Jack Whitten made rich, captivating sculptures for more than half a century, but we’re only seeing them now. He only showed any of them a couple of times, well off the art world’s beaten path, in a small town on the Greek island of Crete, where he spent his summers for decades and made most of the sculptures. Well known as a masterful abstract painter, Whitten’s sculptures are finally getting their time in the spotlight and they are shining: 40 of these remarkable artworks are on view in “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017” at the Met Breuer in New York through Dec. 2.
These abstract sculptures were very meaningful for Whitten; he made many of them for his own home and several are dedicated to family members. Even though he makes use of a great diversity of materials, forms, influences and ideas, “Odyssey” is a satisfying and moving exhibition in the elegant coherence of the body of work on display. The theme that helps the show hang together so elegantly is that these works, made over decades, are expressions of Whitten’s personal, generous appreciation for the natural, cultural and social worlds around him. Many titles of the sculptures and paintings in the show make direct reference to people or ideas the artist wished to honor, and two sculptures have the word “homage” in their titles — each of the 11 paintings in the “Black Monolith” series, for example, is dedicated to an African-American political or artistic leader, from James Baldwin to Barbara Jordan to Maya Angelou to Muhammad Ali. Sadly, Whitten died earlier this year, but the opportunity to see this important body of work for the first time is, indeed, a powerful homage to his legacy.
Whitten’s biography is vital to the work, but in unexpected, sometimes subtle ways. Born in Bessemer, AL, in 1939, he moved to New York in 1960 to escape the Jim Crow south and to study art at the Cooper Union; he made his first sculptures there in 1962, and some of the show’s earliest works are two roughly chiseled wooden heads, Jug Head I and Jug Head II (both 1965), inspired both by vernacular pottery created by slaves in antebellum South Carolina, as well as by some Central and West African carving traditions — traditions that also influenced European modernists like Picasso. Even before moving north, Whitten had visited the African art collections at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum, which were lifelong resources for him. He was connected to artistic and cultural circles in Harlem in addition to the downtown art scene, and in the ‘60s met figures like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and even Barnett Newman. He began spending time on Crete in 1969 and ultimately built a house there and set up what must have been a picturesque outdoor sculpture studio.
Most of his sculptures refer to and mix three broad cultural traditions to which Whitten felt an affinity: African-American art from the Southern US; West African sculpture; and ancient Cretan sculpture made by the Mycenaean, Minoan and Cycladic peoples. “Odyssey” includes 16 objects from the Met’s collections in these areas, and the material, formal and metaphysical comparisons are enlightening. These cosmopolitan, trans-historical substances, references and allusions communicate on several levels, often within individual sculptures.
Whitten used numerous different materials, ranging from traditional media like carved stone and wood to more informal, re-purposed items like wire, parts from broken electronics or fish bones. He arranged them in highly creative combinations to produce diverse effects. In Phoenix for the Youth of Greece (1983), for example, Whitten evokes the mythological bird’s fiery death and rebirth by contrasting local Cretan mulberry and olive woods with different textures — the wall label describes the rough olive branches as representing flames. Animal bones are intricately arranged at the bottom, and a round compartment on the front includes an artificially aged sheet of paper with aphoristic text about old bones providing guidance for the present and future.
Central African power figures were a strong source for many of Whitten’s sculptures. The show includes an impressive 19th-century example of a figure made by the Kongo people that highlights what Whitten found so inspirational about these objects. Artists made these power figures for specific ritual purposes, with specifically relevant and resonant materials, creating special compartments for significant items meant to help protect from illness, for example, or ensure social harmony. Some rituals involved nails or other items being embedded across the surface of the figures, which, formally, is something of a calling card for Whitten. Homage to the Kri-Kri (1985) is an especially cosmopolitan and personal sculpture. The title and horn-shaped lower part of the wall-mounted work refer to a type of Cretan wild goat that was domesticated by some of the ancient cultures that inspire Whitten and still populates the island. The upper part evokes the Central African power figures, with screws, nails, knobs, hinges, keys and other materials creating a dense thicket. Whitten personalized — or perhaps Americanized — this sculpture further by screwing his American Express card to the middle.
Whitten used this type of dense accretion of nails, wire and found objects extensively, and to varied effects. Sculptures honoring Malcolm X and John Lennon incorporate this technique with objects the artist felt were relevant to them. Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal) (2016) has passages built up with animal bones and cell phone and computer parts, adapting the technique to focus more thematically. These sophisticated homages to power figures also sometimes abstract the embedded materials into formal elements such as color or texture. The Wedding is a small artwork made of wood chosen for being native to Greece and machine parts found specifically at a local Cretan school — and Whitten’s home town of Bessemer was an industrial town, lending still another far-flung personal reference — but the strongest visual effect it produces is of the unique color of the copper wire twisted liberally around the screws and nails. The Afro American Thunderbolt (1983-84) uses just one consistent type of nail with no evocative provenance, but the roiling passages of bent nails contrast with the polished wood and smooth metal end plates to create a remarkably uniform texture, accentuated by the velvety rust on the individual nails among the mass.
“Odyssey” is a stunning show, full of complexity and beauty and allusion and celebration. It is also a dense show with much to look at, very little of it figurative. Never drifting far away from abstraction, Whitten suffuses his work with built-up layers of meaning about identity, place and culture — and their combinations and remixes. It makes for a glorious contrast to the provincialism and uniformity encroaching on too much of the rest of the world.