A DRAMATIC AND TRANSFIXING painting by Jack Whitten (1939-2018) set a new artist record at Sotheby’s on Friday. Whitten’s “Special Checking” (1974) sold for for $2,660,000 including fees. (The hammer price was $2.2 million.) Given Sotheby’s set the estimate for the painting at $300,000-$500,000, the sales price was about five times the high estimate.

“Special Checking” was featured in the March 1 Contemporary Curated sale at Sotheby’s New York. In addition to setting an auction record for Whitten, the mixed-media abstract painting was ranked No. 2 among the top-selling lots. Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Painter)” (2008) was No. 1 and “Smiling Girl with Black Hair” (2008) by George Condo was ranked third.

Whitten’s previous auction record was set last fall when “Ancient Mentor I” (1985) sold for $2,235,000 (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 14, 2018.


Lot 3: JACK WHITTEN, “Special Checking,” 1974 (oil on canvas with rope collage, 54 1/8 x 95 7/8 inches / 137.5 by 243.5 cm). | Estimate $300,000-$500,000. Sold for $2.2 million hammer price ($2,660,000 including fees) RECORD


WHITTEN WAS A PIONEERING PAINTER, recognized for his experimental techniques. He constantly sought new and innovative ways to work with paint. “Special Checking” is part of a series of paintings Whitten made for a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Aug. 20-Sept. 22, 1974), more than four decades ago. According to Sotheby’s, the painting appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalog. Whitten used a squeegee to push paint across the surface of the works and placed wire or string under the canvases temporarily to create certain effects. For “Special Checking” he worked with rope.

It was a trying and triumphant time for the artist. He had secured a show at the Whitney, but he had no money for paint and materials. Whitten documents the period in the posthumously published volume “Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed.”

In a handwritten note dated Feb. 22, 1974, Whitten writes “…winning the Guggenheim would make a big difference. I do not want another year like this—so broke—no money which means no materials.…”

On Feb. 25, he states that he has spoken to Marcia Tucker, who curated the Whitney exhibition: “The aspect of a show at the Whitney looks good…possible date 25 August-29 Sept. it’s not ideal time but it will be the first show of the season—A chance to psyche out everything that follows…” Whitten also notes that he saw Al Loving that day. The fellow abstract artist, he says, “was looking good” and continuing to experiment and grow.

Whitten writes in all caps on March 25: “I did not get the Guggenheim!” He continues, “I have been so depressed that it has been almost a month since I’ve written anything or painted. An artist, without materials is like a junkie without his shit…” With loans from other artists, he secures paint and canvas.

    March 25: The month of April is going to be a bitch. April could make or break me. I am going to produce my entire Whitney show in April. (The previous sentence is underlined) I am abandoning the edge completely. The picture plane must speak for itself without any added device. The stretcher is the boundary, the framing eye. …It may be square…rectangular, or tall + skinny, circle or triangle or oval.

About a week later, on April 1, Whitten mentions a visit from another abstract artist: “Ed Clark came by the studio today. He seemed impressed with the paintings—but spoke of them as action paintings—I didn’t like that.…”

By May, he has accomplished the task at hand. “I have finished painting the Whitney show,” he writes on May 9. “I am pleased with what I have and plan to have a relaxing Summer with my Greek friends. (With his wife, Whitten began spending summers on the Greek island of Crete in 1969.) This year has been very tough—tough painting[.] I have destroyed more paintings than I have kept—this is necessary for quality—it’s better to have ten very good paintings than to have thirty mediocre ones.…”

“I have finished painting the Whitney show. …I am pleased with what I have and plan to have… This year has been very tough… I have destroyed more paintings than I have kept—this is necessary for quality—it’s better to have ten very good paintings than to have thirty mediocre ones.…” — Jack Whitten

Examples of paintings from the 1974 series that includes “Special Checking” are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (“Siberian Salt Grinder”), Whitney Museum of American Art (“Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (“Chinese Sincerity”). Shown, JACK WHITTEN, “April’s Shark,” 1974 (acrylic on canvas). | © Jack Whitten, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth


On May 31, Whitten notes that the museum will pick up the paintings from his studio on July 1. “I can only pray that there are no mishaps,” he writes. In all caps he confides: Yes, I am excited about showing at the Whitney. No—I don’t expect to make a million dollars.” He continues without emphasis and says, “It was nice to see Marcia [Tucker]—I trust her to do a good job—Good Woman. (This last two-word compliment about Tucker is in all caps and underlined.)

The volume doesn’t include any entries between May 31 and Nov. 20, 1974, when he writes for the first time in nearly six months. He reflects on the Whitney exhibition, which opened months earlier toward the end of August.

    Nov. 20: The excitement of returning to NY and finding my show at the Whitney installed….was just fantastic? (stet) It’s so good to relax for three months and come back to a show already up. We had a great party afterwards, every one was there..dancing, eating—drinking..Just the way I like it. Seeing the paintings installed at the Whitney gave me the opportunity to see my previous mistakes and my accomplishments. I learned something very important. Only keep your best work. (The previous sentence is underlined.) Destroy the rest. It has a way of haunting you. The Whitney Show was well received + John Russel[l] gave me a short but very positive review.

IT IS FASCINATING to understand, directly from Whitten, his circumstances and candid thoughts and views during the time he was preparing for the Whitney show, making paintings including “Special Checking.”

Russell’s paragraph-long review was published in The New York Times on Aug. 31, 1974. “At the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Thomas C. Armstrong takes over as director this weekend from John I. H. Baur, the paintings of Jack Whitten are on view through Sept. 22. They are well worth a visit,” he wrote.

“What Mr. Whitten does is to rake across a richly prepared paint substance with a 12‐foot‐wide instrument of his own devising. It is, as he [s]ays himself, a gambling situation, and sometimes the gamble doesn’t come off; but in the best pictures the immediacy is captured intact.” CT


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Two volumes about Jack Whitten’s work were published in 2018. “Jack Whitten: Odyssey: Sculpture 1963–2017” coincides with the first presentation of Whitten’s sculptural works and “Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed” explores the artist’s studio practice through his notes, interviews and other documentation. Topics covered in “Notes from the Woodshed” include Whitten’s 1974 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which featured the painting “Special Checking” (1974). “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” documents the artist’s first-ever career spanning survey. Finally, “Jack Whitten,” a forthcoming monograph from Prestel “conceived with Whitten’s collaboration” will explore the artist’s work, focusing on “the themes of history, politics, science, and music,” in particular.


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