Jack Whitten’s Journals Are a Future Classic of Art Writing

Jack Whitten’s Journals Are a Future Classic of Art Writing

Listening to Paintings in the Silence of the Studio

The life and art of Jack Whitten. 


Art is the record of a process both material and intellectual, so it’s surprising how few of its practitioners have left thorough written accounts of their efforts. Maybe that’s because the doing and the thinking are more loosely related than one would imagine—sometimes coordinated, but often out of sync. Even with the greatest artists, ideas can be well ahead of practice, as I was recently reminded when rereading Eugène Delacroix’s journals: He often seemed to be working out on the page what he would achieve on the canvas only years later. Yet such written reflections should be precious to anyone who hopes to better understand the process of art. When artists examine their own motives and chronicle their own struggles, they uncover something essential: art as a means to self-awareness.

Last year saw the publication of a book that could well turn out to be a future classic of art writing. Jack Whitten’s Notes From the Woodshed was released just a few months after the painter’s death in New York at the age of 78. More than 500 pages of journal entries, written between March 24, 1962, and December 27, 2017, Notes From the Woodshed gives as true a sense of how the life of an artist is lived, and how it’s lived for the sake of his work, as any I’ve read. The book’s hallmarks are a kinetic energy of thought and immediacy of expression that trump literary style or even good spelling. By the end of his life, Whitten knew that his notes would be published—he wrote a prefatory essay in September 2015, more than two years before his last journal entry—but he didn’t gussy them up. They have been abridged, though, partly because he could be as critical of his fellow artists as he could be generously enthusiastic about them, and “a few of his writings have been redacted here to protect the living,” notes the book’s editor, Katy Siegel, who also curated last year’s exhibition, “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Met Breuer.

For much of Whitten’s life, his audience was mainly his fellow New York painters. Bigger success might have loomed tantalizingly on the horizon on occasion, but it didn’t come close enough to grasp. An African American born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, Whitten was the son of a seamstress and a coal miner who died before the boy was 5. He attended the city’s segregated public schools and took up the saxophone, joining a high-school dance band, but was already oriented toward making things to be seen: As he later recalled, “I did all the posters and decorations for school dances, announcements…all the visuals.”

In 1957, Whitten entered the Tuskegee Institute on a pre-med track, but transferred to another historically black institution, Southern University, in Louisiana, when he realized that he wanted to pursue art, which was not offered at Tuskegee. He threw himself into the civil-rights protests of the day; the violent response they were met with shook his faith in Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence. “I knew I had to leave the South because I would be killed or I would end up killing somebody,” he said; so in 1960, he transferred again—this time to New York’s Cooper Union. The course there, he later recalled, was based on the teachings of the Bauhaus, but something else made just as much of an impression: “this was the first time that I was in class with White students and a White professor.” Also among the faculty was the renowned African-American printmaker Robert Blackburn, who took Whitten to meet Romare Bearden; and Bearden, in turn, introduced him to the rest of New York’s leading black artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis.

Whitten also went out of his way to meet the Abstract Expressionists, who were still holding court at the Cedar Tavern. Just like Bearden, Lawrence, and Lewis, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning accepted the young man as an artist. When he was in the dumps after one of his painting teachers castigated his reliance on “accidents,” it was de Kooning who said, “You tell that motherfucker that there is no such thing as accidents in painting!” Whitten had plenty to learn from his contemporaries as well. It was Kate Millett, a fellow artist not yet famous as the author of Sexual Politics, who began schooling him in feminism when he started hitting on her.

Whitten became fully immersed in the downtown scene—artists, writers, and jazz musicians, black and white alike—and, after graduation, he quickly found a gallery that would represent him. His work at this time still showed the strong influence of the Abstract Expressionists, as it would until the early 1970s. In 1969, with his Greek-American wife, Whitten began spending summers in Crete. During his time there each year, he worked on sculpture, which he did not exhibit; the rest of the year was devoted to painting, as well as to the teaching, on which he depended for a living, despite the increasing recognition his work was earning: a show at the Whitney Museum (1974), sales to the Met (1975) and MOMA (1978). Yet for all that, in 1979, on his 40th birthday, Whitten recorded: “I have three dollars in my pocket and after paying the rent a remaining of [sic] twelve dollars in my bank account.” Still, he was working to raise money to buy the Tribeca building where he was living—and in 1980, just as he was about to complete the purchase, a fire tore through the place. He spent three years rebuilding.

As far as Whitten’s exhibition history goes, the 1980s look fairly quiescent, but that belies the effervescence of his work in the studio. And by the 1990s, he had put his art through radical changes—going from the one-shot, all-over work he’d been aiming at early to incredibly intricate paintings formed of shimmering quantities of translucent bits of acrylic paint pieced together like mosaics. But it was only in the decade or so before his death that Whitten started to become more widely recognized, with sales finally steady enough to get a thumbs-up from his accountant: “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it.” At last his work was being shown abroad, included in important museum surveys, and, finally, in 2014–15, it received a full-scale retrospective—“Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting,” curated by Kathryn Kanjo—that traveled to several museums around the United States, followed by last year’s surprising “Odyssey” exhibition. Hardly anyone knew that over the decades, Whitten had quietly created a large quantity of sculpture, but in retrospect it makes sense; his feeling for painting put the accent on its physicality, its made quality. As he so emphatically told himself in a journal entry from 1996: “THE PAINTING MUST BE BUILT…LIKE YOU ARE BUILDING A STONE WALL.”

Whitten’s ability to work so assiduously over the years on a body of sculpture that he didn’t feel the need to show—but that he surely realized would find its public one day—echoes his capacity to keep recording his thoughts in a journal that, for decades, he never showed to anyone but must always have imagined would someday have its readers. All this suggests an extraordinary self-confidence: Whitten seems to have had a built-in faith that whatever he accomplished would someday be accorded importance.

Although Whitten’s journals are the record of an artist finding a way to thrive despite feeling that recognition and money were often in short supply, his recurrent themes are elsewhere, in the basic, quasi-philosophical concerns of abstract art: space, surface, object, color. Yet he treats these theoretical entities mainly in terms of how to handle them as facts—in terms of technique. For example, in a lengthy entry from January 1973—the first in which he uses the designation “notes from the woodshed”—he lays out his methodology for making a painting so concretely and in such detail that it could be followed like a recipe; you feel that you could make your own 1973 Whitten if you wanted.

Hoping to make color and surface synonymous, “a new image not bound by geometric repretory [sic] or lyricalism,” he built a 12-by-20–foot horizontal platform with a 12-foot-long squeegee attached to it. Placing a canvas flat on the platform and pouring paint at one end, he used the squeegee to push the paint across the canvas, repeating the process to create more complicated layerings and striations. Yet each pass of the squeegee was a one-shot process, and for this reason the procedure seemed to give the paintings the factual quality of a photograph, “a special type of spatial effect depending on the subject maintaing [sic] of a definite 2-dimensional flat surface.” He adds, as well, that this very physical, very immediate procedure prevents him from intellectualizing while he is working. The reflective part of art-making is important, but it precedes, and then follows, the corporeal act rather than directly accompanying it.

Whitten’s aspiration at this point was one that was not uncommon among his peers: to make so-called “non-relational painting.” The idea was to get away from the traditional idea of composition, of presenting multiple elements in relation with one another, and to establish a more unassailable unity. “You should have a definite whole and maybe no parts, or very few,” as Donald Judd had declared nearly a decade earlier. Whitten convinced himself that he had succeeded in this where others had fallen short: “Everything happens at once. All the plastic elements are conceived in one stroke across the plane. To my knowledge this is the first painting of this sort.” Whitten was certainly far from the first painter to produce a successful non-relational painting, since such works were easily recognized as ones employing unmodulated monochromy, absolute symmetry, or unaccented grids, as the critic and art historian Lawrence Alloway pointed out in 1966. What justified Whitten’s belief that his non-relational paintings were of a different sort than those being produced by some of his contemporaries was their complexity and richness of surface—and of feeling.

But Whitten wanted still more than that. He was trying to answer more than a purely formal demand. From early on, he looked for ways to connect the visual richness of his paintings to a richness of content, to explore the possibilities of bringing “humor, myth, politics” into abstraction, even in an image that could not be preconceived because—as he ordered himself, in capital letters—“THE IMAGE MUST COME OUT OF THE PROCESS. AVOID AT ALL COST AN ILUSTRATION [sic] OF ANY KNOWN IMAGE.” Rather, “I want to put the fear of God in these paintings. I want to evoke a spiritual—magical—cosmic existence with a material connection—emotionally charged….”

Is this synthesis of abstraction and subject matter possible, or is it just wishful thinking? More than 100 years into the history of abstract art, this is still an unanswered question. Reviewing Whitten’s recent show at the Met Breuer, the critic Sanford Schwartz waxed enthusiastic for the sculpture, which is full of very concrete imagery, while regretting that Whitten’s paintings remained, against the artist’s intention, in the thrall of formalism. The critic seemed to perceive the paintings as stuck in their materiality; and while it might be true, Schwartz allowed, that the dedications that some of them bear to historical figures—Barbara Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others—would encourage viewers to conjure some sense of connection, still, he noted sardonically, “The exercise…is slightly vaporous.”

Whitten himself would have put it differently, and yet he might not have disagreed entirely, at least at times. In 1978, he wrote that he thought he’d solved the question of the content of abstraction: “Content is what you think you see but really there is nothing there but paint and material used”—in other words, an illusion, but a dependable one. He approvingly cites de Kooning’s famous words: “Content is a glimpse”—which means it’s not something you can hope to actually grasp. Whitten also speaks, around the same time, of a “spiritual force.” At other times, he seems to consider abstraction itself as a subject, but apparently he never quite settled on a satisfactory understanding of what that would mean, since, as he admitted to himself, “The Spirit is undefinable. It is faceless. By the pure necessity of its existence, it must remain a mystery. The acceptance of this is very difficult for me.” Presumably, the difficulty was that this recognition would leave him without any criterion for judgment beyond his own shifting intuition. Later, he would entertain an idea that frightened him: that he had to “GET RID OF THE SPIRITUAL” in his art as excess historical baggage. Finally, he decided that he could save the notion of spirit as long as he recognized it as human, not divine.

On occasion, Whitten approached a more concrete sense of what a work’s subject would be, yet the subject seemed to drift away into intangibility—like the work that he described in 1978 as “a message painting,” meaning not his message to others, but a message he had received and that it was up to him to interpret: “It’s about three painters from the Soho area who share something in common, myself, a woman painter and one other male. I don’t know who these people are. I must wait for more information.” One senses, in reading this, that Whitten’s imagination is veering off into irrationality, and over the next few months, his few entries become preoccupied with mental-health issues around anxiety. What helps him right himself as he wrestles with the impalpability of his subject matter is the concreteness of his materials: paint, the tools by which he manipulates it, and the visual effects that emerge from these: light, color. Eventually, Whitten decided that what emerged in the course of this engagement with material should not be called abstraction but rather presence—something undeniable that, perhaps, requires no story or explanation. Formerly, the figure was the vehicle for presence in art; abstraction proposes the work as its own presence. Whitten’s last word on the matter: “The spirit does not have an image…one can only feel its presence.”

For Whitten, art involved a search for the equanimity that might allow something like freedom of action. He wrote often of his anger and aggression, and his art could be productively fueled by these feelings. In 1973, he reported a conversation with fellow painter Joe Overstreet, saying “it helped to clear a lot of things that I’ve been thinking of. Joe poised [sic] the question ‘what are you painting for’? Money? Love? Pussy? Power? Humanity? And he insisted that I must pick one…naturally I took all of them and added one more: REVENGE.” By 2007, Whitten could state: “In the silence of the studio, I have learned to listen to my paintings. They don’t yell at me nor do they command. They are not vindictive. They do not threaten. There is no carrot + stick scenario of any kind. There are no promises or rewards. Guilt is no issue. They have taught me to erase the notion of revenge.” And yet, two years later, he was ready to begin a painting addressing the theme of the Middle Passage, a work “designed to deal once and for all [with] the caustic historical memory of displacement. There will be nothing cute about this painting: I want it to be dark, loaded with pain, misery, fear, defeat, loss of family, community, language, religionhome. Loss of love, Anger and the lust of revenge. I want it to be ME as universal man.” He was ready to consider a violent emotion such as the desire for vengeance, and indeed all the terrible history he had been trying to transcend, all the “baggage” he wanted to live without, but from a viewpoint somehow no longer tied to a narrowly local identity—a universality that would not sacrifice all his concrete particularity.

From page to page, Whitten often contradicts himself, but his ability to keep changing his mind, to think competing thoughts about the questions that obsess him, is part of his strength as an artist. One day, he might be thrilled at the prospect of “PUTTING THE BLACK EXPERIENCE INTO PAINT,” but soon enough he’s dismissing the idea as small potatoes: “My interest is the ‘global mind.’ I have no need nor interest in the local. Local shit bores me! I have no interest in the autobiographical identity issue bullshit, especially from Black artist. The shit is boring! Get over it. Move on + stop wallowing in memory. The now is much more exciting. Please do not show me anything that doesn’t go beyond the self!” He can be sure that “meaning is the enemy of art,” insofar as it is something we falsely impose on the reality of things, and then equally sure that “abstract painting that addresses subject is what I want.” Appearances aside, Whitten is being not at all inconsistent; he consistently, and with consistent passion, takes every side of the issues that obsess him. His way to keep doing what he was doing was always by doing something different. By the time I put down his Notes From the Woodshed, he had me convinced that no one unwilling to tie him- or herself into such knots should even bother with the misery and splendor involved in trying to be an artist. As Walt Whitman knew, self-contradiction is the only way to contain multitudes.

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