Racism and violence are something I have dealt with all my life ... My art is an antidote used to counteract this poison.
— Jack Whitten, 2015
Jack Whitten. The Tomb of Socrates. 2009. Wild cypress, black mulberry, marble, brass, mixed media. 26 1/4 x 15 x 5 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
Odyssey tells the incredible story of Jack Whitten’s life through his art, exhibiting his sculptures alongside examples of African and ancient Greek art that inspired him as well as his acclaimed Black Monolith painting series.
Photography by Mitro Hood
My life has been an epic adventure. — Jack Whitten
Whitten was born in 1939 in the segregated steel mill town of Bessemer, Alabama to Mose Whitten, a coal miner who died when Jack was 4 years old, and Annie Cunningham, a seamstress. Whitten’s entire childhood and early adulthood were completely constructed through American racism. “… I didn't have to go to Vietnam to find out what the sound of a bullet was like passing over your head,” the artist has said about daring to be black in a whites-only park. "I learned in Alabama. They would shoot at you for fishing!”
Whitten received a scholarship and enrolled in Tuskegee University in 1957 with the intention of becoming an Air Force doctor. His life dramatically changed course, however, after a surreal experience in the middle of a ROTC class: "... All I remember is jumping up out of my seat and I mumbled, ‘What the (heck) am I doing here?’ … I didn’t understand what had happened, but I knew I had to leave Tuskegee. That’s the best explanation I have.”
Pursuing a new path, Whitten began attending Southern University in Louisiana, where he became active in the Civil Rights Movement until the demonstration that he spoke of as “the march that drove me out of the south.” That day, spectators threw excrement at the marchers and hit them with pipes and sticks. “I did it then,” Whitten said, “But I made a vow, I would never put myself in that position again.”
Intuitively, I knew that African art held a secret, something that could possibly help me as a young Black man.
— Jack Whitten
Jack Whitten. The Apollonian Sword. 2014. Marble, metal, lead, charred black mulberry wood. 72 1/2 x 22 x 18 1/8 in (184 x 56 x 46 cm). Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
Leaving the segregated South, Whitten moved to New York City in 1960 to attend Cooper Union’s School of Art. He sought out museums, a resource forbidden to black citizens in the South, and saw for the first-time African art in depth. Inspired by traditional African art-making, Whitten adopted the method of direct carving, designing as he carved. This practice fueled his painting and helped him understand African sculpture, the impact the objects were believed to have on the world around them, and his identity as a Black American.
“I think differently when I am outside of New York City.”
— Jack Whitten
Jack Whitten. Phoenix for the Youth of Greece. 21983. Black mulberry, olive wood, bone, glass, handwritten text on paper. 39 x 14 1/4 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
IIn 1969, Jack and his wife, Mary, traveled to Greece to escape New York City and the art world. Living inexpensively on a $1 a day, they were immersed in nature and immediately felt at home. Whitten had grown up helping in his mother’s garden and hunting and fishing in Alabama’s woods and rivers. Seeing the water of the Aegean in Crete touched something deep and familiar, part of what Whitten called his Southern sensibility. Moreover, Crete’s marble, wood, sea, and sand provided an energy like that of the African art objects he admired.
Whitten also related to the Cretans’ history of resilience through centuries of invasions and their resourcefulness, catching their meals from the sea and crafting items needed from materials at hand. In turn, the local people appreciated Whitten as a fellow fisherman and a craftsperson, and they saw him as American, not as black.
Over the next five decades, Whitten returned every summer to Crete. There, he carved and assembled sculptures in his studio, an open shed shaded by a fig tree, and reconnected to the physical world, free-form diving and hunting octopus, making his own olive oil, and growing vegetables, herbs, and fruit.
“Artists are demolition experts. We destroy stereotypes.”
— Jack Whitten
Jack Whitten. Reliquary For Orfos. 1978. Black mulberry, bones from the Orfos, copper wire, metal spear point with spear gun, rubber, metal tacks, glass from diving mask, window pane glass. 28 1/2 x 7 x 13 in. Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
Whitten thought art should do, not just be. It should memorialize figures, honor ancestors, protect family, create hope, and imagine the future. He believed the most sophisticated art should be available to the widest public audience.
Jack Whitten. The Afro American Thunderbolt. 1983-84. Black mulberry, copper plate, and nails. 10 × 24 × 9 in. (22.9 × 61 × 25.4 cm). Collection the artist’s estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
Odyssey honors Jack Whitten’s epic life and testifies to the profound loss of Whitten’s passing and even more to the monumental scale of his legacy.
“Our history of survival in America is defined both by the heroic deeds of the collective, and of the independent activists working in a variety of disciplines.”
— Jack Whitten
Jack Whitten. Homage To Malcolm. 1965. American elm partly stained, coiled wire, nails, mixed media. 75 x 18 x 13 in. Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photography by Genevieve Hanson, NYC
Jack Whitten. Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant. 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 8 panels. Overall: 124 1/2 x 248 1/2 in. (316.2 x 631.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Sid R. Bass, Lonti Ebers, Agnes Gund, Henry and Marie-Josee Kravis, Jerry Speyer and Katherine Farley, and Daniel and Brett Sundheim, 2017. Photography by Mitro Hood.
Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017 is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art from April 22-July 29, 2018.
Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017, was organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.