Jack Whitten, the US abstract painter who led demonstrations in Baton Rouge during the civil rights era, has died at the age of 78, Zeno X Gallery confirmed today, 22 January.
As with many African-American artists of his generation, Whitten’s work was not widely recognised until recently. He had his first solo show in London just last year, at Hauser & Wirth gallery (at a time when, according to Time Out, less than 15% of shows happening in London featured work by people of colour). This year is set to be his biggest to date. Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1965-2017 opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art in April before travelling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939, Whitten briefly studied art at Southern University in Baton Rouge where he became heavily involved in civil rights demonstrations. “I’m one of the people who led a march through downtown Baton Rouge,” he told Bomb magazine in 1994. “Horrible experience… we marched to the state capital, with people throwing shit on you, piss on you, hitting you with pipes and shit, people bleeding. Horrific experience.”
Those events, he says “got him out” of the South and to New York, where Whitten attended the Cooper Union, graduating in 1964. “Of course in Alabama I didn’t know anything about abstract painting, but the first people that I met of any importance in New York were primality abstract painters, people like Norman Lewis, Bill de Kooning, Franz Kline,” he told Frieze magazine last year.
“New York in the 1960s was a difficult time, the civil rights movement was raging, the Vietnam war. The identity issues of being black in America. What do you do with that? I felt I had a better chance to get across what I was felling through abstraction.”
Whitten has described his paintings as complex structures with an oblique spiritual dimension. “I believe that we are in a spiritual dry land, the old symbols we have from previous established religion, they are not workable any more for this society. We have to invent new symbols, and that’s where the spirituality comes in.
“I’ve been working close to 60 years now but there’s a lot out there I don’t know. We only know probably one percent or less than one percent of the mater in the universe, the whole cosmos. Think about that. Where’s the rest of it? What is it? It’s stuff I’ve been thinking about, I’ve been piecing it together man… In truth, it becomes the reason why I get up out of bed every morning.”