JACK WHITTEN: Private Sculptures and Public Paintings

Works included in Odyssey, an exhibition in 2018 at the Met Breuer, NY of some of Jack Whitten’s sculptures and paintings


Jack Whitten, 1939-2018, American




The African-American artist, Jack Whitten died a year ago this week.  He was born in Bessemer, Alabama and spent his childhood and adolescence in the deep South. 

Where, if he had remained, he said he had no doubt he would kill or be killed. He left for New York after three years in college and a Civil Rights march which deeply affected him.



The New York where he was a college student from 1960 on was the first time that the artist mixed with white people, sat next to them in class at Cooper Union, had white teachers.


The place was flush with the Abstract Expressionists, Second Wave Feminists, the far-reaching consequences of the Vietnam War;  and with the exuberance of African American artists reacting to the liberation associated with the Black Power and Black Arts movement.


To the large effect on a young man of this environment has to be added the influence on the artist’s evolution of his visits to the African sculpture collections of the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums.  Particularly the male power figures made and used throughout the Kongo basin: figures made to exhibit power and used both for supplication, protection and guidance. 




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Nkisi (power figures), wood, iron, cloth, pigment, 19th century) Angola or Democratic Republic of Congo. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania



Jack Whitten’s incorporation in his sculpture of this African tradition – based in the communal norms and spirituality of a people – seem to have balanced the formalism, intellectual abstraction, competition and individualism of his paintings and life in New York.




Homage to the Kri-Kri, 1985, black mulberry, nails, mixed media.

The homage is to the Cretan ibis which is a descendant of domesticated goats kept by the Minoans.  The artist has modified the power figure of the Kongo basin.




The artist’s wife is Greek-American.  They first visited Crete together in 1969.  Over the years, they summered there.  The artist, who had begun making sculpture in New York, finally made sculpture only on Crete.


There is, then, also, the effect of Greece on his work:   the light, the fishing in Mediterranean waters, communal life on an old island, the functional uses of wood and marble; and the myths of classical Greece.


Having begun his life in strict North American segregation, the artist moved in stages to a syncretic appreciation of art:  New York, African, Classical Greek, modern Mediterranean and the tradition of Western art.  These he often interpreted in his work through his experience of growing up in Alabama.


The artist’s paintings were exhibited to critical acclaim during his life.

He began painting in the early 1960s. 

By the early 1970s, the museum notes that he had abandoned brushes. Instead, using acrylic paint, he poured, levelled, scraped, raked, impressed and incised it with various tools which he made or improvised.

In the early 1980s, he began building his paintings much as he built his sculptures and referred thereafter to ‘making’ his paintings as he ‘made’ his sculptures.

In 1987, Jack Whitten began making the series he called Black Monoliths to memorialize excellence in the black arts, politics, sports. He made 11 of these.




Black Monolith II,  (For Ralph Ellison), 1994; acrylic, black molasses, copper, salt, coal, ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust, eggshell, razor blade on canvas.  Brooklyn Museum on loan to Met Breuer in 2018

The artist shaped this canvas to give form to Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) whose Invisible Man of 1952 represented for the artist an exact rendering of his life in the United States.  The central form of this painting also represented a rocky outcropping visible from the artist’s Cretan studio.




All but one of these paintings were created by using small units of colour: tesserae.  The artist made these by pouring acrylic and pigment into moulds like recycled bottle caps and plastic packaging.  These he sometimes broke into pieces or ground before attaching them to the canvas.  This art is sometimes referred to as ‘process’ painting.

The paintings below are only a part of the artist’s oeuvre and are not representative of the whole of it.




Only family and friends knew that Jack Whitten sculpted.  The sculptures, with an evolved and expert technique, were private.

Not long before his death, the artist finally agreed to display his sculptures.  They were shipped back from Crete.  The artist died before they were displayed. 

 All but two sculptures shown here –  one a doll made for his daughter, Mirsini – are in the estate of the artist.





Mirsini’s Doll, 1975, Cretan walnut, black mulberry.  Collection of Mirsini Amidon.

A gift to the artist’s daughter in the colour of her skin, rare for an American doll at that time.




The artist was often asked about the sources of his work and of his technique.  He was generous with his answers. 

‘Structured feelings’ he called the practice of the graphic arts.  A shorthand for the long discipline needed to identify and master feelings in order to structure them. 

One of his last paintings – not included here – was a vast double painting called Soul Map. The process and discipline of structuring the feelings of our lives he said amounted to creating a Soul Map.


I like the clear exposure in his work of the effect of many different cultural traditions and his use of these – treasury that they are –  to free himself from a natal tradition of political injustice and daily racial humiliation and vulnerability.




The Wedding, wild cypress, black Mozambique marble, metal, mixed media, 2006.

This piece represents the mixing of people and cultures and the artist’s interest in the process known as creolization.

Black marble from Mozambique is wedded to cypress from southern Greece and the whole is held together by the nails and metals reminiscent of the power figures of the Kongo basin.



And one cannot but admire the way in which this artist took up the courage to “kill the father”.  This was his description of the going up against the greats of the Abstract Expressionist tradition in its home, New York, with an expansion of both technique and subject matter.

I like his willingness to understand and adapt to the way of life of his wife’s people.

I like that, among the sources from which the artist drew strength, was privacy.

Because there are always hegemonies to structure our actions and thoughts and without privacy (and courage) the soul is unable to move out of its lair deep within us.


A soul which, in his sculptures, Jack Whitten, shaped in many forms of the composite materials of his life,  polished, embellished and also armoured with protective powers.

No wonder he guarded their privacy all his life.


Whitten with his wife Mary (left) and daughter Mirsini Amidon at the Walker Art Center on the occasion of an exhibition of 50 years of his work, 2015. Photo: Angela Jimenez for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis









Lovers, 1963-64, black stained American elm with black shoepolish patina.




Homage to Malcolm, 1965, American elm, partly stained, coiled wire, nails,  mixed media.

The first work in which the artist embedded nails into wood, a feature of the ritual sculpture of the Kongo Basin.  These ritual sculptures are protective and healing and enforcers of communal norms of behaviour.






Sphinx, 1966-67, butternut wood.




Ancestral Totem, 1968, birch wood.  The artist’s avatar, the llama, is at the top of series of abstract heads.




A view of pieces in the exhibition




Anthropos #1, 1972, black and white mulberry, wild olive wood, linen twine, wire.

One of the earliest sculptures made by the artist on Crete.






Bush Woman, 1974-75, black mulberry and wire.




Special Checking, 1974, acrylic on canvas with rope. 

Jack Whitten, 1939-2018. American.  Philadelphia Museum of Art





Delta Group II, 1975, acrylic on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

In between drawing board and canvas, the artist sandwiched items like wire and pebbles which the artist had first prepared with gesso and acrylic mixed with graphite and silica.  The artist then raked the surface with a large home-made rake.

The restriction of colour symbolized black and white races in North America.




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

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




Scorpion, 1975, white mulberry. A frequent visitor to Crete




The Saddle, 1977, Cretan walnut, black mulberry, mixed media.  Estate of the artist.

The artist began spending summers in the Cretan village of Agia Glini in 1974.  The saddle at one end of this piece he learned to carve from local artisans.  Screws, nails and women’s faces are inserted into and carved on the wood.  The museum believes that this piece represents male heterosexual desire.





Omikron 1, 1977, acrylic on canvas.  Jack Whitten, 1939-2018, American.  The Joyner/Giuffrida collection on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019.


In 1917, the artist said:  “I removed all spectrum colour from the studio: all reds, blues and yellows.  I took them out!  I reduced them down to black, white, and a range of grays.  You have to understand that getting rid of all the chroma and taking it to black and white is not just a formal exercise.  I am very much aware of the meaning of black and white in American society, which informs who I am as an African-American.   The formal reasons of black and white is one thing but there are also the reasons coming out of the political situation, and I wanted to see if I could combine them.”





The artist said that there were two sources for this work.  One was the fishermen off Crete who explained to him how they navigated in the dead of night in the Libyan Sea with nothing but blackness around.  The second was the artist’s time at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  There he learned to navigate his life.





Bosom, for Aunt Surlina, 1985, black mulberry, cherry wood, metal, mixed media.

The artist’s aunt, Surlina, a physically and socially powerful woman, ran a cafe in the town in which he was born, Bessemer, Alabama, whose manufacturing base was metal objects.


Bessemer Dream, 1986, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on loan to Met Breuer in 2018

The museum notes that this is more collage than painting. The artist used scraps of denim and also dried acrylic models of bits and pieces of found objects.





Site IV, acrylic on canvas, 1986.  Private collection on loan to Met Breuer in 2018.

Like Bessemer Dreams, Site IV belongs to a series made of collage of architectural objects and surfaces.  The artist said their origin is in the Yoruban divination trays the artist saw in an exhibition in New York.  He said that their form is also a claiming, finding and owning of a place.  This was something denied to African Americans until relatively recent times.




Black Monolith I (A Tribute to James Baldwin), 1988, acrylic on canvas.  Glenstone Museum, Maryland on loan to Met Breuer in 2018.

James Baldwin, 1924-1987, writer, civil rights activist.

The artist created a very dense surface for this most sophisticated and courageous of writers.  He brushed several collages of acrylic paint onto found materials:  aluminum, diamond tread, paper doilies, bubble wrap, wire mesh, striated rubbed mats, paint cans.  When these had cured, the artist assembled them on canvas.





Ogun’s Shield, canvas attached to wood board with wood elements painted with acrylic; welded steel frame.

  Jack Whitten, 1939-2018, American.  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington




Door to Manhattan, acrylic on canvas, 1990.

The artist poured acrylic into molds or onto flats surfaces.  He then assembled the cured acrylic onto a canvas.  The door represents the many symbolic doors in New York through which the artist passed between its separate communities.





Mask III, 1996, styrofoam, acrylic, eggshells on plywood.





Black Monolith III (For Barbara Jordan), 1998, acrylic collage on canvas.  Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), a pioneer African-American politician both in her native Texas and at the national level.









The Death of Fishing, 2007, mulberry, mixed media. Estate of the artist.

A remembrance of the lynching which killed 4770 African Americans between 1877 and 1950; and of the decline of the fishing industry of Agia Glini, the Cretan fishing village where the artist spent many summers.  The guts are fish bones and the artist’s own fishing paraphernalia.







Lichnos, 2008, mulberry, carob wood, white washed cinder block, mixed media.  Estate of the artist.

Lichnos is a fish wih poisonous spines. The fish is an ingredient in fishermen’s stew.




The Tomb of Socrates, 2009, wild cypress, black mulberry, marble, brass, mixed media






Gray Matter, 2010, black mulberry, Gortynis marble, Gorilla Glue with sawdust.

The artist’s interpretation of the work of certain African tribes (Dogon, Tellem, Okpoto, Jaba and Koro peoples according to the museum).  The artist encrusted the sculpture with sawdust attached with superglue.  The artist gave the name ‘brains of Crete’ to Gortynis marble.

This piece stands in front of a Black Monolith called Atopolis: for Edouard Glissant, 2014




Atopolis:  For Edouard Glissant, 2014, acrylic on canvas in 8 panels.  MOMA, NY

Edouard Glissant (1928-2011), poet and writer born in Martinique, wrote about racism and colonialism and creolization: the inevitable mix of cultures which results from the movement of peoples; and of which the artist believed his work to be an example. Atopolis contains two Greek words: no place and city.






Technological Totem Pole, 2013, mulberry, Gortynis marble, alarm clock, mixed media.  Estate of the artist.




Lucy, 2013, black mulberry, Phaistos stone, mahogany, metal I-beam, mixed media

This represents the creature, an Astrolapithecus Afarensis found in Ethiopia, 3.18 million years old and an ancestor of Man.  Each material used by the artist represents a phase of Man’s material evolution. His green American Express card is visible.





The Apollonian Sword, 2014,  marble, metal, lead, charred black mulberry




Black Monolith VI  (Mask for Terry Adkins, updated version), 2014 acrylic on canvas.  Private collection on loan to the Met Breuer in 2018

Terry Adkins, 1953-2014, musician and artist.






Aphrodite’s Lover, 2015, marble, molded lead, cherry wood





Shark Bait, 2016, black mulberry, marble, iroko, acrylic.

Bits of white marble seem to protrude from mulberry wood sitting on two pieces of Naxo marble.  The underside of the wood is painted Mediterranean Sea blue and is reflected off the polished marble.




Black Monolith X, The Birth of Mohammed Ali, 2016, acrylic on canvas.

The artist dedicated this painting to Cassius Clay’s transformation into Mohammed Ali, a renowned boxer, pacifist and activist




















5 thoughts on “JACK WHITTEN: Private Sculptures and Public Paintings

  1. So many amazing creations. Conceptually, my favorite is the “Technological Totem Pole.” As someone who’s interested in history, genealogy and DNA, I love the idea of a single sculpture that tells the story of our species.

    1. Thanks for this comment! I understand what you say but I have not been able to pick a favourite.

  2. D’habitude, je ne suis pas très fan de l’expressionnisme (comme tous les français), mais j’aime bien ces sculptures.
    Elles donnent une impression de jeunesse et aussi de sophistication.
    Peut-être l’influence de la Crète.

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