Jack Whitten: Every Shining Thing: In Memoriam

Sphinx Alley II, 1975, acrylic on canvas, and details below.

Jack Whitten, 1939-2018, American.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



The African American artist, Jack Whitten, born 1939, died a year ago today. 

He left a large oeuvre, 50 years in the making:  abstract paintings; and sculptures made primarily on the island of Crete.



As above, detail



Born in Bessemer, Alabama, he spent his childhood, adolescence and three years of his college schooling in the strict segregation of the deep south. 

Then he fled to New York after a civil rights march which left him deeply shaken.




As above, detail



There, in the mature flowering of the Abstract Expressionists and in the midst of turbulence raised by the Black Power and Black Art movements, Second Wave Feminism; and, at the end of the  1960s, by the Vietnam war; and with unaccustomed mixing with white Americans and with people of all kinds, and revelational visits to the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums – especially their collection of African art – , the artist began his experimentation in the philosophy and practice of art.




As above, detail


He achieved critical acclaim for his painting.  His sculpture, overwhelmingly made in Crete – the homeland of his wife’s people – he kept private.  These were finally displayed with his consent in the year of his death.


Here is but one of his paintings today:  a small memorial on my part.


A shining work with a title – Sphinx Alley II – which evokes the many strands of his background and formation:

his race; jazz which he played throughout his adolescence; his experimentation with acrylic paint for which he is widely known; his attachment to Greek mythical traditions; and his accompaniment of fishers fishing, often at night, in the Libyan Sea.


And these in the form of a palimpsest: the rich colours of the different cultural traditions which the artist absorbed and then laid down, one on top of the other, to leave a shimmering trail of his accomplishments and of his belief that our civilizations have much to learn from and to teach each other.



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