While his peers in the late 1970s and into the 1980s were pushing paint to the boundaries of the frame—Elizabeth Murray’s raucously shaped canvases, Sam Gilliam’s drapes and bevel-edges, Julian Schnabel’s shattered plates—Whitten concerned himself the plastic surface of applied paint on canvas. From his loft studio in SoHo, he would make use of the industrial detritus of a manufacturing district—metal plates, mesh screens, cut dies, distressed floors and dented metal doors—casting their planar forms with acrylic paint, and later, applying these sheets of plastic to the canvas. In Ancient Mentor I, he pressed wet acrylic paint onto a mesh grate, later applying dabs of royal blue, lime green, ochre and a seemingly infinite range of colors to the dried distinguished units. The result is a meditative work that anticipates a cultural shift from industrial age to the information age; from sheet metal to the digital pixel.
Whitten’s biography and unconventional career trajectory is a fascinating record of a transformational era of social and cultural progress, for African-Americans and in the visual arts. Born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, he experienced and witnessed the horrors of a deeply segregated South. A successful student in the sciences, he enrolled as a pre-medical student at the Tuskeegee Institute in 1957; during a drill call, he radically announced his decision to pursue a career as an artist. Whitten transferred to Southern University in Louisiana, where, inspired by Dr., Martin Luther King, he participating in the early demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement throughout the South. In 1960, he moved to New York, enrolling at the Cooper Union to study fine art, where, for the first time, he sat in an integrated classroom. Whitten’s ambitious immersion in the vibrant New York art scene of the 1960s heavily impacted upon his artistic practice. As a young but promising art student, Whitten established close connections to the figureheads of the Abstract Expressionist movement including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Phillip Guston. Whitten simultaneously formed strong relationships with the icons of African American modernism such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. By engaging with these artists in their studios and frequenting the social spaces of the avant-garde, Whitten gained immense technical and theoretical knowledge from his artistic predecessors, reformulating their ideas to bring forth an expanded visual lexicon of abstraction. These artists, as mentors and friends, also strengthened Whitten’s identity as an African-American artist. Whitten would play a central role among other Black artists of his generation—notably his close friends William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Frank Bowling—and broaden pathways for future artists through his own teaching and community advocacy.
These essential and intergenerational experiences are beautifully revealed in Ancient Mentor I. This painting sits squarely in Whitten’s oeuvre, which is punctuated with poignant tributes to his artistic influences. Viewed in this manner, the work’s title can be interpreted as a musing on the transmission of knowledge between generations. For example, Whitten’s homage to Norman Lewis was made in a series of three triptychs, the first of which, also produced in 1985, bears a striking formal resemblance to Ancient Mentor I. In addition, the artist’s Spiral: A Dedication to R. Bearden, created in 1988, imaginatively reflects on Romare Bearden’s legacy by using paint itself to compose a collaged canvas. Unsurprisingly, Whitten’s inventiveness with media and indisputable originality led him to become a respected mentor, guiding a new generation of artists in their explorations of painterly abstraction. The most distinguished artist of this younger generation is, perhaps, Mark Bradford, whose abstract works, in their seamless combination of formalist rigor and political commentary, echo Whitten’s distinctive genius.
Materially perceptive, socially relevant and philosophically astute, Ancient Mentor I represents Whitten discovering his own voice, consciously inserting himself into art history and embracing the mystic, mind-shifting properties of paint. The work’s alluring quietude and exacting plasticity demonstrate the artist’s illustrious contribution to the historic development of painting. It goes without saying that one finds within Jack Whitten’s paintings, particularly in Ancient Mentor I, the rare quality of employing sophisticated formalist interrogations as a means to expressing transcendental metaphysical truths. This remarkable approach is concisely articulated by the artist, who once said: “what I do is not the illustration of a concept … it is the reproduction of a concept.”(The artist in an interview with Robert Storr reproduced in Exh. Cat., San Diego, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (and travelling), Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, 2014, p. 63)
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