Jack Whitten, Omega, 1978. Acrylic on Canvas. Collection of Sheldon Inwentash and Lynne Factor, Toronto.
Jack Whitten, Omega, 1978. Acrylic on Canvas. Collection of Sheldon Inwentash and Lynne Factor, Toronto.
Jack Whitten
Below is an excerpt from an interview originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, February 2017.
Jack Whitten in conversation with Jarrett Earnest

Earnest: One of the effects of the tesserae as a plane is that it creates a non-linear visual rhythm. I know you've dedicated paintings to musicians, and you yourself played tenor sax, and I'm wondering how you understand rhythm, time, and sequence in visual art as related to parallel concepts in sound or music.

Whitten: That is very complicated but I'll try. Painters learn to construct the density of light. All the light that we work with has a specific density to it. I use that word, "density," in the same sense that a physical scientist would use it to talk about the density of wood or CorTen steel or lead, or the density of a feather—you hear me—the density of water. Painters are aware of the density of light. The whole history of painting is in that light. I can walk you through all the museums in the world and explain to you what painters are doing through their light. It gets complicated because geographical location gets involved in the quality of light. Like for me, being on Crete all these years, the light on Crete is different. You look at an object on Crete and it looks like it's carved out of a hunk of steel—bright Mediterranean light. Down there we have these winds we call boreas—they clear the air, coming out of the mountains. When those winds blow, humidity drops down to ten percent, so you're talking about a sharp quality of light. These geographical locations affect how painters see and structure densities of light in their art.

But it gets even more complicated: I have discovered that within those densities of light there is a sound. It is a much higher and more complex notion of sound, but there is a sound in there. It agrees with what the ancient philosophers refer to as "the music of the spheres." It's in the light, it's in the movement, which connects to time. All of us interested in time and how it relates to experience realize that it's not just a clock. [Holding up a wrist watch.] We use this for daily practical stuff. But there are other aspects of time that go beyond this fucker—our bodies tell us there is biological time, then we discover there is a cosmological and geological time. Scientists claim that because of carbon atoms trapped in matter we can date, we can make a clock out of them, which we do.

But, going back to sound, within those light densities are sounds. For me personally, being African-American and the jazz music coming out of that culture, and meeting all those early jazz musicians, I realize there is something unique in that experience connecting time and sound. I have to tell a lot of painters who say they are working with jazz, that they are only working with it as simplistic narrative notion; until they can connect with it in terms of light, color and sound, they're only skimming the surface of jazz.

Earnest: Color relationships themselves create the light in painting, and I want to know how your color has evolved and how it relates to light.

Whitten: This is not just me, it affects every painter, everybody who ever picked up a brush and started mixing paint. What would Hans Hoffman say? He'd point out the window and say, see that stuff out there, that is nature's light. He's talking about sunlight. Then he'd point to a lamp, you see that stuff there, that's man's light. Hans would then say, the only fucking light you've got is in that color. He's talking about a tube of paint. Every painter, whether they're abstract or figurative, has to discover that the only light they've got is in color. I don't care about all the other stuff that people attach to it—the politics, the social issues—O.K. In terms of contemporary thought and the world we live in, I won't say that's not important. But ultimately, it's what's in that tube of paint that matters. At seventy-seven, I've been on this for more than fifty years and it's still an ongoing process, it's still forming. We don't just arrive at an end and say, O.K., I know it all. Painting is a continuous process.

Earnest: But what are specific moments that your thoughts on color have shifted?

Whitten: Let's go to one specifically, the "Greek Alphabet" series which starts in 1976 and lasts through 1979, entering the 1980s. I removed all spectrum color from the studio: all reds, blues, yellows. I took them out! I reduced them down to black, white, and a range of greys.

Earnest: Achromatic greys?

Whitten: Yeah. There is one hanging now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Delta Group II (1975). Why did I do that? I had survived the 1960s. As much as I could tell, I was intact. I was functioning. I realized that spectrum color, all those high-valued reds, blues, greens, carry a lot of psychological stuff that I didn't want to fuck with no mo'. I wanted to cut it down to the bone.

When Henry Geldzahler curated my ten-year survey at the Studio Museum in 1983, he asked me the same question. I said, Henry, you have to understand that getting rid of all the chroma and taking it to black and white is not just a formal exercise. I'm very much aware of the meaning of black and white in American society, which informs who I am as an African-American. The formal reasons for black and white are one thing but there are also the reasons coming out of the political situation, and I wanted to see if I could combine them.

What I discovered is that philosophically I don't like either/or situations. I prefer neither/nor—that is what the black and white paintings taught me. I found that there was a third entity out there: not black, not white, but existing over there in those greys. Messing around with values like that I discovered I could create another form of optical color out of the greys. Looking at those paintings you're going to see red, blues, yellows shooting out at you. Just go look at them! There is another spectrum that isn't coming from that regular spectrum we know, it's coming from someplace else, an inner light.
Jack Whitten (b. 1939, Bessemer, AL d. 2017 Woodside, Queens) earned a BFA from The Cooper Union in 1964. His work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in the 1969 and 1972 Whitney Annuals, and in a landmark 1974 solo exhibition. The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego presented Whitten’s first retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting in September 2014. Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2016 opened in spring 2018 at the Baltimore Museum of Art and will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in fall 2018. Whitten’s work has also been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, NY (2014); 55th Venice Biennale, Italy (2013); Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, Belgium (2014); Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT (2014); Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA (2013); Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA (2012); Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, GA (2008); MoMA PS1, New York (2007); and Studio Museum in Harlem, NY (2006); among others. He lived in Woodside, Queens.
Identity Milford Graves Mixing