NEW YORK – On view at The Met Breuer from September 6 through December 2, 2018, Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 will present the extraordinary and previously unknown sculptures of acclaimed American artist Jack Whitten (1939–2018), who has long been celebrated for his work as an innovative abstract painter.
Featuring 41 sculptures and 18 of his most notable paintings, Odyssey will be the first exhibition in New York City to span the entirety of Whitten’s career and the first time in 36 years that Whitten has enjoyed a monographic exhibition at a New York City museum. Ultimately, Odyssey will not only rewrite the history of a canonical artist whose oeuvre has yet to be fully explored; it will also showcase an exciting, alternative to mainstream modernism and expand our understanding of the aesthetic vocabularies favored by artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Whitten’s sculptures, which he first created in New York and later at his home on Crete, where he began to summer in 1969, 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. Representing a radical break from the assemblages most often associated with the 1960s and 1970s, Whitten’s sculptures are of roughly five types—jugs, totems, guardians, reliquaries, and swords, many of which serve a ritualistic or commemorative function. 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. They also give expression to a transnational, cosmopolitan perspective—one that reflects the geography of Whitten’s life and of the African diaspora as a whole.
Among the 18 paintings in the exhibition will be 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 Whitten 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 (Bessemer, Alabama) and The Met’s own Delta Group II (1975), acquired the year it was made. These and other paintings in the exhibition illuminate the technical, conceptual, and thematic parallels between Whitten’s work in two and three dimensions, unifying his practice across media.
Reflecting a cross-disciplinary, transhistorical profile in perfect keeping with Whitten’s sensibility as an artist, Odyssey will also feature 16 objects from The Met’s collection of African, Greek, and American art, including an early Cycladic figure (2700–2600 B.C.), a Mycenean krater embellished with octopi (13th century), a Kongo Power Figure (Nkisi) (19th century), an Okpoto mask encrusted with resin and seeds (19th–20th century), and a rare ceramic face vessel (ca. 1845–55) produced by an unknown slave in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Integrated throughout the exhibition, these works will reconstruct Whitten’s art historical debts, serving as potent reminders of the long, rich histories out of which contemporary art arises. 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, and it was his introduction to African art that, in turn, prompted him to begin carving wood and to create some of the very sculptures featured in the exhibition.
About Jack Whitten:
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten passed away in January 2018. He studied at Alabama’s Tuskegee University as well as Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the late 1950s. In 1960, he fled the Jim Crow South for New York, enrolling in The Cooper Union, from which he graduated in 1964 and at which he taught from 1971 to 1997, first as a visiting artist and later as 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 dealer, Allan Stone. In 1962, he began to carve wood, seeking advice from faculty member Leo Amino, fellow student Christopher Wilmarth, and friend Jeffrey Waite. In the 1960s, he befriended African American artists living uptown, such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, as well as white artists based downtown, including Philip Guston and Barnet Newman. Both of these communities jointly 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. In keeping with the expanded geographic network in which he worked, Whitten’s vocabulary grew to include references to the art of the ancient Mediterranean, especially Minoan and Cycladic cultures. Just as Whitten’s sculptures incorporate local materials, so too do they recognize the places where they were made and pay homage to his family, ancestors, and personal pantheon of heroes, such as Malcolm X. Taken as a whole, his sculptures are formal and technical masterpieces, rich in historical, philosophical, and spiritual content. Whitten received many honors during his lifetime, including the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015.
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