattered among these patterns are isolated dark circles: ashen collections of tesserae that have been treated with chemicals to resemble a painful, corrosive material. The edges of the piece hold a much more linear, geometric sensibility. Tesserae are arranged in rectangular groups that at times overlap and cut into one another. But still, in their fractured-ness, these rectangles seem fraught with the possibility of dehiscence. The sculpture-painting feels ready to expand beyond its edges, the circular patterns that dance in the middle like an eye of a storm ready to take over the surrounding space. In its expansive drama, Memory Sites stages a rhapsodic escape, a material affirmation of the quantum fantasy Whitten names in his studio notes.
On the opposite wall, we are met with a much smaller, more private set of works. At the center of this collection of works is The Mingo Altarpiece: For George Mingo 14 September 1950-6 December 1996 (1996). An entanglement of the commemorative and the devotional, the work feels unimpeachably solid, yet precious. A labyrinth of subtle, carefully placed colorful tiles flicker among a mass of black ones. At the center of the piece, a niche cradles a tiny sculpture by George Mingo depicting a man, woman, and child. Another similarly multidisciplinary work, 20 April 1999 #I (1999), waits around the corner. Composed of two panels of rich black tesserae, joined by a third connecting panel, the work breathes a quiet melancholia. At the top of each panel is embedded a nostalgic, identificatory photograph of (ironically) unidentified individuals, who are further anonymized by a film of tar that drifts above their faces. The tar seems to arrest the figures in time, freezing them behind the veil of memory. In this frozenness and in its monochromaticity, the piece still feels quiet. Stillness takes on its own rhythm.
Whitten’s landscapes dance with the possibility of a new way of experiencing time. They seemingly cannot rest, cannot be contained. With unequivocally intoxicating imagination, Whitten invites us into (a)rhythmic networks of relationality that vibrate with the memory of absent-but-present souls. WM
Zoë Hopkins is a student at Harvard College, where she studies Art History and African American Studies. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and has previously been a Carol K. Pforzheimer Fellow. Zoë has worked in various capacities with Creative Time, Artforum International Magazine, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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