Jack Whitten’s art—canvasses built up with what he calls “tesserae” of acrylic paint, at once minimalist and ornate—is an excellent analog for his manner. He speaks in units: measured, often deliberately repeated phrases that build to constellations, opaque and revealing, abstract and grounded. With influences and interests ranging from astrophysics to sports—missing matter and Muhammad Ali are equally compelling as eponymous subjects of recent paintings—Whitten is a gregarious conversationalist. At seventy-seven, he’s sprightly and regal, full of wonder and enthusiasm. In a conversation that touched on octopuses (“they are so good to eat!”) and on “modern technological society,” he displayed the restless curiosity and joie de vivre that have made his work—painting, drawing, and sculpture, the latter now showing in New York for the first time—such a marvel.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten came to New York City in 1962. “I was one of the first artists in Tribeca,” he said, though, after forty years in the neighborhood, he’s decamped to the quiets of Woodside, Queens. He studied at Cooper Union and metabolized downtown and uptown currents to create a distinct vision that speaks to art history even as he transcends it.
Early in February, Whitten walked me around his first show at Hauser & Wirth’s space on West Twenty-second Street. “The space was just made for these paintings,” he observed with obvious pleasure. He spoke of the lasting legacy of his time as a pre-med student at Tuskegee Institute, the importance of materials, and the joys of spending the summer “sculpture season” on Crete.
On Quantum Wall (A Gift for Prince)
This is the painting that started the whole thing. The title is “Quantum Wall.” And when I was in the process of working on this painting, the news channel showed that Prince had passed. It was really shocking to me, because I was working in this color, and it made it obvious what the painting was about. So quantum wall is the theme I’m working with, but within each quantum wall there is another title that leads to the content of the painting. What’s different with this painting is, I’m using a material called Tivar. I use it because nothing sticks to this stuff. They use it primarily in slaughterhouses to control bacteria. It sustains high temperatures, nothing sticks to it. It’s great for me because I can use it and paint won’t stick to it, so sometimes I can use it as a divider. I also use it around the perimeter of the painting, where it acts like a sort of a dam to keep the paint in at the edge.
The title of the paintings comes from quantum mechanics. It’s just something I am very interested in—it gets my imagination going. Particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology. Probably because of my background. My first years in college, I was premed.
I’m working with these units of paint, which I call tesserae—originally the word for ancient mosaics. I’ve studied mosaics for years. I’ve lived in Greece, on the island of Crete, for the past forty-six years, and I’ve done a lot of travel around the Mediterranean basin and Egypt, and there I’ve seen a lot of mosaics—so it’s the mosaic that leads to these paintings. The tesserae, in my mind, is the unit, it’s the thing that makes them. I can build anything I want with the tesserae, using all acrylic paint, built layer by layer by layer until I get the thickness that I want. As a rule, I work with a thickness of a quarter of an inch to three sixteenth of an inch. I have ways that I can calculate the thickness that I want. There is a lot more, deeper material than the paint, of course—all the psychological stuff.
On Quantum Wall (The Geometry of Being an Octopus)
Something you should know about the Quantum Wall paintings: they’re all using new types of pigment. This is not traditional pigment. It’s a type of pigment that’s known as Pyrisma, made by only one manufacturer. What’s unique about these pigments is that they are built to mimic what happens in nature with phosphorescence. And that’s why, if you look from any direction—from any direction you look at—these paintings change. They change with the type of light.
That one is built on a violet Pyrisma, and the title is “The Geometry of Being an Octopus.” I’m an octopus hunter. I’ve hunted for octopus for about forty-six years. I’m a spear fisherman, I do underwater spear fishing. And unfortunately for the octopus, they are so good to eat. I always feel guilty about killing them, but that’s what you get for being so good to eat. I’m just reading a book someone gave me, which is called The Soul of an Octopus. Interesting book! But coming from a different point of view. The person who wrote that book fell in love with the octopus and has been studying them, and I am coming from the view of an octopus hunter. And a lot of what the book is pointing out is true. They are very smart, they can do the most amazing things, their color can change right before you, depending on the ground they’re on. If I were to bring a live octopus in here, it would change immediately to the color of the floor. It’s part of their survival thing. They can do things like disappear right before your eyes. You would just … How the fuck did they do that? But they have something in their musculature that can just collapse. I’ve had them in my bag with a latch—put them in a bag, live—and I have had them figure out how to get the fucking latch open from the inside and how to get out. They are special creatures.
On Black Monolith X (Birth of Muhammad Ali)
This one is quite different. It’s called Muhammad Ali, the boxer. It is one of a series I call “Black Monoliths”—the first was in 1986. Those paintings are built to honor important, significant black people in the arts and sports and medicine, politicians, people who have contributed a lot, people who have had a lot to offer for me personally. And this one is called “Muhammad Ali,” parentheses, Birth of Muhammad Ali. I tell people Muhammad Ali had two births, a transformation that was literally a second birth. The tesserae operate very differently in this painting. Everything I do is grounded in geometry, a lot of different forms of geometry, I work with all of them. The geometry here goes more to the fractal. There are a lot of irregular tesserae, irregular shapes of paint. A lot of different processes go into this. The paint goes on in layers. Layers on top of layers on top of layers. The tesserae go back years. They have to cure before I can use them. And I have an advantage there from painters who work with a wet palette, because I work from a dry palate. And the advantage to working with a dry palette is that my eye is structuring something that is not going to change. It’s been sitting and curing for a year, for two years. That piece of acrylic is not going to change anymore. It’s like working with stone—it becomes a primal element.
I think I nailed Muhammad Ali right on the head. It has his likeness about it. I saw him live only once, years ago, in Yankee Stadium. The man had this primal force about him, but the beauty was—what I call “the plasticity of boxing”—he could take that primal force and he knew how to structure it. In a way, that’s what I want to do in painting. “Black Monolith.” It’s a hell of a painting. I’ve found that working this way—with the acrylic tesserae—it can mimic anything. Sometimes you think you’re looking at glass, other times you think it could be marble, or it could be granite, or it could be stone of some sort. A lot of it—I think the influence has to do with years of working at my house in Greece, at my house on Crete.
The longest part is the building of the tesserae. That could take months, a year, even longer. The actual putting it together takes about a month. It’s like Chinese cooking—when you have all the elements, it’s like a nonstop operation. I’m working with something so complex that I divide the process into three distinct processes. The first is construction, the actual building of the acrylic slab. The second is deconstruction, meaning that the slab of acrylic painting is either cut [as in the “Quantum Wall” paintings] or broken [as in the “Black Monoliths”]. The paint can be frozen. When it’s frozen—I keep deep freezers in the studio—I can hit the paint with a hammer and shatter it, like glass. The third process is reconstruction, and that’s when I paint with tesserae, when I build with tesserae, and laminate it. These paintings are pure acrylic paint, laminated. It doesn’t jump out of the conceptual realm until I’m in the process of putting it together. Then, at that point, I try to eliminate the conceptual. I don’t want it to interfere. I deal with the conceptual at its simplest level—meaning the ability to design, the ability to lay something out.
On Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal)
In the summer months, I don’t paint. I sculpt, I carve wood. This one has a combination, a large amount of mixed media. It’s built on a block of Cretan walnut and on top of that is Serbian oak. The marble, from Greece, it’s known as Dionysian marble. And of course a lot of the technological stuff, the computer stuff, it’s actually the guts of a computer, cell phones. So it’s a big mixture of preindustrial, primal preindustrial material, seasoned with modern technological stuff.
It’s a wild piece. The mixture of material is what gives it its ferocity. See that metal? Those pieces of metal came from an old guy in my village [on Crete], and he was a blacksmith. I used to go visit him—he died a few years back—and he would give me a lot of his cuttings that he had piled up. So all of this is original, hand-cut stuff, this is original hand-cut metal from his shop. Of course it’s built on African nkisi—that’s the traditional name. Nkisi were power figures, and I maintain that we have the equivalent of that in the modern technological society. Ancient people, they believed in animism, animist thought. These people actually believed that everything was alive, organic, inorganic, that the stone had a life force. It’s a funny thing that has happened since then—we have confirmed that there is a life force, and that interests me very much, it interests me very much.
Crazy piece, “Quantum Man.” Someone said to me, “It looks like it came from another world.” Very good, I like that. And if you think about where it was built, my studio in Greece is so different from New York. My house is out in the countryside, it’s out in a village, I have the mountains wrapped around the back, all in the back, the greatest mountain on Crete, and to the front we have the sea. The studio there is in the shade of a humongous fig tree. So bringing it from Crete to New York and just sort of plopping it here, it is in a different world.
On “The Third Entity” drawing series
I tend to do a bunch of drawings before the painting season starts. And I call the drawings—I call them scouts. As a kid—I grew up in Alabama—as a kid I grew up with cowboy and Indian movies, where you would send a scout to see what was going on. I think of the drawings that way. When I do the drawings, I have the material, and I’m just sending the material out, looking for stuff. But the stuff that comes back from the drawings, I can deal with in the paintings. So there is no specific drawing for a specific painting. I’ve been working with a new material. It’s this synthetic paper called Evolon, and I use this Renaissance wax, it’s a British wax, they use it for conservation purposes. And I’ve been experimenting with it for years in sculpture: I use it on wood, I use it on marble, I use it on lead. And it occurred to me when I came back to New York, why don’t you try it on paper, see if you can use it on paper. So this is Renaissance wax and graphite on Evolon. They have the look of photography. But we must understand that this is not the photographic process. It comes out of the material itself, but I’m very aware of the photographic appeal. And sometimes people want to think of them as photographs. They are not. I come out of the background in painting we call “materiality.” So what you’re looking at comes directly out of the material.
It’s time that I start another set of paintings. Time to go back to the drawing board, send the scouts out. Drawing season is coming up, usually about April. That goes till May, end of May, then I take off for Greece.
Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.