Touch Wood

Jack Whitten: Odyssey: Sculpture 1963?2017 BY Katy Siegel, Kelly Baum, Jack Whitten, Richard Shiff, Kwame Appiah, Kellie Jones, Courtney Martin. Gregory R. Miller & Co.. Hardcover, 192 pages. $55.

The cover of Jack Whitten: Odyssey: Sculpture 1963?2017

In 1969 the painter Jack Whitten arrived in the town of Agia Galini, on the Greek island of Crete. Shortly before leaving New York he’d had a dream in which he was commanded to find a tree and carve it. From the bus window he spied the tree from his dream. He approached the owner, but because Whitten couldn’t speak Greek, the man thought he was saying he wanted to cut it down. Whitten came up with a plan to communicate his aim: “I went into the surrounding hills, found some wood and set up shop on the harbor beneath some trees.” The owner understood immediately and even lent Whitten his tools. The totem he carved still stands in the town—a fisherman looks to the sea, an octopus winds around the trunk, and at the very top “is a large fish with its tail pointing to the sky.” This account, published in Notes from the Woodshed, a volume of the artist’s reflections on his art and practice, provides a key to understanding the gestural, communicative power of Whitten’s sculpture. Just as he was able to impart meaning by doing rather than speaking that first day on Crete, his sculptures—currently exhibited for the first time in a show that has arrived at the Met Breuer (New York)—express their strong emotional and spiritual content by foregrounding the physical acts of their creation. Carved, chiseled, polished, and hammered into insinuating, assertive shapes, these pieces make viewers feel the actual work, and sense the very grip of the artist’s hand on the hammer as it finds the chisel’s head.

Even as Whitten’s reputation as a painter—one who moved fluidly between representation and abstraction—grew over the decades following his trip to Crete (where he would frequently return for many years), he declined to show the sculpture he produced there. The work seemed to hold a private meaning for him. In her introduction to the current exhibition catalogue, Katy Siegel determines that the Aegean Sea “touched something deep and familiar” in Whitten. “I know this place,” he said. The nearness to Africa, the role of Greece as a site of confluence for Mediterranean cultures, the ancient traditions, and the elemental landscape all excited and inspired Whitten to extend an already-extant interest in African carving. Whitten, she notes, was born far from the sea in Alabama, but knew the river and fish- ing culture there well; he saw a connection between his artmaking and the way the fishermen on the island made the things they needed.

For Whitten, who died this past January, the journey to this place at the edge of the Western world was a long one. Born in the brutally racist South in 1939, he attended Tuskegee Institute before coming to New York to study at Cooper Union. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum offered crucial encounters with African carving, which sparked a critique of Modernism’s appropriation of its forms: “I am aware of the fact that this is the tradition in Art which I must connect with—not the Western concept of the divine or sublime, or romantic or classical but a work of art with a function motivated by the tradition of African sculpture—my way—not Picasso’s European interruption.”

African and African American sources hold direct sway over Whitten’s first sculptures. Two 1965 pieces (Jug Head I and Jug Head II) vividly echo the ceramic vessels decorated with faces that were common in the early 1800s in South Carolina. His versions—hand-carved from black-stained American elm—present, in one case, a recognizable physiognomy, and in the other, a decidedly abstract conception, one in which lips and facial hair alone denote a face. Whitten repurposed traditional forms with the same ease that marked his movement between modes of visual presentation. Always underlying this dexterity is an eloquent materiality: The wood has been stained with shoe polish to reflect, as Whitten noted, the importance adults in his Alabama community placed on shining shoes to make a good appearance. Often understated, this social and political attentiveness permeates all of Whitten’s work, including the sculpture.

In response to the assassination of Malcolm X, he produced Homage to Malcolm, a work that synthesizes traditional African practice along with the artist’s own sense of the historical moment, to create a visual style that is evident in much of his subsequent work. Carved from a single piece of elm, Homage draws on the Central African nkisi—a potent spiritual object, often human in form, into which nails and other metal items have been driven. Each nail represents a vow or agreement; when the promise is broken, it is believed that forces within the figure are released. A fierce cluster of nails, screws, hinges, locks, bottle caps, and chain links forms one end of this slender piece; the other takes a smooth yet ominously sharp tooth- or clawlike shape. If the evocation of the civil rights leader’s black nationalism via African spiritual practice is benign in its commemorative function, the sculpture’s appearance is not. Both the knotted metal clump and the sinister bow of wood register with jagged tactility; this object may not be a weapon, but such potential is acutely felt in its presence.

Although he employed stone, metal, and glass, Whitten principally relied on wood. Indeed, an inventory of his materials across the years constitutes a taxonomy of sorts: butternut, cypress, ebony, elm, carob, cherrywood, black mulberry, Cretan walnut, and Serbian oak. He was intimately acquainted with the color, age, and texture of each specimen. Declining to use power tools, he worked the wood by hand (dozens of his implements are on display at the Met) and often sought out stray pieces on Crete. Villagers knew to alert him when they found something interesting. In a short catalogue essay titled “Why Do I Carve Wood?” Whitten recalls being summoned to a chicken coop to view “an amazing shape that had to be at least ten to twelve feet.” Using his adze to clean it, he discovered “a marvelous hunk of black mulberry preserved by many years of chicken shit.”

Whitten’s memorializing impulse—there is the Malcolm X piece, as well as others dedicated to people such as John Lennon, his daughter, and his aunt, and animals native to Crete—finds compelling and perhaps subversive counterpoint in his choice of wood, an organic material, unlike stone or marble, that too will decay. A mainstay of Western art, memorial statuary typically offers adamantine men on horseback. Whitten transports this grandeur to less celebrated and more fleeting figures, choosing familial and commonplace subjects, rendering them at much smaller scale in a material lacking any pretense to immortality. Bosom, For Aunt Surlina and Homage to the Kri-Kri, the latter a nod to a Cretan species of wild goat, both merge distinct, even dissonant, textures—wood buffed to inviting sleekness, and the forbidding knot of metal, bones, screws, and stones conjuring the nkisi presence. In addition, both pieces indicate their biomorphic sources yet retain the enigmatic character of abstraction. The thick cylinder that tapers to a blunt point as part of Homage to the Kri-Kri can be read as a goat’s horn, but less obvious is the meaning of Whitten’s American Express card, which displays a partial image of a helmeted warrior, nailed into the spiky mass just above. An overall phallic aspect adds roguish wit to a piece that engages themes of animism, environmental decline, capitalism, and sexual power. Whitten challenges the idea that commemoration requires heroic figures treated with thematic clarity—these are not the static monuments that decorate public squares. In doing so, he asserts an understanding of remembrance that subverts hierarchy and prizes the complexity of memory.

The Tomb of Socrates explicitly depicts the mind’s multifariousness. The reference to the Greek philosopher, often considered to be the originator of the Western tradition of intellectual inquiry, is provocative in light of the piece’s construction, one which Whitten described as resembling a Greek shield, or an aspis. What could be thought of as the outward side of the shield is a serene curve of black mulberry capped by a blond-colored cypress that resembles an adze. Embedded in the wood on the other side is a tangled mass of scavenged objects including wire, nails, Bakelite fuses, pine cones, and a weasel’s skeleton, all set around a burned stone. If the outward side shows the world an unperturbed surface, one that projects assurance and protects from harm, this other reveals the inner self, a mind in turmoil in which mortal remains mix with found detritus. By portraying this double consciousness, being both in the world and within our various selves, Whitten demystifies and humanizes this Western paragon of methodical thought; we peer into the lived dialectics of a mind and perhaps see an embodiment of our own emotional and intellectual tensions.

Joining and dominating both realities—inner and outer—is the adze, an implement crucial to the act of making. Its import, though, is uncertain: Is creation redemptive, a responsibility, or a burden? Does action supersede language—as did Whitten’s carving that first day on Crete—as a means to effectively communicate? The sculpture’s angular, militant physicality embraces such questions and poses at least a couple more that are decidedly personal: Might an African American artist in the 1960s inhabiting an almost exclusively white art world need to disguise and shelter his true feelings? And, when he does choose to express them, might it be best to do so with the right tool in hand?

Albert Mobilio’s most recent book is Games and Stunts (Black Square Editions, 2017).