One of the more intriguing features of the history of sculpture since Rodin is the recurring presence of posthumously discovered bodies of work which ultimately prove to be seminal, even revolutionary. Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (ca. 1880) was the only three-dimensional work he showed during his lifetime, the ballerinas and horses being otherwise unknown. Honoré Daumier’s sculptures were personal creations, mainly created to help him with his drawn and painted caricatures and exhibited only the year before he died in 1879. Even Pablo Picasso’s activity as a sculptor only became fully understood in the years after his death. To this list we must now add Jack Whitten, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Met Breuer.1 Of the nearly sixty works in the show, two-thirds are sculpture. And all will be new to visitors of the exhibition. That’s because, as the Met curator Kelly Baum writes in the catalog, “Even though he created sculptures for four decades, Whitten rarely shared them with the critics and curators who visited his studio. He similarly refused to sell or exhibit them, effectively cloaking them in a veil of secrecy—or rather, privacy.” Yet as with those earlier sculptors, this show places before us a singular and highly original talent whose work enlarged the possibilities of the art form in new and unexpected ways.
Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama. (Sadly, he died in January of this year, just a few months before this retrospective was to open at the Baltimore Museum of Art.) In 1960 he fled the Jim Crow South for New York City, enrolling in The Cooper Union. He began studying the collections of African art—a type of work he was seeing for the first time—in the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums out of a desire both to explore and to lay claim to his ethnic and cultural heritage. After a while he felt that to truly understand African art he had to begin wood carving, which he did in 1962, thus entering into a career as a sculptor. Prompted by his Greek-American wife’s interest in exploring her own heritage, in 1969 the couple visited Crete for the first time, and for the remainder of his life they spent summers on the island, with Whitten making sculpture there exclusively, producing paintings in New York the rest of the year. In this way Whitten could be said to have enacted the journey undertaken by so many modern artists, only in reverse, and with an opposite intent. Artists like Brancusi and Picasso traveled from the periphery—their home towns—to the creative crucible, Paris, to experience and participate in the most advanced art ideas of the moment. By contrast, Whitten the sculptor regularly left the creative center of his time—New York City—for the periphery, Crete, not to engage with a vigorous present but, instead, a deep past: the art and civilizations of Africa and ancient Greece.
Whitten’s close scrutiny of African art might have led to a career as a sculptural pasticheur, with the artist producing a steady stream of glosses on and imitations of the forms and styles of African art. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. One of Whitten’s unique features as an artist is the way he absorbed and assimilated not just the influence of African art but that of multiple sources and stimuli and even managed to transcend them to produce something completely his own.
To judge from the show, Whitten’s evolution was startlingly swift. The earliest works are Lovers (1963–64), consisting of one sculpted head hovering above the other at the end of a twisting, serpentine form, and Jug Head I and Jug Head II (both 1965), consisting of stylized heads in which the nose extends up, over, and back to form a handle. They aren’t especially memorable as sculptural images, but they already show a well-developed feeling for, respectively, form in space (one form snaking upward from another) and form and space (the opening between the nose/handle and the mass of the head).
Nothing prepares us for his next sculpture, done soon after. Homage to Malcolm (1965) is a work of full mastery and mature vision. A six-foot-long, horizontal sculpture, it consists of multiple distinct parts or elements: At one end a smooth, slender horn shape and a shallow dish-like receptacle, both on a roughly carved support. At the other end an oval form whose surface is covered in a thick nest of nails and screws driven into its surface in the manner of the Kongo nkisi figures (a major influence on Whitten). Separating these two is a light, smooth, rolling-pin-like form whose even lighter top part suggests the repeated actions of the hand, touching or rubbing. It is a striking, arresting object whose meanings are powerful yet elusive. It suggests a supine body (it’s a memorial to the assassinated Civil Rights leader), a club, a totem, even a landscape. And it is wholly original—I can think of nothing like it in modern or contemporary sculpture anywhere.
Thereafter Whitten goes from strength to strength: the three human-scaled, totemic sculptures in the 1972–74 Anthropos series; Reliquary for Orfos (1978), a work in which Whitten commemorated his love of fishing and an endangered species, the orfos fish, with, among other things, windowed containers revealing clusters of fish bones; and The Afro American Thunderbolt (1983–84), the likes of which surely exists nowhere else in the history of modern sculpture. Perched atop two metal rods functioning as a “base” are two smooth, broadly angular horizontal forms, a large portion of whose surfaces are covered with the dense thicket of nails and screws familiar from Malcolm. Their elevation and the space under them are all as much a part of the sculptural experience as the forms themselves, whose meaning is ambiguous but which the graphic energy of the bent and twisted metalwork imbues the whole with a powerful sense of presence.
A brief word on Whitten’s paintings, which, being fewer in number and less dramatic in presence, are likely to be overshadowed in this show, though they shouldn’t be. They demonstrate that Whitten brought to the art of painting an outlook as original and independent as that which he brought to his sculpture. They tend to be large—seven feet or more to a side—with a prominent central form composed of a multitude of tiny, tessera-like parts (the legacy of his study of Greek mosaics) situated amid a neutral ground. What distinguishes them is an approach to pictorial space, one you might call topographical, unlike any to be seen in the art of his time. One will suggest variously a city or densely populated island viewed from tens of thousands of feet up, another a planet floating in outer space, still another an ice-covered peninsula jutting out into a body of water. Whereas Whitten’s sculpture invites us in close to scrutinize its forms and workmanship, his paintings do the opposite: ask us to step back to take in, literally and figuratively, the big picture.
Both the catalogue’s essays and the individual entries and exhibition displays superbly explicate Whitten’s sources and influences in African and ancient Greek art that were among his major creative wellsprings. The Met has played to its strength as an encyclopedic museum by placing objects from its collections such as a Kongo Power Figure, a Cycladic idol, and an octopus-decorated Mycenaean krater alongside Whitten’s works. Indeed, going through the show I felt that here at last the Met had realized the full potential of the stated aim of its move into contemporary art, that of using the past to illuminate the present. The selections are spot-on, the juxtapositions apposite and illuminating.
At the same time, though, there is a curious lacuna. Whitten began living in New York in a period (the early 1960s) of intense creative ferment. Yet, beyond one or two passing references in the catalogue, we learn nothing of how modern and contemporary art might have shaped his aesthetic. It’s probably facile to see in the piled-up forms of the Anthropos series the influence of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column or of Joseph Cornell in Whitten’s encasing mementos and other objects and ephemera in windowed containers. But then there is Kritiko Spiti (1974–75), a mid-sized vertical carving that is placed directly on the floor and leans against the wall. In the way it “bridges the space between the floor and the wall,” as the contributor Karli Wurzelbacher writes in the catalogue, it has notable affinities with the work that artists like Richard Serra, Robert Morris, and Lynda Benglis had been making and exhibiting around that time and earlier. Might Whitten, in this work, have been responding to that? If so, it would not diminish his achievement to make the connection. On the contrary, it would only enhance it, offering further proof of his ability to transcend multiple sources in the expression of his singular vision.
Two things set these and Whitten’s other works off—and set off Whitten himself—as wholly original voices in contemporary sculpture. The first is that beyond their status as pure abstract art is their role as works freighted with symbolism to carry larger, multi-layered meanings. Sometimes these are personal and autobiographical. Lichnos (2008), a large work dominated by an upthrusting horn shape and the first thing you see on entering the show, is his homage to spearfishing in the Mediterranean. The title is the name of a fish native to the waters off Crete; the main body of the sculpture carob wood, native to the Eastern Mediterranean; the horn a symbol of power and potency in African culture; the metal mending plate a reference to the artist’s childhood in Alabama; and the whitewashed cinder block on which the work rests a reference to the color of Greek and Cretan buildings.
More often, though, Whitten has something larger in mind. It wasn’t just the forms of African sculpture that he was drawn to, but their ritualistic function as well. And so, as much as making “art,” his aim became the creation of objects which, like those he saw in the museums, embodied apotropaic powers, or in other ways functioned as intermediaries between humanity and invisible forces. Hence the repeated horn imagery, the nail motif borrowed from Kongo Basin figures, believed to unleash their powers when nails were driven into them. Hence, too, a work like The Guardian II, For Mirsini (1984), a wall-bound abstraction in which one can discern a stylized face. Whitten made it to hang in his young daughter’s room to watch over her. This may be why Whitten never exhibited his sculpture; its purpose was fundamentally private.
The second thing that sets off Whitten as a unique voice is that he has introduced new ways of making, looking at, and thinking about sculpture. His works are, in fact, very much “made”: at every stage we are aware of the hammering, turning, carving, drilling, dowelling, and adhering that went into the creation of each work. (Though Witten will occasionally wittily undercut this perception as he does in Malcolm, which looks as if it is assembled from multiple parts when in reality it was carved from a single piece of elm.) And “made” in another way: in place of modernist simplification, Witten’s sensibility is additive, even accumulative. He is not afraid of embellishing his works with profusions of matter and material.
Whitten often requires us to experience one of his works in ways different from most modern and contemporary sculpture. The horizontality and disposition of forms in Malcolm require that we “read” it—that is, take it in part-by-part and sequentially, from left to right, rather than as a unity. He lofts the main mass of Thunderbolt to around eye level. And Memory Container (1972–73), a figure-like sculpture with containers on its front and back holding ephemera and mementos, in fact has neither “front” nor “back”; both faces are equally necessary and significant.
Finally, Whitten asks us to ponder such questions as: Can abstract sculpture be more than pure form? Is there a place for spirituality in contemporary art?
Martin Puryear, Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, and now Jack Whitten: a line of African-American sculptors drawing on their ethnic and racial heritage to fashion a wholly original, boundary-extending modern art. There are obviously others. Time, surely, to move beyond the single-artist, monographic exhibition to a broad-gauged, scholarly survey show.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 45
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