RIP Jack Whitten
The great American painter Jack Whitten died at the age of 78, his gallery Hauser and Wirth announced on Sunday. “Celebrated for his innovative processes of applying and transfiguring paint in works alert to politics, identity, and societal coordinates, Jack Whitten holds a unique place in the narrative of postwar American art,” said Hauser and Wirth. “Over the course of his five decade career, Whitten constructed a bridge between gestural abstraction and process art, experimenting ceaselessly to arrive at a nuanced language of painting that hovers between mechanical automation and deeply personal expression.”
Whitten was included in our recent contemporary painting survey Vitamin P3. We interviewed Whitten prior to the book’s publication and, following his death, we’re reposting the interview in full, here.
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.
Whitten 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 drags various homemade tools – rubber squeegees, carpenter saws and two-by-four pieces of lumber, across the wet surface of the paint. The process is 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.
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.
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.
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.
Vitamin P3 New Perspectives In Painting is available now.