Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017

The Baltimore Museum of Art is proud to honor Jack Whitten, one of the most important artists of his generation, with this exhibition of his carved and assembled sculptures inspired by the materials and traditions of Africa and ancient Greece.

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About the Artist

Jack Whitten

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Socrates Socrates

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

President Barack Obama awarded Jack Whitten the National Medal of Arts in 2016. But for most of the late artist’s 55-year career, he was profoundly under recognized by the mainstream white art world. However, he remained determined to make his art without compromise.

Instillation shot of the Exhibition

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

Jack Whitten with his brothers
Jack, age 9, with his brothers Jesse and Billy Whitten. Courtesy Estate of 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.”

Apollonian Apollonian

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

Jack Whitten in New York
Jack Whitten on Broadway and Broome St., early 1970s. Courtesy Estate of Jack Whitten

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.

Phoenix Phoenix

“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

Jack Whitten in Crete
Jack Whitten carving wood on the beach in Crete, Greece, Summer 1971.

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.

Orfos Orfos

“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

Just three months before the opening of Odyssey, Jack Whitten passed away. His legacy is his specific worldview: a global vision seen from the intersection of African diaspora, New York painting, the American South, European art history, and the global technological present.

Thunderbolt

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.

For Malcolm For Malcolm

“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.

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Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017, was organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is generously sponsored by The Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation, Suzanne F. Cohen, Anonymous, Heidi and Brian Berghuis, Amy L. Gould and Matthew S. Polk, Jr., Agnes Gund, Transamerica, Guy and Nupur Parekh Flynn, LaVerna Hahn Charitable Trust, Nancy Dorman and Stan Mazaroff, Amy and Marc Meadows, Clair Zamoiski Segal, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Charitable Trust, Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown, Eileen Harris Norton Foundation, Ilene and Michael Salcman, Bank of America, and Hauser & Wirth.