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American abstract painter, Jack Whitten talks about meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. His work is featured in Soul of A Nation and Odyssey - a solo exhibition of his sculptures, on display for the very first time.





Jack Whitten. Anthropos # 1972. Black and white mulberry, wild olive wood, linen twine, wire. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Genevieve Hanson.




Jack Whitten carving wood on the beach in Crete, Greece, Summer 1971. Courtesy of the artist.


Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten passed away in January 2018. His work is informed by growing up in the Jim Crow South. He originally planned a career as an army doctor and began pre-med studies at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he was inspired by George Washington Carver's legacy as a scientist, inventor, and artist.

Whitten became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, attending the Montgomery Bus Boycott to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. and participating in a demonstration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while studying art at Southern University. He moved to New York, and in 1960, enrolled in The Cooper Union. After graduating in 1964, he returned as a teacher, from 1971 to 1997; first as a visiting artist and later a professor.

As he was developing the innovative painting techniques for which he is best known today, Whitten began to study African art, visiting not only the collections of The Met and the Brooklyn Museum but also of his first art dealer, Allan Stone. Embedded in the NYC painting scene in the 1960s, he befriended uptown black artists, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, and downtown white artists, Philip Guston and Barnet Newman. Both communities influenced his approach to art.

An important breakthrough in his sculptural practice occurred in 1969, when Whitten traveled to Crete for the first time with his Greek American wife, Mary (Staikos) Whitten. Later, in the mid-1980s, he built a summer home in the village of Agia Galini, where he produced the bulk of his sculptures. His vocabulary grew to include references to the art of the ancient Mediterranean, especially Minoan and Cycladic cultures.

Whitten received many honors and had numerous solo exhibitions during his lifetime. He was inducted into the National Academy Museum and School and received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University. His powerful painting, 9-11-01 (2006), was included in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. His work is in numerous prestigious collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tate London.

'Taken as a whole, his sculptures are formal and technical masterpieces, rich in historical philosophical, and spiritual content.'





Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2016

Number six on our list of must-see shows of the Fall/Winter 2018 season, Odyssey is now on view at The Met Breuer through December.


Featuring 40 sculptures and 18 of his most notable paintings, Odyssey is the first exhibition in New York City to span the entirety of Whitten’s career. Organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art, Odyssey will rewrite the history of an artist whose oeuvre has yet to be fully explored and showcase an exciting, alternative to mainstream modernism.

Whitten’s sculptures, which he first created in New York and later at his home on Crete, consist of carved and sometimes charred wood, often in combination with found materials sourced from his local environment, including bone, marble, paper, glass, nails, and fishing line. His sculptures are of roughly five types - jugs, totems, guardians, reliquaries, and swords. Inspired by art historical sources rooted in Africa, the ancient Mediterranean, and the Southern United States, Whitten’s sculptures address themes of place, memory, family, and migration and give expression to an international perspective.

Among the 18 paintings is Whitten’s entire Black Monolith series (1988–2017), displayed together as a group for the first time. Named for a rocky outcropping visible from his studio on Crete, the Black Monolith paintings are composed of acrylic tesserae that he painstakingly assembled by hand. Each work in the series honors a leader in the world of black music, art, literature, and politics, from James Baldwin and Jacob Lawrence to Maya Angelou and Chuck Berry.

Whitten’s monument to postcolonial poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014), will also be on view, along with Bessemer Dreamer (1986), a poignant ode to the artist’s place of birth and The Met’s own Delta Group II (1975), acquired the year it was made. Odyssey also features 16 objects from The Met’s collection of African, Greek, and American art.

From the beginning of his career, The Met was a key resource for Whitten. The Museum was one of the first places he encountered African art - in turn, it prompted him to begin carving wood and to create some of the very sculptures featured in the exhibition.

"With this exhibition, we are given the unique opportunity to view the African, Cycladic, and Minoan works which inspired Whitten, alongside his own interpretations."

- Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chariman of Modern and Contemporary Art



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