Jack Whitten walks through “Soul of a Nation” at the Tate Modern and talks about his work and “present times” in America. | Video by Tate Modern

 

NO STRANGER TO RACIAL DIVISION and political strife, Jack Whitten’s abstract canvases tackle weighty issues, confront hard truths, and consider the insights and sacrifices of important cultural figures. Some artists hedge about whether or not their work is political. Whitten is not among them. “The political is in the work. I know it’s in there, because I put it in there,” the artist says in the video below.

Whitten’s work appears in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which is on view at the Tate Modern in London through Oct. 22. More than 170 works by more than 60 artists, working both individually and within collectives such as Spiral and AfriCOBRA, are presented in the show.

It features art made between 1963-1983, a time of radical change in the United States. During the two-decade period, young black artists were trying to navigate the intersection of art, politics, and identity. Many struggled to determine their purpose and balance a desire to make important, complex art work and also reflect their experiences and the state of race in America.

“What I have learned is art can be anything the artist wants it to be. But me, it was always different. Remember I was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama—deep South, the height of segregation. I was born in American apartheid. So, I’ve always had a sense of purpose. Right from the beginning,” Whitten says in the Tate video.

“I was born in American apartheid. So, I’ve always had a sense of purpose. Right from the beginning.” — Jack Whitten

Over the years, his abstract works have paid tribute to fellow artists (Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis), jazz legends (Miles Davis, Betty Carter, Thelonious Monk), author Ralph Ellison, trailblazing Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Whitten contributed two paintings to “Soul of a Nation”: “Homage to Malcolm X” (1970) and Asa’s Palace” (1973).

“The painting for Malcolm, that’s symbolic abstraction. That painting was done right after the assassination. Malcolm X had a grasp of the universal aspect of the struggle that he was involved with. He knew that. It’s that conversion into the universal that gave him more power,” says Whitten, 77. “That painting had to be dark. It had to be moody. It had to be deep. It had to give you that feeling of going deep down into something and in doing that I was able to capture the essence of what Malcolm was about.”

The artist also talks about meeting King in Montgomery, Ala., using photography in his practice, the influence of “Bill” de Kooning, and the 12-foot-wide tool he created to rake the paint across the canvas of “Asa’s Palace.”

“Soul of a Nation” focuses on a contentious period when African Americans were demanding basic human rights, an era that reminds Whitten of the divisive climate in America today.

“For me, coming out of Bessemer, Alabama, what’s happening today is nothing new for me. This is what I was born into. One person cannot speak for a whole artist community. You can’t. But I am aware of the fact that people, at least people I know, are very much aware of what’s going on. We don’t know what this is going to lead to. We know that the present times are pretty bad and if the type of rhetoric we are having to deal with everyday escalates, my thinking is that there has to be some point where it’s going to explode even more so,” Whitten says. “Some people say, ‘I hope it doesn’t.’ Uh, hope helps, but hope is not enough. It really isn’t.” CT

 

“More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979 – 1989,” Jack Whitten’s first-ever solo exhibition in London is on view at Hauer and Wirth London through Nov. 18. The show is the gallery’s inaugural project with the artist in the United Kingdom.

 

“Soul of a Nation” is traveling to the United States where it will be presented at the Crystal Bridges Museum of America Art in Bentonville, Ark. (Feb. 3–Apr. 23, 2018), and then will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum (Sept. 7, 2018–Feb. 3, 2019).

 

BOOKSHELF
Published on the occasion of his first career-spanning exhibition, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” masterfully documents Whitten’s practice and features a lengthy interview with the artist by Robert Storr. Over the years, several other catalogs have been published about his work and exhibitions.

 


JACK WHITTEN, “Homage to Malcolm X,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | © Jack Whitten Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Christopher Burke Studio

 


JACK WHITTEN (1939-), “Asa’s Palace,” 1973 (acrylic paint on canvas, 2730.5 x 3924.3 mm). | Private collection; courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates, New York

 

BOOKSHELF
Published on the occasion of his first career-spanning exhibition, “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” masterfully documents Whitten’s practice and features a lengthy interview with the artist by Robert Storr. Several other catalogs have been published over the course of his career, exploring his work and coinciding with various exhibitions.