Frank Bowling's Fishes, Wishes in Summertime Blues at the Hales Gallery in Shoreditch was a riot of exuberant colour and sensual surfaces but the Alabamian artist Jack Whitten takes a very different, considerably more muted, approach. Whilst the surfaces of his works still seem to be inviting you to have an illicit stroke they don't seem anywhere near as friendly as Bowling's. The muddy greys, the bleached out yellows, and the rather boring browns are the overcast hangover to the sunshine day round the pool that is Bowling's latter work.
That's not to say they're bad. They're not. But they're definitely not as immediately aesthetically pleasing. Jack Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, a small town in Alabama based around the coal industry and once home of Matilda, listed by Guinness during her lifetime as the World's Oldest Living Chicken. Whitten's father, a coal miner, died while he was a child, and the young man entered Tuskegee University planning on training to become an army doctor.
Black Monolith I, A Tribute to James Baldwin (1988)
There he became inspired both by the maverick black botanist George Washington Carver as well as a trip to nearby Montgomery to hear Martin Luther King Jr speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the event in which Rosa Parks was so famously arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the whites only front of the bus.
Politicised, he shifted his focus towards art and took a course at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana while, at the same time, taking an active part in Civil Rights demonstrations. In 1960 he moved to New York City, graduating from Manhattan's Cooper Union four years later, and showing at the Whitney in '72. Mentored by both Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis his interests moved towards both the materiality of and the 'transfiguration of paint'.
Ode to Andy:For Andy Warhol (1986)
Yellow Cross for Naomi (1980)
A piece named for Andy Warhol, one year before that artist's death, gives us some idea of the milieu in which Whitten operated. It would've been a vibrant time in NYC with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring still both alive and at the peak of their powers, hip-hop booming, and rents cheaper than they'll probably ever be again. Whitten had more than two decades on Basquiat so it would be interesting to know if he viewed these younger upstarts with disdain or saw them as pushing the envelope he and his contemporaries had opened ever wider.
It's not clear but, like the work of Basquiat, Whitten's paintings have more going on under the surface than first appears. The scratches and incisions he's obviously laboured over for some time clearly have some deeper meaning to the artist but, alas, it's hard for us to work out exactly what. I've written before on the selfishness/self-indulgence of some artists and how forging connections through one's art seems to have been replaced by vacuous demonstrations of ego and at times Whitten sails very close to the edge on this.
Site I (1986)
Edysis I (1989)
Annabelle II (1984)
He's saved by works like Yellow Cross for Naomi and Annabelle II that purport to be nothing more than art for art's sake. But the DNA series makes more hi-falutin' claims. It's supposed to act like a light sensitive photographic film awaiting activation, so that 'different tonalities' might be projected within the component parts surfaces. My snaps don't really do justice to the work but even in the gallery I felt distinctly unmoved by these four squares of nothingness.
The works that seem to have been built up of wire mesh, manhole cover moulds, car tyres, and walls seem to speak much louder. There's something of the Rauschenberg about them but they forsake that artist's often vast scale for something more intimate, more reflective. Both Edysis I and The Gift seem to incorporate found materials that, like the German collagist Kurt Schwitters, somehow succeed in painting a picture, or at least a snapshot, of the times and the city that Whitten was living in. One that is neither fully abstract nor wholly figurative. Topography of the psychogeographical realm, perhaps?
If that's not pretentious or pie-in-the-sky enough Animism was another influence. Animism is founded on the frankly bonkers belief that a supernatural power organises and animates the material universe and that 'Spirit' needs Matter to manifest itself. Whitten had gotten these ideas from the Black Fundamentalist Church he'd grown up within (even though they were not formally condoned) and even though they're very silly they helped push him towards this third, not quite abstract but not quite not abstract, style of art.
Willi Meets The Keeper (For Willi Smith) (1987)
DNA II (1979)
DNA XII (1979)
DNA XI (1979)
DNA X (1979)
The Gift:Dedicated to the Memory of Packy (1988)
After the blockbuster that was the Tate show and the multi-coloured mayham of Frank Bowling it was hard not to feel a little underwhelmed at this exhibition. Jack Whitten seemed like an important artist when placed together with his contemporaries, on his own he's merely a competent, talented, artist. Perhaps a fuller retrospective would've shown him to be extraordinary but I like to think this all just goes to show that Whitten, like the rest of us, works better as part of a whole. A disappointment - but only a small one.
Confirmation I:Happy Birthday Mary (1979)
Site IV (1986)