Jack Whitten - Why I Paint

An interview with the late American painter and contributor to our contemporary painting survey, Vitamin P3
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Jack Whitten photographed in his Queens Studio by Katherine McMahon
Jack Whitten photographed in his Queens Studio by Katherine McMahon

Paintbrushes are conspicuously absent from Jack Whitten’s Queens studio. Instead, covering the walls are tools of every shape and size, many of them homemade concoctions. Fridges and industrial freezers are stocked with muffin tins, pans and moulds of all kinds, all filled with acrylic paint. Part carpentry shop, part scientific laboratory, Whitten’s studio reveals his fifty-year commitment to rigorous experimentation with materials. 

The great American arist, who died in January 2018, first dispensed with paintbrushes in the early 1970s to produce what he calls Drag paintings. Pouring gallons of acrylic paint in different colours onto the canvas from an elevated scaffold, he then dragged various homemade tools – rubber squeegees, carpenter saws and two-by-four pieces of lumber, across the wet surface of the paint. The process was intensely physical but the results are sensuous, elegant paintings embedded with striations of colour. Here, the Vitamin P3-featured African American painter told us what interested, inspired and spurred him on. 

 

Jack Whitten - Escalation 1,  2014 courtesy the artist
Jack Whitten - Escalation 1, 2014 courtesy the artist

Who are you? I am Quantum man. I am a part of everything and everything is part of me. I exist beyond all known categories of being human. There is no me.....there is only me. Time has given me a gift and I want to share it with everybody. There is no race, no colour, no gender, no territorial hang ups, no religion, no politics and no monolithic notions of being. There is only life.

What’s on your mind right now? I have a piece of Serbian oak, Cretan walnut, black mulberry, some lead, a slab of Dionysian marble plus an assortment of found materials, all begging me to make their presence known. What am I to do?

How do you get this stuff out? Collaboration. I must collaborate with matter. Matter has to excite my imagination in order to activate me. Imagination is the catalyst that stirs the stew. The stew has many ingredients, many different flavours, many different odors, many different textures, many different colours. When it tastes right, I give it to the world.

 

Jack Whitten - Escalation II (x2+y2=1 ) For Alexander Grothendieck, 2014 courtesy the artist
Jack Whitten - Escalation II (x2+y2=1 ) For Alexander Grothendieck, 2014 courtesy the artist
 

How does it fit together? It doesn't fit together. It binds together out of necessity with the glue of entanglement. Yes, entanglement is a glue that is very flexible. It holds up in extreme weather conditions. It can bend, stretch, flow like molten lead or pour like water. It has a high tensile strength and can be shaped into any configuration. Phase transition is a given, therefore it is capable of existing in different states of matter.

What brought you to this point? Years of consistent, systemic research into different states of matter, both physical and psychic matter. Matter is a bitch that demands curiosity, determination, reverence for knowledge, perseverance and plain old-fashioned work.

Can you control it? "IT' is an extremely deep philosophical notion of being. "IT" makes itself known when "IT" wants. When "IT" makes its presence known, yes, I can control "IT" for a brief nanosecond. 

Jack Whitten - The Fifth Portal, 2016 courtesy the artist
Jack Whitten - The Fifth Portal, 2016 courtesy the artist
 

Have you ever destroyed one of your paintings? I have destroyed many paintings in the past fifty years. The New York Sanitation Department is my best friend! When paintings don't work they contribute to visual pollution and I don't like any form of pollution. I sincerely wish that a lot of artists would stop polluting the sacredness of the visual.

 

Jack Whitten - The First Portal, 2015 courtesy the artist
Jack Whitten - The First Portal, 2015 courtesy the artist
 

Vitamin P3 New Perspectives In Painting is the third in an ongoing series that began with Vitamin P in 2002 and Vitamin P2 in 2011. For each book, distinguished critics, curators, museum directors and other contemporary art experts are invited to nominate artists who have made significant and innovative contributions to painting. Find out more about Vitamin P3 New Perspectives In Painting here

Vitamin P3 New Perspectives In Painting
Vitamin P3 New Perspectives In Painting


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