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  • JackWhitten,Atopolis:FordouardGlissant,2014.Acryliconcanvas.1241/22481/2inches.JackWhitten.CourtesytheartistandHauser&Wirth.

    PortraitofJackWhitten.PencilonpaperbyPhongBui.FromaphotobyJohnBerens.

    ArtINCONVERSATION

    JACKWHITTEN withJarrettEarnest

    Over the past fifty years Jack Whitten has developed arigorous personal vocabulary within abstraction, linkingancient mosaics with contemporary process painting. Hisfirst solo exhibition with Hauser & Wirth is currently onview (22nd Street, through April 8, 2017). Additionally, youcan currently see his monumental painting Atopolis:FordouardGlissant (2014) at the Museum of Modern Art,and DeltaGroupII (1975) at the Metropolitan Museum ofArt. He met with Jarrett Earnest in his Queens studio todiscuss TheIdeaoftheHoly, TheShapeofTime and abstraction as whitelightning.

    JarrettEarnest(Rail): For decades youve spentsummers on the island of Crete, where you have a house.What first brought you there?

    JackWhitten:It was something personal. My wife, Mary,is of Greek descent. Her parents were born on thePeloponnese. She was born in New York and had never beento Greece, so in 1969 we planned a trip. For both of us it wasthe first time in Europe, period. Two nights before leaving, Ihad this amazing dream of a tree standing in a clearing. Thelimbs were cut off, pruned, and the dream was a command:WhenyougotoGreeceyouaretofindthistreeandcarveit

    intoatotem.It freaked me out, to say the least. Ive alwayscarved wood in the summer months; before we startedgoing to Greece I worked upstate in the summers. And Itook my carving tools looking for this tree. We ended up in acheap hotel in Athens, in the neighborhood of Plka, whichis right at the foothills of the Acropolisin the 60s it wasgorgeous, real bohemian, with cafs and cheap hotels. Weset up shop in Plka and traveled around to all the different

    'The Brooklyn Rail', 1 February 2017, Brooklyn, NY

  • sites. After a month or so our money was running out and people advised us to go to Crete because itwas cheap. They put us on an overnight ferry to Heraklion, the northern city. I went straight to thetourist police who said, youngman,thecheapestplaceonthisislandisthesouthcoast. They put us ona public bus that went across the island down to the south coast, to a village called Agia Galini, whichwas a little fishing village with no electricity. When the bus pulled into the harbor I saw the tree out ofthe window.

    Rail: Exactly as in the dream?

    Whitten:Yes. In a clearing. I got permission from the owner of the property with the tree on it to carveit.

    Rail: Was it still rooted in the ground? Like Odysseuss bed?

    Whitten:Yes. Its still there, still rooted in the ground.

    Rail: You realized you were home!

    Whitten:And to say Crete was cheapthe first hotel we found was one dollar a night. The two of uscould live there and eat what we wanted for four dollars a day! So we stayed and I carved that tree.

    Rail: Was the carving figurative or abstract patterns? How would you describe it as an object?

    Whitten:Its a totem pole, with images from the sea. There is an octopus wrapped around, fish, waves,there is the head of a fisherman looking out from the seaall the fishermen were saying, thatsgottobeme!an homage to the Cretan fisherman. At the top is a large fish that thrusts into the air and off to theside a kind of peace sign. By the time I finished I was a celebrity in the town; everybody knew me as theguy that carved the tree. Every time I was working it was like theaterpeople would come watch, kidswould be sitting around me on the ground. When I finished the tree we came back to New York. At thattime I had two lofts. Wed sublet the lofts, getting the money in advancethree or four hundred dollarswhich translated to decent life in Crete, so we went back the next summer.

    Rail: In terms of these new paintings, QuantumWalls, I see the art historical connections to everythingfrom Byzantine mosaics to the Ishtar Gates of Babylon; is there also something in them that recalls thesurface of the ocean?

    Whitten:That is there, Ive spent so much time on the sea. And youre right, the technique Im using inthese paintings goes back to ancient mosaics, what we call directmethod. The direct method used piecesof stone, marble, precious metal or glasswhich are called tesseraeand the thumb of the masterwould set it in such a way that it would hit to govern light and reflect light. Ive studied mosaics allthrough Italy, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. I had a beautiful experience once in Mount Sinai, in theoldest monastery there called Saint Catherines. We went there for the Greek Christmas under the oldcalendar. In the apse of Saint Catherines is a Justinian-era mosaicone of the best you will see in theworld. The services are lit by candlelight from huge chandeliers, six or seven feet in diameter with fouror five tiers. The monks walk around with these lighters on long poles. As the service progresses theylight each tier and the place gets brighter and brighter. About midway through the service that mosaicstarts coming alive. It was built to put you in the presence of God.

  • Rail: Its a structure, a form, for holding that particular experience.

    Whitten:Its like cathedrals in Europeif you walk into Notre-Dame youve got to be stupid if youdont feel what is happening there, with the light coming through the stained glass. And this experienceat Saint Catherines was effective. Each one of the tesserae was put down in such a way that it collectsthe light and throws it off very specifically.

    Rail: How did you arrive at this technique of creating tessera out of layers of paint, building yourpaintings like a kind of visual masonry?

    Whitten:Imagine, on one side you have gesturea mainstay of painting. Then, on the other side, isprocess. I have managed to fuse those two things, which gives me the unit. The tessera is the unit. Itsthe same as what people who work in particle physics are after, howdowereconcilethetheoryofrelativelywiththetheoryofquantummechanics?We have the equivalent of that in abstract painting.What I am calling the unitis also what today we call the byteall the information is in there. With that Ican do anything I want to do with itif I want to push that more into the notion of the spiritual, I can,which I like to do because there is a deficiency of it now.

    Rail: One of the problems with seeing you as a progenitor of contemporary process abstraction is that itfails to acknowledge the human content of your workthe emotional, psychological, and spiritualcontentwhich most contemporary painting is devoid of.

    Whitten:Im not a Greenbergian. I didnt drink that Kool-Aid. When I first met Greenberg I didnthave enough knowledge to argue with him, but I listened closely to what he had to say and I learned alot. Formalism for me is a step toward something. Its a meansand that is all it is. Speakingpersonally, for someone to take it as an end unto itself is bullshit. The formal is a way to get tosomething elsein my work that something else exists off in a more meditative, contemplative, andspiritual domain. The essence of it is metaphysical in the original meaning of the word, which in Greekis metphysikthatwhichcomesafterthenotionofmatter. When we talk about metaphysics,especially for me being a black person, I have to talk about it coming from different sources. Forexample, Mr. Heidegger wrote a book called the IntroductiontoMetaphysics where he starts from theGreeks and walks down through western civilization. I read that and learned a lot from it. But still I hadto go off on my own and find out that there is more than one root for what hes talking about. Theancient Chinese knew this, the ancient Africans did tooits just because the way that spheres ofinfluence have worked, politics and power, that it gets presented as being totally Greek, and thats amistake. I have a big painting hanging now at the Museum of Modern Art, Atopolis:FordouardGlissant(2014): over ten feet by twenty feet, a memorial painting. I knew him personally. Heunderstood this root stufffinding other roots and directionsbut he had a different concept, rhizomes.

    Rail: How has the spiritual dimension of your work evolved over your life?

    Whitten:Oh, it was there right from the beginning. What I mean when I talk about materiality, asopposed to simplistic concepts of narration, is that the content of what we are dealing with is in thematerial. I cant sit and do a drawing of you in terms of a portrait, but I can capture you in the material.When I found out that it can be in the material, that gave me an enormous freedom, a way to escapebecause paint is matterthat is where the metphysikcomes in. The questions is then, whatdoyouwanttousethatfor? A lot of my sensibility comes out of the South. I grew up in the church, theChristian Protestant fundamentalist church. There I saw the working of the metaphysical through

  • JackWhitten.TheThirdPortal,2016.Acrylicandmixedmediaoncanvas.4848inches.JackWhitten.

    CourtesytheartistandHauser&Wirth.

    peoples bodiesthat is where it started. When you havethat kind of background, you dont get away from itthatinforms who you are. They were praying to a Christian Godbut any fool knows that what is operating goes way beyondChristianity. Wayback, coming out of the primal. Thatprimal force is what Im interested in, if you want to talkabout spirituality. I have confirmed this many timesthrough travelIve been to archeological sites throughoutEurope, down in Mexico, Egypt, on Creteancient siteswhere you realize people thousands of years ago were therepraying, worshiping and breaking bread. It has convincedme that there is something out there much larger than whatwe call Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist belief systems.Youre dealing with something that has been on the planetway before we were.