“Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963 – 2017”
through December 2, 2018
through January 6, 2019
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Jack Whitten show at the Met Breuer is extraordinary. During his fifty-year career, Whitten, who died this past January, created two amazing bodies of work: his paintings—if you can call them paintings, because they’re so sculptural—and his sculptures, created concurrently but kept largely private.
Whitten was born in Bessemer Alabama, in 1939 and came to New York to study painting in 1960. He began spending summers in Crete in the late 1960s, and most of his sculptures were made there and never shown outside Crete in his lifetime. His paintings are in major collections—the exhibition includes works from MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem—but all the sculptures remain in his estate. Some of them are totems that stand in for ancestors or relatives. Some are reliquaries. Some, made for family members, are guardian figures. They are all, in a sense, ritual objects.
Important to Whitten’s sculpture from the beginning was African art, which he first encountered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and assimilated into his work according to his own needs and sensibilities. But because they were made during extended periods of living and working on Crete, there is, as well, a Mediterranean aspect to his sculptures that is as much about being in nature on the island as it is about the region’s history and culture. He went to the palace of Knossos and was influenced by the frescoes there, but just as pressing for him was Crete’s animal life, its water, its sky.
One of the nice things about the exhibition is the inclusion of a number of pieces of African tribal art, as well as examples of Greek art and African American vernacular ceramics, from the Met’s holdings. They don’t overwhelm the sculptures—the scale is completely different—but they do show what Whitten was looking at, what he was seeing. There’s one nkisi sculpture on view—a power figure studded with nails—that’s totally relevant to what Whitten was doing, mixing his own wood carvings with found materials.
There is nothing haphazard, nothing indifferent, about these sculptures. Every material choice Whitten made was considered. Each element was selected for a reason, whether an old cell phone, a fishbone, or a nail. And it’s not just his choice of materials that’s magical, but the way he put them together: how he took two pieces of a lintel from a house in Crete and used them as a base for Shark Bait (2016)—a sculpture he painted blue on the bottom so the color would reflect onto the white marble—or how he joined a piece of walnut to a piece of black mulberry. He was attentive to all that. Every decision was deliberate and loving, and seen in terms of that investment, the sculptures are incredibly moving.
Although the exhibition centers on Whitten’s sculpture, it also has a number of his paintings, including all those in his “Black Monolith” series: eleven monumental mosaic paintings dedicated to iconic figures in African American culture, from Chuck Berry to Ralph Ellison. They feature relatively simple forms, or presences, and are auratic in much the same way as the sculptures. But while the sculptures aren’t religious art, maybe that’s a way of thinking about them, and of the wall works as secular.
I saw the Delacroix exhibition right the Whitten. You can understand why all the modern artists love Delacroix. He’s not simply a romantic; he’s a genius with paint—with color, with paint handling, with touch. His animals are wonderful; he sketched them at the zoo, from life. And he’s literary: there are scenes from Ivanhoe, from Hamlet. Plus contemporary history painting, and commissions, and portraits. And orientalist tableaux—he traveled to Morocco and Algiers, which for him must have been a dream come true, to see that light, that color, that dust.
One of his most famous works, The Women of Algiers is in the show, happily. And there are two versions of The Death of Sardanapalus. Not the big original 1827 version, which is in the Louvre, but a smaller one from 1844, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and an oil sketch. It’s a great scene of carnage. The king of Assyria’s concubines, servants, and horses are being killed on his orders, while the king looks on, appearing anaesthetized. Conspicuous amid the orgiastic violence is a big, twisting nude—a woman who is about to have her throat cut. You might not use the word beautiful coming out of a Delacroix show, but the work is inarguably stunning and powerful.
At first, I thought maybe I had made a mistake going to the Delacroix exhibition after the Whitten. Sometimes seeing two big shows in one day can be too much. But their works actually fit together, in how rich they are, and how urgent.
Neil Printz is the editor of the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, the fifth volume of which was published in September 2018.