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. Read More