A rich nearly monochromatic canvas of pulsating texture, Jack Whitten’s Midnight Stripper from 1973 is a superb accomplishment within the artist's singular oeuvre. Having been initially inspired in the 1960s by the dynamic gestural fervor of Abstract Expressionism, Whitten soon felt the constraints of the movement and began experimenting with sculpture and collage, ultimately creating a unique visual vocabulary that took full form in the 1970s as he reached a mature artistic stride. In 1970, Whitten constructed a twelve-foot metal tool that he coined the “developer” and he would rake this tool across the surface of the canvas to initiate unforeseen textural patterns within his paintings. In the smoky twilight landscape of Midnight Stripper, it is ever apparent that Whitten’s ongoing technical explorations of the 1970s unleashed in him a sense of unabashed confidence and enabled him to make a full departure from the predominant styles of his time. By richly combing the infinite possibilities of both process and technique, the present work revels in Whitten’s successful pursuit of a bold stylistic vernacular that was entirely his own.
Midnight Stripper emerges from a series of works from the 1970s that Whitten made in preparation for his seminal Greek Alphabet paintings, a series recently shown at the Met Breuer in New York as a central component of the artist’s long overdue and critically acclaimed retrospective. Art historian Kellie Jones has commented with regard to the artist’s later work that “what distinguishes Whitten from his peers…was his invention of processes and tools for painting. In 1970 he made a decision to let go of the brush and remove the marks of the hand from the canvas. He created…a variety of objects with which to manipulate or intercede” (Kellie Jones, Eye Minded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Durham 2011, p. 374). As such, the present work sees Whitten use a series of techniques to distribute the toner, including the application of rollers to create tonal variation, rubbing with a cloth to create hard edges, and the raking of a stylus across the surface of the work to create a sweeping sense of horizontal textural velocity. Therefore Midnight Stripper is not only a study of the medium of paint itself, but further an exploration of the effect of speed on the painted surface. Here, Whitten’s interest in matters of movement, applied force, and directionality as manifested across the surface of the canvas serves as a testament to his relentless creative energy and experimental approach that dominated his practice in the 1970s and elevated paintings such as the present work to new critical acclaim within his output.
Consistent with Whitten’s most successful works, beyond the tactile and physical dimension of his practice, Midnight Stripper has a wider frame of reference. These works represent the artist’s movement away from Abstract Expressionism and what Whitten described as the unwanted baggage of color. Like the Greek Alphabet paintings, the present work has a political dimension, and one that can be tied to contemporary music of the 1970s. Speaking of a meeting with John Coltrane in the mid-sixties, Whitten said that he admired Coltrane for thinking of sound as emerging in "sheets." Shortly before the execution of the present work Whitten made a final series of colorful paintings which saw him pull swathes of roughly mixed color across the surface of the canvas in a fashion analogous to Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, which the German master commenced a decade later. He thought of this series as a tactile manifestation of Coltrane’s sheets of sound. Following the jazz analogy, Tanya Barson points out with regard to one of the Greek Alphabet paintings that “the seemingly arbitrary diagonal ‘interruptions’ across the canvas… might be likened to the improvisations that characterize ‘bebop’ and ‘free jazz,’” and there can be no doubt that the association of jazz music also applies the lines cutting through to the present work in every direction (Tanya Barson, “Jack Whitten: Epsilon Group II,” Tate, October 2012, online).
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 participated in the early demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement throughout the South. In 1960, he moved to New York, enrolled at the Cooper Union to study fine art and for the first time sat in an integrated classroom.
Whitten’s ambitious immersion in the vibrant New York art scene of the 1960s heavily impacted his artistic practice. As a young but promising art student, he 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 African American 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.
Materially perceptive, socially relevant and philosophically astute, Midnight Stripper 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 Midnight Stripper, 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., Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (and traveling), Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, 2014, p. 63).
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