Following a five-decade retrospective of Jack Whitten’s work that traveled around the United States over the past year and a half, Hauser & Wirth will now represent the New York–based painter, who is known for what he terms “conceptual abstractions.” Whitten, who turned 76 in December, had been represented by the New York gallery Alexander Gray Associates since 2007. He will continue to be represented by Zeno X gallery in Antwerp, Belgium.
Over the course of Whitten’s 50-year career, his work has regularly changed dramatically—it’s hard to boil it down to a signature style. Loosely, his interests can be described as being time, metaphysics, and the materiality of paint. Though he is best known for his “Slab” paintings, for which he dragged acrylic across a canvas using a squeegee, the artist has also made works that involve elements of frottage and look more like mosaics. They also occasionally refer to black history—his ongoing “Black Monolith” series is composed of abstract works dedicated to figures like Ornette Coleman, Ralph Ellison, and Jacob Lawrence.
“Jack is of the generation of great, iconic Americans like Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and Guston,” Marc Payot, a partner and vice president at Hauser & Wirth, said in an email. “But he’s also equally part of the traditions that intersect with that, with the black artists in the modern era like Lewis or Bearden, whom he knew personally. And then there’s the way Jack paints, which is extraordinary. He works with acrylic, and he is restless in experimenting with how he does that. The pure material nature of paint is an obsession for him. You feel it in his work.”
Whitten remained an artist’s artist until very recently. In 2006 Katy Siegel included Whitten’s work in “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975,” a traveling survey of painting made at a time when the medium was believed to have hit a wall, which helped raise his profile. “In the decades that he wasn’t famous, he was making work that was incredibly important,” Siegel told ARTnews for a profile of Whitten published earlier this year. “When the world was ready, there he was, not an iota diminished by those years of inattention.”
Mark Bradford, the Los Angeles–based abstract painter who joined Hauser & Wirth’s stable in 2013, said, “Jack’s hard-wrought place in the history of abstractions shows his stamina and talent.”
Hauser & Wirth, which has locations in Zurich, London, New York, Somerset, England, and Los Angeles, has its first Whitten show slated for spring 2017 at the New York gallery. Before then, however, Whitten will receive an honorary doctorate degree from Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts. (He already received one from the San Francisco Art Institute earlier this year.) Next year, a book of Whitten’s writings, coedited by Siegel, will be published by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis.
Hauser & Wirth’s decision to represent Whitten comes as both museums and the market reconsider the history of postwar art, and especially abstraction, to include more artists who are not white American men. The Denver Art Museum is at work on a show devoted to women Abstract Expressionists, which will open in June, and last month Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the gallery’s new Los Angeles branch, opened a survey show that focused exclusively on women sculptors from 1947 to the present.
Unlike many of the artists now gaining new prominence, Whitten is alive to see the massive turnaround in his career, with museums such as the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Walker Art Center having recently added his paintings to their collections.
Discussing his practice with me earlier this year, Whitten said, “My old dealer, Allan Stone, loved the phrase, ‘There’s no destination, it’s only the journey.’ I haven’t seen a destination yet, but that’s good. I’m still finding new stuff out there.”