In Memoriam Remembering Jack Whitten
Jack called me his “homeboy,” as we were from Jefferson County, Alabama and about the same age. He came to New York City about ten years before me. By the time we met he was already becoming an established artist to be dealt with. We ended up living a few blocks from each other below Canal Street. It became a kind of joke that we wound up as neighbors. It took moving to the big city to become friends, which would never have happened if we had stayed in our racially divided county of the 1940s and ‘50s.
In downtown New York City artists were everywhere: in lofts and store fronts all below Houston Street. There was so much going on; artists were always out talking about art and about each other. Before long I realized Jack was really respected for his teaching, his work ethic, and his risk-taking paintings. When I saw his show of what I called his “raked paintings,” I had never seen anything like them. The paintings made me think of how much he loved to talk about farming. It was so beautiful how he had used so much he had learned from tilling the land as a kid. At that time, I made a big painting called Pod in which the main shape and color was of the purple hull of a black-eyed pea pod. That painting made me think of Jack and his raked, red-clay slab transformations. The only difference being that his pieces were so much more realized.
Jack was always working. Late at night his light was always on. Later you would see him on the street dumping stuff covered in paint. His spirit and dedication were very inspiring, and I will always feel grateful to him for this. I think we shared the love of materiality and really pushing it around, trying to transform it.
All artists endure a lot to continue developing their work, but for a black kid growing up in Bessemer, Alabama in 1940—this is a difficulty we can only imagine. I think it explains his courage and the conviction that led to a spirit that could not be denied. Jack talked a lot about meeting all these great artists of the 1950s, people like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. He had the courage to reach out to them. I think they saw a true kindred spirit and reached back out to him.
The last fifteen years of Jack's work proved to be his most profound. Matter is becoming more optical: the surface is breaking down into flecks of light which change as you move through the painting. At the same time, the chunks of matter are still very much there. These works are earthly and heavenly at the same time. Literal field painting takes on a new dimension of refinement in materiality and depth, like cosmic curtains. The last thing Jack said to me was “I am working on a new painting that is about ‘pure joy.’”
I will miss him so much.
Bushwick, New York