On show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until January 2016, is Jack Whitten’s retrospective of works from a career that spans the past five decades. As world events unfold and times change, so too does the technique and rationale behind his work; an analysis must be done in the light of what I see as ‘periods’ in his work, which seem to occur every decade or so (perhaps the world has been changing every decade) from the 70s, to 90s and then from 2001 and onwards.
Invention is something core to Whitten work; since the 70’s he has been using ‘the tool’, which is a home made, hand held tool used to rake paint across the canvas in one go and produce a painting, similar more to photographic processes, and “conceiving a painting as one gesture”. We see the profound impact Jackson Pollock and Willem De Koonig’s abstract expressionist paintings and having as peers people who turned out to be masters of the modern movement, had on Whitten and is evident in his works of the late 1960’s to 1970s. The blurred images of singular thought, with ‘glitches’ scattered around, assimulating of works of the period, and reminiscent of Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’, whose music he curiously describes as ‘circular’ and ‘non-linear’.
In the 1980’s Whitten began to incorporate symbolism in his paintings; the “curve that’s leading him out” from art history, from being under the shadow of the great abstract expressionists. In Red, Black, Green (1980) we see imagery taken from TV offline displays, radar overlays, a spectrum strip of colors with what seems to be currents of radio waves underneath, which were manifestations of technological advances in consumer electronics of the day.
In the 1990’s Whitten began to make tiles out of acrylic paint and assemble them in mosaic abstractions, as he began to redefine the verb ‘to paint’ by introducing collage effects and sculptural qualities to “make a painting”. This would prove to be a core concept as he assimilates other art forms in his work. Watching the World Trade Center twin towers collapse, people falling out of the building, dying on the streets on Sept 11, 2001 from his lower east side Manhattan studio also had a deep impact on Whitten. In a gesture reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, he created a huge mural/painting of acrylic paint tiles, showing a black pyramid, similar in proportion to the one on the back of a dollar bill, which was to symbolize America itself, whose base was crumbling and is on fire from within.
In Apps For Obama (2011), which was about 2 years after the president famously said he’ll give up his BlackBerry when they pry it from his “cold dead hands”, we see the same tile mosaic with pyramid image, except this time, the top of the pyramid is dematerializing, fading into obscurity, overtaken by the prominent display of plastic blobs of rounded square and circular shapes, symbolizing the apps that pervade our smartphones. It seems to suggest that these computer apps, which were of the virtual, has taken a place of reality in our consciousness; they’re becoming more real and present, while that of the brick and mortar pyramid, which was has always been of reality, is slowly somehow fading, under bleaching atmospheric conditions, into the virtual. This suggests that we live in a state of hyperreality, where the real has been augmented with the virtual, and thus become less real by comparison. In this hyperreal state, what was supposed to be real and present, the pyramid, is being destroyed not by fire or planes crashing into it, but by being dissolved into the virtual. And the apps, which are a type of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s ‘simulacra’, which was illusory in nature, and still is, has taken center-stage and become more real and present than reality itself. Therefore the hyperreality that our society has created causes us to lose orientation, to mistaken the real for the illusionary and the illusionary for the real.
In Warped Circle for Alan Shields (2013) we see the same technique being used to produce blurred images reminiscent of the 1970’s, except this time there are what appears to be folds instead of glitches. In the middle of the painting, there is a multi-colored, multi-curved loop, (which looks simple, but in mathematics requires complex equations to define) which is a symbol, I believe, for this process, which through its twists and turns, has taken decades to come full circle, in homage to Coltrane and other black American artists and intellectuals.