The present work pays homage to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist; best known for authoring The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois rose to prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement and determinedly campaigned for equal rights for black people in America. Whitten not only idolized Du Bois for his political activism, but also felt a personal connection to the notion of ‘double consciousness’ that pervades many of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk and is best described in Du Bois’s own words: “One ever feels his twoness – An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, reproduced in Exh. Cat., Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art (and travelling), Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017, 2018, p. 31) Black Monolith, VII Du Bois Legacy: For W.E. Burghardt embodies this ‘twoness,’ embracing both painting and sculpture, harking to a European tradition while honoring an American one, and alluding to cultural heroes while insisting on its own materiality.
The process by which Whitten constructed his Black Monoliths is characteristically unique and shatters conventional boundaries between artistic media. Rather than ‘painting’ these works in the traditional sense, Whitten created them by pouring acrylic paint into molds made from found detritus, such as bottle caps, corrugated cardboard, bubble wrap, and discarded fragments of plastic. Once dry, he released the hardened acrylic chips, ribbons, and scraps and then affixed these tesserae onto the canvas in a kaleidoscopic mosaic that calls to mind practices as disparate as Mediterranean tile work and religious stained-glass windows. This method – part painting, part collage, part sculpture, part bricolage – reflects the tenuous, complex, and multi-layered nature of African-American identity. Richard Schiff notes: “Because analogous units of acrylic constitute every discernible element, each acquires equivalent existential status, whether ‘representing’ the texture of an object, the quality of paint itself, or the immaterial essence of a human soul.” (Richard Schiff, “Off the Wire” in Ibid., p. 168) Disparate pieces accumulate into one unit, each fragment representative of a different cast object or facet to an individual, all coalescing to one dynamic but uniform whole. An ovoid bejeweled mass shudders across the matte black canvas in striations of black and white, bright tessellations of purple, bricks of teal and shards of electric yellow, bordered by trails of multicolored fragments. A gathering of ivory pieces, like abalone shells clustered in a tide pool, create a luminous halo-like effect at the top of this amorphous stele. Scholars have read the shape of this mass as a bird’s eye view of a Mediterranean island, an abstract silhouette of Du Bois’s bust, a prehistoric landscape, or, in the artist’s own words “a loaf of ciabatta [referring to] the custom of breaking bread.” (The artist in conversation with Richard Shiff, September 8, 2017, Ibid., p. 172) Whitten viewed the present work as an abstract and theoretical means of engaging with his hero, as if breaking bread with Du Bois himself across his artistic medium. Light crashes against dark, black abuts white, positive space builds atop negative space, and the present collides with the past.
In its exceptional presence – much like an ancient stele – Black Monolith, VII Du Bois Legacy: For W.E. Burghardt embodies the most crucial tenets of Whitten’s endlessly innovative practice and remains today a resounding testament to this inimitable artist. Of this momentous series, Whitten wrote: “I could spend the rest of my life adding to my series of Black Monolith paintings. There are so many Black Monoliths in the history of African-Americans. Our history of survival in America is defined both by the heroic deeds of the collective, and the independent activists working in a variety of disciplines.” (The artist in an unpublished note, Black Monolith X (The Birth of Muhammad Ali), November 2016, reproduced in Ibid., p. 112)
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