Locating Jack Whitten
I will always see Jack Whitten as the adventuring and fearless painter, who found himself again and again at the center of new, profound and deeply informed spaces. In so many ways, he was able to find new beginnings in his work, while escaping self-definition in the process.
I ran across Whitten’s paintings over many stages of my life as an artist and painter. I first became aware of his work through documentation of his vast explorations and experimentation with acrylic paint. Jack Whitten was a materials artist, and I was looking closely at this kind of work at that time. In my study, I would link him with Ed Clark, Howardena Pindell, Sam Gilliam, Peter Bradley, Al Loving, Nanette Carter, William T. Williams, Joe Overstreet, and Frank Bowling, among others of this generation. I saw Whitten among a group of under-recognized and under-appreciated artists, who were pushing formalism through continued experimentation in their urgent expression of cultural and social histories experienced in the present tense.
Years later, Whitten spoke of his inspiration and challenge with the NY School in a talk I had the privilege of listening to in conjunction with his exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He spoke with openness, humor, and an intense, brutal honesty about his migration from the American South and the continued struggle for Civil Rights that he encountered in the mean-streets of 1960s and ‘70s New York City.
Jack Whitten worked with great regard for the canon of western painting, and he was also one of the first to challenge its claims. He, like the artists I mentioned earlier, worked endlessly to prove their worth alongside those that found easier institutional success within the New York art world. We can thank Jack Whitten for his strength, perseverance, and fortitude that projected a profound love for painting that will last beyond his lifetime, as well as ours.
Odili Donald Odita
Philadelphia, February 18, 2018.