LAST OCTOBER, ART21 collaborated with Jack Whitten (1939-2018) on a short film about his life and work. Shot in his studio, “An Artist’s Life: Jack Whitten” captures him making a painting titled “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” as he explains his innovative methods and techniques. He also talks about his backstory—growing up in Alabama, experiencing the Civil Rights Movement, which turned “vicious and violent,” and how he ended up in New York, where he graduated from The Cooper Union in 1964.

Whitten died in January, three months after the filming, and the Gorky painting turned out to be his last. “My first influence was Arshile Gorky. ‘Nobody Springs forth from the Head of Zeus.’ That was my first influence,” he says about the Armenian American artist who worked in Abstract Expressionism.

Another painting, this one memorializing rock and roll legend Chuck Berry, who died March 18, 2017, at age 90, hangs in Whitten’s Queens studio. After he started it, he developed a serious illness and was in the hospital for a month. “That painting came out of a lot of pain. …That painting was a way of hitting back. I am not going let this shit defeat me,” Whitten says. He named it “Six Kinky Strings: For Chuck Berry.” Anybody knows his personality, Whitten says, knows “Chuck Berry did some weird shit.”

The tribute to Berry is part of his Black Monolith series memorializing important African American figures such as James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, and Muhammad Ali. “The Black Monolith is a series of paintings I’ve been doing for a number of years now,” he says. “It started back in the early 1980s. It’s a black person who has contributed a lot to society. So I make it my business to memorialize those people. And I find that each one I have to locate the essence of that person. That person becomes a symbol, and I build that into the painting.”

“The Black Monolith is a series of paintings Ive been doing for a number of years now. It started back in the early 1980s. It’s a black person who has contributed a lot to society. So I make it my business to memorialize those people. And I find that each one I have to locate the essence of that person. That person becomes a symbol, and I build that into the painting.”
— Jack Whitten

The film is a particularly prescient documentation of the artist. Over the years, particularly in the past few, Whitten discussed his biography, the arc of his practice, his inspirations and philosophies in a number of videos, interviews, and the catalog for his career-spanning survey. “An Artist’s Life” covers familiar terrain, but coaxes fresh storytelling from the artist and he reveals how he would like to be remembered.

“I want to be remembered as a pretty average guy, who pretty much stays to himself. Dedicated worker,” he says. “…The question was asked to Count Basie once, he says, I just want to go down as one of the boys. There was a kind of modesty in that that I always admired. Nothing big. Just one of the boys. I like that.” CT

 

ON VIEW: Jack Whitten’s final painting, “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” is currently on view in a special presentation at Hauser & Wirth in New York, through March 31, 2018.

 

BOOKSHELF
“Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” documents the artist’s first-ever career spanning survey. Last fall, Whitten’s first exhibition in London was on view at Hauser & Wirth. “More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979–1989” accompanied the UK show of historic paintings.

 


Installation view “Mark Bradford. New Works,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2018. “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten” is at center in far background. | © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Joshua White

 


Jack Whitten in the studio. From left, “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” in progress, and “Six Kinky Strings: For Chuck Berry” (2017). | Screen Shot from “An Artist’s Life: Jack Whitten,” Video by ART21

 


Detail view of the acrylic materials Jack Whitten formed to make his paintings. | Screen Shot from “An Artist’s Life: Jack Whitten,” Video by ART21

 


Detail of JACK WHITTEN, “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” 2017. | Screen Shot from “An Artist’s Life: Jack Whitten,” Video by ART21

 


Installation view of JACK WHITTEN, “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” 2017 (acrylic on canvas), at Hauser & Wirth, New York. | Screen Shot from “An Artist’s Life: Jack Whitten,” Video by ART21

 

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