More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979 – 1989

Location

Museum

Hauser & Wirth London

More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, 1979 – 1989

Hauser & Wirth London, South Gallery 27 September – 18 November 2017

Hauser & Wirth is pleased to present Jack Whitten’s first-ever solo exhibition in London and the gallery’s inaugural project with the artist in the United Kingdom. Whitten is an American abstract painter celebrated for his innovative transfiguration of paint in works equally alert to materiality, politics and metaphysics. Mentored by both Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis, with a career spanning five decades Whitten holds a unique place in the narrative of postwar American art. Curated by Richard Shiff, this presentation has a historical focus, bringing together a large number of Whitten’s paintings from 1979 to 1989. These years marked a period of intense experimentation for the artist and reflect his intellectual engagement with contemporary changes in science and technology. Whitten’s work is a focus of ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’, on view at Tate Modern until 22 October 2017.

Whitten’s diverse practice bridges gestural abstraction and process art. He experiments ceaselessly to arrive at a nuanced language of painting that hovers between mechanical automation and spiritual expression. The common denominators across the many phases of Whitten’s artistic practice – which he describes as ‘conceptual’ – are zealous technical exploration and a mastery of abstraction’s potential to map geographic, social, and psychological locations, particularly within the African-American experience. To account for his experimental attitude to materials, Whitten recalls his time as a pre-medical student at Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) in the 1950s. He once said, ‘[It was] an all-black college where the African-American scientist George Washington Carver did all his experiments. His laboratory is still intact. He was also a painter. I’m convinced today that a lot of my attitudes toward painting and making, and experimentation came from George Washington Carver. He made his own pigments, his own paints, from his inventions with peanuts. The obsession with invention and discovery impressed me’.

The Gift: Dedicated to the Memory of Packy, 1988
Acrylic with cast acrylic collage on canvas
121.9 x 208.3 cm / 48 x 82 in

© Jack Whitten 
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

1985 saw the artist introduce wire mesh netting as a tool, using it to create a grid on wet acrylic. Each small square is coloured individually, creating a canvas that flickers like a distant metropolis. Its pixel-like elements derive from grids designed for electronic scanning. The artist would return to a similar use of units of colour in the late 2000s with a series titled E-Stamp. Whitten refers to his DNA paintings as having ‘a unified surface that opens to multi-dimension’, which seems to describe a raster (a pattern of parallel scanning lines followed by the electron beam on a television screen or computer monitor). Curator Richard Shiff explains the artist’s process for this series saying, ‘like a light-sensitive photographic film, a pictorial raster awaits its activation, as if differentiated tonalities might be projected from within the surface as much as from without. Whitten generated a raster by applying a grey slip over existing abstract imagery and then raking the slip in a horizontal direction to create a set of lines that, from above, ‘developed’ the image below. He repeated this process vertically to complete the grid. The grid of parallel lines connotes the raster of an electronic imaging system; in contrast, the scattering of variant greys beneath the lines resembles the irregular distribution of tone in the emulsion of analog photography’. The raster and image HAUSER & WIRTH compete for visual attention as one and the same surface, resulting in a painting with strong photographic depth. In ‘DNA III’, ‘DNA X’ and ‘DNA XII’ (all 1979) it is as if a layer of netting obscures a blurred vista beyond.

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