It’s also because Whitten’s painting wasn’t yet as well known to the general public as it deserved to be. It still isn’t — although over the past decade that has certainly begun to change. It’s common today to find Whitten’s commanding, technically audacious, subtly buzzing and politically charged abstract paintings hanging in major museums around the country.
But it’s Whitten’s sculptures — some never previously exhibited publicly outside Crete — that are now the subject of a major show at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through July 29). “Odyssey: Jack Whitten sculpture, 1963-2017” will open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in early September.
Inspired by Whitten’s African American heritage, his political awareness (he grew up in Alabama — “a brutal, racist state,” as he said — and helped organize a major civil rights march in Baton Rouge in 1960), as well as by African sculpture, science and nature, daily life in Crete, and ancient Greek mythology, this body of sculpture attests to an artistic intelligence working at full throttle, unfettered by outside expectations.
More than simply art works intended for aesthetic appreciation, Whitten’s sculptures are freighted with evidence of their maker’s eager engagement with a wider responsibility — to life, to love, to a shared predicament. They are totems, testimonials, tools, guardian figures, memorials, icons.
They’re never less than striking. Although aligned, superficially, with a modernist embrace of natural materials and essential, organic forms, they burst with ideas and allusions. They relish rule-breaking. Carved from many different kinds of wood, they’re also made from nails, marble, stone, lead, acrylic, fishing wire, fish bones, animal skeletons and random detritus, including circuit boards, photographs and plastic credit cards.
‘Homage to Malcolm,’ 1965
Whitten made “Homage to Malcolm” just months after the assassination of Malcolm X. He had begun carving wood three years earlier, after moving to New York’s Lower East Side and while studying at Cooper Union. In the early ’60s, he was hanging out in jazz clubs and at the Cedar Bar, getting to know the likes of Willem de Kooning, Bob Thompson, LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. He also met Allan Stone, his first dealer. Stone had a growing collection of African art. Whitten had seen African sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in books, and he knew about the impact of African art on European modernists such as Picasso and Matisse. But after he began handling the pieces in Stone’s collection, he sensed an element missing from their responses — an indefinable spiritual component, which, although it initially eluded him (he grew up fundamentalist Christian), gradually took on greater weight. The embedded nails, chains and screws in “Homage to Malcolm” are their own kind of homage: to Central African nkisi n’kondi, carved power figures that act as spiritual vessels and protective forces. The rest of this strange, weapon-like piece is carved from American elm. The horn-shape at one end, the use of mixed media embedded in wood and the asymmetrical composition are all elements Whitten returned to in later sculptures.
‘John Lennon Altarpiece,’ 1968
Among the teeming metal objects hammered in or affixed to this piece of American white oak, carved to resemble a torso, are hinges, locks, keys, fans and stray pieces of wire. Also visible is a small, glass-covered container of organic brown rice near the abdomen. It’s another allusion to Central African nkisi figures, which often have organic medicinal substances contained within the abdomen. Whitten’s sculptures have an almost talismanic power; but they are full of private feeling, hidden items and humor, and they delight in anomalous juxtapositions.
‘Phoenix for the Youth of Greece,’ 1983
Whitten first went to Greece with his wife, Mary Staikos, in 1969. The following year, they started renting houses in the village of Agia Galini in Crete in the summers. They bought property there in 1984. Whitten did his carving and assembling in his studio in Crete. He kept a kind of shrine, a sculpture he called “The Black Christ,” in a corner, and when he entered the studio he would anoint it with olive oil from Cretan trees, light a candle and ring a bell. “My involvement with all of these geometrical objects is the transformation of them into spiritual objects,” he said. He saw his sculptures as objects for use “in the ritual of survival within a technological society.” He made this wall piece, “Phoenix for the Youth of Greece,” as a tribute and beacon of hope for young Greeks. Animal bones nailed together at the base protrude from behind a circular, glass-covered case containing crumpled, yellowing paper, with text handwritten in Greek: “Using the bones from the past, we can understand the present and foresee the future.”
‘Homage to the Kri-Kri,’ 1985
In some ways a return to the formal conception of “Homage to Malcolm,” made 20 years earlier, this piece, which hangs on the wall like an African mask, is actually a tribute to an endangered wild goat, the kri-kri or Cretan ibex, found in Crete’s White Mountains. The creature with huge curving horns is a descendant of the domesticated goats of the Minoans. The horn-shape in Whitten’s piece expresses power, as it does in nkisi carvings, and indeed in “Homage to Malcolm.” Among the objects screwed or nailed in to the upper half is a battered piece of Whitten’s American Express credit card. Whitten kept this sculpture in his studio in Queens, on a wall covered in photos of himself, his friends, Crete, and such figures as Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, James Brown, Josephine Baker and Ray Charles.
‘The Apollonian Sword,’ 2014
Near the end of his life, Whitten produced a series of masterpieces featuring thin, blade-like pieces of smooth white marble protruding from bases of wood, some of it charred black, and poured molten lead. For this piece, which is over six feet tall, he attacked a chunk of black mulberry wood with a chain saw and drill, then set it on fire. He polished the marble, which he obtained from a quarry in Crete, by hand. After setting the marble into the wood and securing it with a metal pin, he poured molten lead into a cavity, letting it sear the wood and spill over its distressed surface. Whitten “knew of precedents” for this method in Greek architecture, according to Karli Wurzelbacher, in the catalogue. “When constructing the Parthenon temple in Athens, for example, builders used molten lead to secure the columns within their bases.” The sculpture’s forms and surfaces and the processes involved in its making evoke the tragic hero’s struggle to achieve Apollonian order from the Dionysian chaos of fate, as described by Nietzsche in “The Birth of Tragedy.”
‘Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant,’ 2014
The show concludes with a large gallery filled with Whitten’s late paintings, made with processes that were partly sculptural. Most belong to his “Black Monoliths” series: tributes to important African American figures (James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence, Barbara Jordan, Maya Angelou) inspired by a huge, jagged, stone outcrop on the hill behind his house in Crete. “Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant,” the biggest and the best piece, is not part of the “Monoliths” series. Dedicated to the celebrated post-Colonial theorist (Glissant wrote about racism and slavery), the painting is made of eight panels covered in acrylic molds resembling tiles. Like the works of Mark Bradford (yet in a totally different medium), it resembles an aerial view, possibly of a sprawling city, with clusters of radiating lines and dark, empty areas resembling bodies of water or urban parks. The title, “Atopolis,” combines “atopos” (nonplace) and “polis” (city) and alludes to the African diaspora. Although Crete is closer to Africa than it is to Athens, Whitten didn’t travel to Africa until 2001. When he did, he saw, and was profoundly shaken by, the Door of No Return on the coast of Senegal, from where so many Africans, sold into slavery, took their last step on the African continent.