The first item in this five-decade survey of Jack Whitten’s abstract painting is a surprise. Unlike the boldly colored, mosaic-like works for which Whitten is best known, Self Portrait I (2014) presents a mass of eerily glimmering detritus on a dead black background. It’s a forbidding image of the artist, suggesting the final, crackling emissions of a dying brain. And yet it sums up—and even celebrates—a career dedicated to infusing abstraction with political and social content.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten moved to New York in 1960 and attended the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Initially inspired by the Abstract Expressionists, he ultimately charted his own path, exploring the plastic properties of acrylic paint.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Whitten’s works evolved from dark, barely perceptible images to thick skins of streaked pigment made by pouring and dragging paint across canvas to delicately gridded abstractions. Since the mid-1980s, he has concentrated on densely textured surfaces, at first casting and then carving into acrylic paint and, later, casting pigmented acrylic medium into tiles. These tiles are then applied to the canvas like pieces of a mosaic, often in combination with poured paint as in Zeitgeist Traps (For Michael Goldberg), 2009, in which swirling acrylic tesserae surround three islands of liquid-looking color. In the relatively light-hearted Apps for Obama (2011), the artist seems to be imagining extra-technological aids for dealing with presidential challenges. Cast squares and circles of pigmented acrylic float on a shimmering blue background like computer keys or talismans.
Many of the paintings that Whitten has made in the last 25 years are tributes to people he admires, including artist Jacob Lawrence, congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and writer Ralph Ellison. Like Whitten’s self-portrait, these works contain no realistic details, but they bristle with triumphant life.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 120.