Eta Group IV, 1976
New York, NY
ArtMatch Value Score*: Strong
Jack Whitten (b. 1939, d. 2018) was a painter and sculptor who specialized in abstraction and was best known for his “slab” and “tesserae” paintings.
Born and raised in Alabama, Whitten moved to New York City in 1959 to study art. There, he was shaped by Norman Lewis and Willem de Kooning and other abstract expressionist painters active in the city at that time. Eventually, Whitten broke out of the formal conventions of abstract expressionism and developed his own approach, one that focused on process, light, materials and the use of custom tools. Over the course of his 50+ year career, Whitten’s work evolved, driven by his intense interests in art, science and culture and his methodical note-taking. While best known as a painter, Whitten was also trained as a carpenter. He created sculptures that were a combination of carved wood and found materials. Whitten’s work has been the subject of two major retrospectives. His estate is represented by Hauser & Wirth, with whom he has exhibited in New York, London, Los Angeles, Zurich, and Hong Kong. His work is currently on display at Dia Beacon in Upstate New York and will be available for purchase at the upcoming Frieze Art Fair in New York.
“I sincerely believe that in the black community of artists, especially those of us dealing with abstraction, art has to go beyond the general notions of race, gender, nationalism. Things have evolved to the degree where there is a possibility of a new sensibility out there. We’re into a global aesthetic here, and anyone that doesn’t see that has a real old-fashioned way of thinking.”
Image credit: Taylor Dafoe
Jack Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama. His father was a coal miner and died when Jack was young. Jack’s mother was a seamstress who stressed the importance of education. Whitten excelled in school and enrolled as a pre-med / ROTC student at Tuskegee Institute. He was on track to become a doctor in the Air Force, but Jack always loved art and decided to pursue his passion. Because Tuskegee didn’t have an art program, he transferred to Southern University in Baton Rouge. While there, Whitten was inspired to participate in the bourgeoning Civil Rights movement by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who he heard speak in Montgomery. Whitten participated in a non-violent march on the state capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But the experience, in which students were hit with sticks among other abuse, so disturbed the young Whitten that he made a vow to himself never to be in such a situation again. For him, that meant leaving the South.
In 1959, Whitten boarded a bus to New York City where he interviewed with The Cooper Union, a private school known for its art, architecture and engineering programs. He was admitted and given a scholarship. Whitten would be based in New York City for the rest of his life. While in New York, Whitten met and interacted with abstract expressionist artists Norman Lewis and Willem de Kooning, among others. They were his early mentors, providing inspiration and encouragement for the young artist working to define his style. In the early 70s, one of Whitten's signature styles began to emerge. He created a tool he called the “developer”, which was twelve feet long and resembled a rake. The tool enabled Whitten to apply a large amount of paint to a surface at once in a swift movement designed to capture a moment. He called them "slab" paintings in reference to the flat, horizontal surface they resembled. The technique freed him from “touch”, his term for the painterly gestures often used in the European tradition of Art History.
Special Checking, 1974
Oil on canvas, rope collage
After years of creating slab paintings in the 70s and 80s, Whitten’s body couldn’t handle the force required to push the “developer” across the surface. So he evolved and changed his focus to a new style of painting. It involved cutting thick layers of acrylic paint combinations into cubes that were then adhered to canvas, with special consideration given to the effect of light. These are known as tesserae paintings, after the name for pieces of tiles used in mosaics. Whitten thought of each small block of hardened acrylic paint as a byte of information, inspired by foundational computer science concepts. The resulting compositions were beautiful, complex works that were mostly abstract but sometimes included elements of figuration.
Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love in Painting), 2017
Acrylic on canvas
Whitten was drawn to abstraction in part because he could focus on universal elements of process, color, light and materials. But he also identified strongly with the African American community and its collective struggle for equality and freedom. In his tesserae style, Whitten created a multi-decade series called Black Monolith. The series highlights a selection of African Americans who made major contributions to American Society. He researched them and then sought to capture their essence in abstract form. The series features approximately 10 works dedicated to Mohammed Ali, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, and Barbara Jordan among others. The entire Black Monolith series was assembled at the Met Museum for Whitten’s 2018 retrospective. Jack Whitten died on January 20, 2018 at the age of 78 from complications of leukemia.
Black Monolith X, Birth of Muhammad Ali, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
Whitten’s most recognizable works are his slab and tesserae paintings, which he created mostly with acrylic paint on canvas. Whitten’s slab paintings were made in a variety of colors, but often feature one or two dominant colors. His tesserae works feature a broader range of colors in a single work but are methodically composed. Whitten also created a series of paintings called The Greek Alphabet made from graphite, silica and aluminum powder suspended in a transparent acrylic medium, which creates a glowing effect. And then there are Whitten’s sculptures, made from wood and found objects including bone, marble, paper, glass, nails, and fishing lines. Whitten’s curious, experimental and evolutionary nature inspired him to create works that defied easy categorization or a simple aesthetic.
Whitten worked out of a studio on Lispenard Street in Tribeca for much of his career. His preferred tools were a twelve-foot, rake-like tool he made and called the “developer” for his slab paintings, and a palette knife + awl (a specialty tool used by carpenters) for his tesserae paintings. Because of the amount of paint he used for the layers, acrylic paint was better because it dried much more quickly than oil paint. Also, acrylic paints hold color better over time and are less prone to cracking than oil paint. Whitten was a meticulous note taker, who for six decades kept a log as a private exercise to record his experiments in the studio.
Jack Whitten working with the "developer" in his 40 Crosby Street studio, ca. 1976 –78. (Courtesy of the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth)
Jack Whitten working with the awl and palette knife on Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting) (2017). Film still from Jack Whitten: An Artist's Life. Courtesy of Art21.
Jack Whitten’s estate is represented by Hauser & Wirth. Over the past three years, he has had major solo exhibitions with the gallery across Europe, Asia and the United States. His Greek Alphabet series is currently on display at the Dia Beacon through July 10, 2023. From 2014-2015, Whitten’s first major retrospective called Five Decades of Painting was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH. From 2018 to 2019, Whitten’s second major retrospective called Odyssey featured 40 of Whitten’s sculptures along with his full Black Monolith series. The exhibition was shown at the Met Breuer in New York City, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Whitten has had 6 paintings sell for at least $1M at auction. His auction record is $2.2M (before fees) set in 2019 at a Sotheby’s auction for one of his slab paintings. The auction record for one of his tesserae paintings was $1.85M (before fees), set in 2018 also at a Sotheby’s auction. Whitten’s work will be on display and available for purchase at the upcoming art fair Frieze New York, which starts on May 17. For inquiries into available works from Jack Whitten, contact us at email@example.com.
Watch Jack Whitten reflect on his career:
*The ArtMatch Value Score is our assessment of the likelihood of the artist's work to hold or appreciate in value. Numerical scores are calculated based on a combination of variables, including but not limited to type of gallery representation, number of solo shows, quality of collector base, number of pieces sold at auction. Scores are summarized to one of three ranking categories: emerging, promising, and strong. Note this does not constitute official investment advice and is given purely as an input to help assess artists from a value perspective.