I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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On a blustery, early spring day, I visited Jack Whitten at his five-story Tribeca building where he has worked and lived with his wife Mary for many years. On the ground floor is a pizza parlor and directly above it is Jack’s smallish studio with a few new works in progress. “Man, I have to work when I have a show up or I go crazy,” he told me. He was being humble—in fact, he had two shows up at the time: a retrospective of paintings from the 1970s at Daniel Newburg and a show of brand-new works at Horodner-Romley. “Oh, it’s been kind of quiet around here. We live a quiet life,” he said. Another underestimation. The phone was ringing off the hook. The previous day, the New York Times had proclaimed Jack to be the father of the much talked about “new abstraction” in painting of the last few years. No small feat indeed. We proceeded upstairs, past Mary’s conservation studio to the top floor, where Jack opened the door to one of the most gorgeous living spaces that I have seen in this city. “Yep, I did it all myself,” he proclaimed—this time with a bit of a boast—as I looked around at an interior worthy of Architectural Digest. His fetishistic wood sculptures and paintings from the 1960s to the 1990s co-mingled with luxurious handmade furniture and cabinetry. As we sat down, Jack offered me tea and bread soaked in olive oil pressed from his grove in Greece where he vacations each summer. The wealth of contradiction infused with the incredible warmth of my host made me know that I was in for something special, loaded with quiet surprises.
Kenneth Goldsmith Looking at these two bodies of work, from the ’70s and the ’90s, what strikes me immediately is that the earlier work is more self-consciously invested and referential to the history of painting than the later work.
Jack Whitten As earlier paintings, they would have to be more of a historical reference. My background—coming to New York in 1959 and studying painting at Cooper Union Art School, in and out of the museums and the Cedar Bar, knowing other painters, the Abstract Expressionists in particular—I had no choice but to be well versed. It took 20 years to get into a position where I could work myself out of history. Every painter wants to escape art history. And now there’s a curve that’s leading me out. My emphasis on pop culture, video, science, on the urban environment, and everything on up to the Big Bang theory excites me. I see that as a way, using those metaphors, that I can escape art historical references.
I was impressed with you when we first met in Lodz, Poland at the Artist Museum for Construction in Progress, running around with your computer, engaging all of those people with sounds, compiling all those words—I instantly identified with that, that’s why I wanted to meet you and touch base, because as a poet, you’re into this pop thing, you’re into this immediacy of the norm.
KG What we both share in our recent works is that we’re binding disparate things we find in the culture, in the newspapers, in the material that’s all around us. I find a lot of my sounds on the street. I’m always listening. And when I look at your recent work, I know you’ve been scavenging the streets—molds off the sidewalk, metal grates and caps—you’ve been taking impressions from the world around you.
JW Sure, sure. That button painting was inspired by a Lisa Hoke sculpture, but I lifted the composition from a Lalaounis jewelry ad in the New York Times.
KG I wouldn’t know that.
JW No you wouldn’t. (laughter) It’s not important that one knows that, but it’s what gets me started.
KG You transform material, you don’t leave it as you found it, or do you?
JW Transformation is very important. Materials are just raw materials, that’s all. It’s like a word, anybody can have access to the same word, but a word in your mouth is totally different from a word in mine.
KG I tend to put a word into a context where it assumes a new meaning. It’s like taking a word out of the popular context and re-applying it to art. Tell me, what was your relationship to pop culture in the ’70s?
JW What governs those early ‘70s paintings is photography, and I don’t mean a photographic picture, I mean the process of photography. What happens in a camera when you set that f-stop and a small amount of light comes through and places itself on a sensitive plate. The speed factor. Speed is an important part of abstract thought.
KG Talk about your relationship with speed.
JW First, in terms of Abstract Expressionism as a gesture, later in terms of the instant, what happens in a split second, as in photography. So when I was doing those paintings, to place the paint in a split second—the whole painting was conceived of as one line, the painting as a gesture.
KG Physically, how long did it take you to make those paintings?
JW Over an extended period of time I might go backward and forward in layers. But the crucial part took place in three seconds, two seconds. I took the Abstract Expressionist gesture and amplified it. That speed removes it from relational thinking to non-relational thinking. Because when that tool I was using would fall across the canvas—it did not allow for relational thought.
KG What tool?
JW Paintings from the 1970s were made with a tool of my design that was 12 feet wide, so that the act of painting was raked across the whole plane of the painting in one shot.
KG But the funny thing is that the paintings have an un-handmade look. They look like a photography process, in some way related to video. Obviously the hand is really important in your work, but somehow it was masked.
JW It’s an extension of the hand. I’m coming in back of Pollock, I’m extending Pollock’s thinking, that’s what’s going on here. Let’s consider Pollock for a minute. The paint leaves the hand, falls onto this canvas, I take that and extend it several steps further.
KG With the tool?
JW I have to use the tool. The tool is a sort of medium, you might say, that stands between me and the painting.
KG Buckminster Fuller always said that one of the best tools he had were his eyeglasses, which he saw as an extension of the eye. So everything to Fuller was an extension of himself. That’s where the integration comes in. We’re really not separate from our tools at all. There is no need to shun or fear any type of technology. It’s all an extension of ourselves. Did you feel that the tool was an extension of your hand or was it something separate from you?
JW Very much like how Buckminster Fuller explained himself. That tool is an extender of my hand. It’s like saying the computer is an extender of one’s brain.
KG It goes into McLuhan’s old idea of an extended nervous system which has now come back full force into our lives with the Internet, global computer systems, and the new cellular satellite networks.
JW My metaphors are found in scientific processes. Hydrogen bubble chambers turned me on in the ‘70s. Electronic scanning devices—that’s where I found my images.
KG What do you mean by electronic scanning devices?
JW Let’s say you have an atom, a particle you want to scan. You put it into these chambers and get a picture of what it looks like, its movements, its tracks. Scientists have experiments they do in particle physics, they have whole caves built out there just designed to try to chase particles so they can track them. All through the ’70s these things were going through my head, they excited me very much.
KG To bring it back to the idea of the computer and technology, I have a little hand scanner that I use as a vacuum cleaner. I can just suck up images and suck up text and put them into my work. Like the way you scavenge the streets and suck up all that’s around you and put it into your painting.
JW This is beautiful, it is what I call the loop. Sucking in information, using technology and letting it go back and forth. It loops in and out.
KG In embrace of the world.
JW In embrace of the world. Let’s dig it. We live in a modern technological society … But in truth, I think we are in a primitive technological society. That’s where we are.
KG Primitive technological society. That’s an interesting idea. It reminds me of modern painting or modern music—perhaps jazz?
JW In John Coltrane’s music there is this phenomenon that we refer to as a sheet of sound. As a painter, I experience sound that way, light operating in a sheet … a sheet of light, a plane of light.
KG One thing I’ve always found remarkable about Coltrane’s music is the sheer amount of air and light he gives into his work.
JW He penetrates the world … the man penetrates the world. I believe in equivalency, as expressed in mathematics. My light in painting is equivalent to Coltrane’s sound. Coltrane’s music is non-linear. It’s circular. It’s not one-dimensional. Coltrane is multi-dimensional. And coming out of the ’60s, this affected my painting. When I speak of space in painting, I’m speaking in terms of multi-dimensional space. A space that is infinite in all directions. This is what I got from Coltrane.
KG Haven’t you dedicated works to friends who are musicians? There’s been a great interaction with you and music over the years.
JW Music has had a great bearing on my painting. The music is what has kept me going, even in my lowest moments. I’ve had moments of depression, especially in the late ’60s.
KG Knowing you as I do now, your spirit is so high and so generous that I can’t imagine you being plagued with depression.
JW I went through a period in the late ’60s of anxiety. I was catatonic, I was afraid to get out of bed. But the music was the thing that kept my perspective.
KG And comforted you down there.
JW And comforted me. Well, growing up in Alabama, with my strict Christian fundamentalist background, we couldn’t hear rhythm and blues in the house, because my mother wouldn’t allow it. But my oldest brother always had one or two records that he would sneak on when my mother wasn’t home.
KG Where did you grow up in Alabama?
JW In Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer, Alabama is a steel mill town, the next-largest town to Birmingham. But the music I heard then was mostly gospel. Local rhythm and blues stations, early 1950s, played rock and roll, rhythm and blues. That’s the music I grew up with.
KG Getting it on the radio.
JW Getting it on the radio. See, things were very much divided, as they are today, unfortunately. But then, the polarity was great, coming from a strict segregated society. You had a black radio station, you had a white radio station. White kids played Elvis Presley, and that whole crew of country-western sort of sounds. Black radio stations played black blues, Detroit-sound music. Early Motown.
KG But it strikes me that everybody was copping everything from everybody. The blues guys were copping country licks and the country musicians were copping blues licks. It seems to me that there might have been more interaction, or am I wrong?
JW Well, I tell you. In Alabama, growing up in the ’50s, there was a definite polarity. Definite. The word “crossover” didn’t even exist then.
KG But don’t you think it was happening? Wasn’t everybody listening to what everybody else was doing?
JW I would say yes, everybody heard the same thing. No doubt about that. Coming from the South, I maintain that there’s a certain southern sensibility. The language has that same intonation in the voice, white or black.
KG In the house that you grew up in, was there a lot of visual art?
JW My father was a coal miner. He died when I was young; my mom was a seamstress but she was a believer in education. There were books, magazines, a piano. My mother’s first husband was a sign painter, and he did some painting on the side, probably the first painting that I saw as a kid. His name was James Monroe Cross. He was also a gospel singer, one of the original founders of the Dixie Hummingbirds. And the old people in my community claimed that out of my mother grieving for this man I was a marked kid.
KG A what?
JW A marked kid. It’s a term which means that something can be transferred to another person. This man was not my father, but old people would say things to my mother like, “Anabelle, if James hadn’t died, I would have sworn you lied!” People were always pointing out that I had certain traits of his. I grew up with a painting that he did of a waterfall—I have it here. When my mom died, I requested from the rest of the family if I could have it.
KG What turned you on about it?
JW In those days, I had no idea what turned me on about that painting. Now I know that we carry ancient information in our head, in association to water. The first time we saw ourselves, the first image we saw of ourselves, was leaning over to have a drink of water. And we have carried that with us. So even today, water is an archetypal image. We carry a certain information about fluidity, translucency, transparency.
KG To me, it comes across in Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Ithaca episode, where there’s a beautiful body of writing about the properties of water. The question is, “What in water did Bloom, water-lover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?” And he says, “Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sun-dam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides … ” This is exactly what you’re talking about.
JW Exactly what I’m talking about. The first painting I saw, that painting stayed with me all my childhood.
KG I’d like to pause for a moment, with this painting, and make a metaphor of Odysseus’s journey, which Joyce used in Ulysses, around the islands surrounding Greece. In your journeys, in a sense, your wanderings, from Alabama to New York, and every summer to Crete and then back to New York, there’s a parallel between Joyce’s character, this painting (which was a forbearer for the future) and your life as somebody who travels and lives in many places.
JW And it’s carried on water.
KG It’s carried on water. As was Odysseus. It seems to me that you’re very connected to the flow of life itself, the sequence of events. You’re not fighting events as much as you’re going with things.
JW Part of that is my 1960s upbringing. I’m 54 years old, and you are …
JW That’s a considerable gap. In the ’60s, we grew up with a kind of philosophy. My generation never knew about the destination of the journey, our interest was being part of the journey. You ask somebody, “Where’s the destination?” Response: “Man, we don’t know.”
KG Well, the final destination is what, death? (laughter)
JW It wasn’t even death, because we didn’t accept that.
KG There’s a cornering of everything now, and a commodification, a tracking, and a counting, a competition and neurosis that’s based around professionalism and packaging. That goes against a lot of the type of flow that you’re talking about.
JW Well, my spirit from the ’60s was one of rebellion. We didn’t want to be packaged. You have to understand, Ken, that my generation, coming from the ‘60s, we never really arrived. It’s like we’ve been holding on to something all these years. I’m not talking from just a black perspective. White and black, everybody, it’s like we’ve never had our shot, we’ve never had our due, it’s never really resolved itself. And I’m beginning to see now, that there’s a pretty good chance that this philosophy of life—now it’s ripe for the pickings. It’s time to collect interest on that. That shit has been lying dormant all this time. I say tap into it. And I can see where it would play a role, primarily in terms of media, computers, technology.
KG When I look at the most progressive of the computer networks, it’s the Well, which is run by the people who did the Whole Earth Catalog.
I don’t know, Jack, my idea of being an artist is in step with that philosophy; you’re living for the moment, very much involved with what’s happening, it’s about living life, and it’s not about the goals, it’s more about the journey. These ideas have come to me via my parents. How did you feel during the ’80s?
JW See, the ’80s were a bad time for me as far as the commercial world was concerned. The ’80s really hit a peak of materialistic thinking. My work didn’t suffer. What happened to me in the ’80s is that I buried deeper into my mind. I got ten years of work out of the ’80s that is a solid body of work. I’m not one for knocking my head against a brick wall, so I went underground into the woodshed. But I realized that the works I was doing could not participate in the sort of thing that was going on in the ’80s.
KG Art has traditionally taken a long time to assimilate—if it ever does within an artist’s lifetime—which was absolutely not the case in the last 15 years or so, where you saw people reaping fortunes and benefits instantly.
JW When I came to New York and first met Bill de Kooning I was 19 years old, and the man was in his upper fifties before anything started truly happening for him. I know artists today that have been working 40, 50 years and nothing happens. But there’s that love there that keeps them going. But there are no guarantees in art. There’s nothing out there which says, you work 20 years, 30 years, you’re going to get this fantastic benefit. There’s no such thing.
KG You have emerged in a big way in the ’90s. Did those ten years of interior work strengthen your projects and strengthen your resolve?
JW Sure. It strengthened me spiritually, it strengthened me conceptually. Those site paintings, which were acrylic skins, came out of the early ‘80s when I first started laminating a piece of acrylic back down to the canvas. I took the paint up off the canvas and then put it back down on the canvas. This was a major breakthrough. I’m dealing now with paint as a collage, paint as sculpture. I have changed the verb “to paint”: I don’t paint a painting, I make a painting. So the verb has changed. And in doing that, I’ve broken through a lot of illusionistic qualities.
KG Dancers always talk about “making” dances. There is a physicality involved in the word make that reflects in your work. What role does the construction process play in your work?
JW Well, it’s how I made my living. And in terms of my art, my building that big platform in the ’70s, that came out of carpentry …
KG What big platform?
JW Those paintings came out of that Whitney Museum show in 1974—I built a drawing board, a heavy duty drawing board, which was 14 feet by 20 feet. I built it out of 16-inch honeycomb centers of 2 by 4, covered with 3/4 inch plywood and industrial grade linoleum. I built it to my specifications, as flat and as level and as accurate as I could get it. And all those experiments in the ’70s took place on this drawing board.
KG So you would stretch a huge piece of canvas over this?
JW Yes, I would stretch canvas right down over this thing. All those marks that you see coming out of those paintings, those are not arbitrary markings, those are set up conceptually. I developed a process of drawing where I would place things beneath the canvas, between the canvas and the board, and that way, I would get a shape to come through, that’s how I would get line and form. I was using a process of drawing where the shapes, a piece of wire or a piece of pebble is placed beneath the canvas in a very precise pattern, wedged against the board. And when that big tool I was using would come across with that much acrylic—
KG It would print, like photography—
JW It would print, you got it, it would be like a kid working with a rubbing. All I’ve done in the new works is to lift that skin of paint up off the canvas and put it back down. And that’s a revolutionary step.
KG I keep coming back to the idea of integration with you, it’s hard to separate things in your life and your attitudes and your furniture and your house. I look at these cabinets that you built, that are built with as much attention, and love, as the painting, as the music that you’re talking about. It is really remarkable, really, admirable and rare.
JW It’s very simple, Kenny. The reason for this is survival. I found out at an early date that in order for me to survive and to do what I wanted to do as an artist, first I had to establish priorities. I had to send a clear signal to people around me what I wanted to do. And I knew that I had to set up my life and a lifestyle that was totally integrated to serve this purpose. So I wouldn’t have any hassles. There’s a lot of shit out there I can’t control. I don’t fight the world. I’m in it. I’m in the world. I don’t fight it.
KG I’m wondering if it wasn’t some person who helped you bridge into this philosophy.
JW My mom, and growing up in the South in a segregated racial society. When you are raised with hate all around you, and then you got a family who teaches you love, you have people in the church who are teaching you love, you got a family network. And making an emphasis on how much hate surrounds you, you don’t have to be that way. That’s a sickness, when people hate, when people get all into this racial stuff, that’s a sickness. My mom and grandmom would quote from the Bible: “Revenge is mine, said the Lord.” You can’t go out there seeking revenge, you can’t go the hate pattern, it’s just gonna destroy you. If you get involved with that, you self-destruct.
KG It’s a very Eastern idea.
JW I very much enjoy your bringing me Ulysses, that completes a circle in my mind. I love experiences like this, my life is built on experiences of this nature. I learn primarily through revelation. And I’ve just experienced one. Even today, a lot of things in society still bother me, racial issues and so forth. I’m not pleased with what I see. I’m not. I was thinking in my little naive mind, 35, 40 years ago, that things would be much better but hey, it’s depressing, I must admit. One of the most depressing aspects of my life at this point is that society has proven me wrong. Growing up with what I grew up with in Alabama, whoa, I figured, “My God, man, another 40 years, this shit will be over with,” and it’s not, man, it’s not. Don’t kid yourself, it’s not. And when I look back and see what’s happening in Germany, to think that young people in Germany today would get involved in that kind of action. I don’t have the hope that I had. I don’t have the optimism that I had 40 years ago, that it will not repeat itself. It can repeat itself and all of us better wake up to the fact that it can repeat itself, the handwriting is on the wall. I see art as the only hope. That’s what I see. I don’t see religion, or politics.
KG You see art as something that can heal?
JW You ask me, What’s the purpose? What purpose does it serve? I’m not in art for art’s sake, or for decoration. It’s about dialogue. Romare Bearden spoke about art as a bridge. Art is the last hope.
KG Do you see, then, art as being a social experience?
JW Well, any involvement among two people is social.
KG But a lot of the time you’re alone in the studio …
JW We are alone, but the object is there. We are doing what we do now because of art. I never would have known you if it hadn’t been for art.
KG So when you send your work out to the gallery, you’re feeling that it’s a stand-in, that it’s an energy of Jack Whitten. And it’s communication even if you’re not there.
JW It communicates.
KG Did you get a lot of critical attention from your show at the Whitney Museum in ’74?
JW No, no. Black artists at that period were not getting any kind of attention. My having that show at the Whitney Museum was primarily because of Marcia Tucker, a curator at the Whitney. There was a social consciousness in ’74. The gallery at the Whitney that I used was set aside for people who did not have commercial representation, and I fit the bill.
KG It seems that stuff would have been snapped up and sold, with the museum confirming a sort of status and value of the artwork.
JW Only if you have commercial representation and you have someone who is a believer in you and the work, and is willing to promote it, is work sold. Work sold through gallery situations comes through an endorsement of the gallery/museum world with a bag of collectors to back it up. If you don’t have that kind of an interest, you can stand on your head out there for 20 years, and it won’t sell. It’s just recent, what you see, people like Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Martin Puryear, myself, David Hammons … This is recent man, very recent. We’ve had to live with this right from the beginning.
KG So why not become an artist … It’s a crapshoot, anyway—it’s like that old Dylan line, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
JW Yeah, but you see most kids coming out of the African-American community will take that line, and you know where they take it? Over into violence and criminality and drugs … It’s the other end of your coin, I’ll go the other way, I’ve got nothing to lose.
KG Coming from a ’60s experience, that whole “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” was strong. There was an idealization about dropping out. How, as an African-American, did you feel about “dropping out?” Or were you already dropped out in some sense?
JW One thing you have to remember about Jack Whitten is that I have a southern sensibility. That’s different from north, east, west, white or black. There is something instilled in you from the beginning. Where I grew up you didn’t ask for nothing. You worked for it. I remember as a kid, my uncle didn’t have any money to buy a Chevrolet. He went to the junk yard, bought a chassis, a motor; he bought some doors, he bought a frame. He made the damned thing. He took a paint brush and he painted it. He drove to work in it.
JW You understand what I’m saying to you? This is my ground. My mom, when we needed clothes and we didn’t have any money, you know what she would do? She would go to the army surplus store and buy old clothing, bring them home, take them apart seam by seam, and rebuild them. And when I hit the street, hey Kenny, I had a new pair of pants on.
KG There was this positive idea coming from your home that said you were somebody—that you could get by in the face of adverse conditions. We come back to the word make again. It brings us back to the idea of the hand.
JW This is beautiful. You see when I speak today of the processes I use in painting, when I use words like construct and deconstruct, reconstruct, I’m doing what my mom did. My mom was the first great recycler.
You know, speaking of my home, when I got out of high school, I went to Tuskegee Institute as a pre-med student, on what was called a work scholarship program … an all-black college where the African-American scientist George Washington Carver did all his experiments. His laboratory is still intact. He was also a painter. I’m convinced today that a lot of my attitudes toward painting and making, and experimentation came from George Washington Carver. He made his own pigments, his own paints, from his inventions with peanuts. The obsession with invention and discovery impressed me.
KG So what happened after Tuskegee?
JW Went down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as an art student. Stayed there for a year. Got involved with sit-down demonstrations and all the upheaval that was going on down in the South. I’m one of the people who lead a march through downtown Baton Rouge. Horrible experience … we marched to the state capital, with people throwing shit on you, piss on you, hitting you with pipes and shit, people bleeding. Horrific experience. I will never forget at the steps of the state capital building, praying, and people throwing piss out of the offices, bottles and eggs, all kinds of shit … Then I took a bus from Baton Rouge to New York City. Ended up on the Lower East Side. In 1960, beautiful artists down there; poets, writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reid … there is a community in the arts. A lot of people don’t know this. A lot of people read things in glossy magazines, they read about the exciting lives of certain artists who are making a lot of money, but they fail to point out that there is a community in the arts. I had a brother here, dying in St. Vincent. He was in a bad fire. Took him 28 days to die in intensive care. He needed blood. All I had to do was pick up the phone and people in the art world, (bangs on the table) as much blood we needed. That’s real stuff.
KG Do you find your life to be glamourous?
JW People think so. People in western society have this view of the artist, some romantic thing. We live our lives and we do what we have to. But people outside see us as some glamorous, exotic creature. I don’t see that … (laughter) I work. I do my work. I teach. Art is something we do. It’s like we have a purpose in life, being artists. That’s a position. That’s a job. So where’s the glamour? We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. People do not understand the sacrifice that artists go through to do what they have to do. If they went into the artist’s life and saw what the artist has to do on a daily basis to keep their act together …
KG Not to mention the psychic torments.
JW Which we have no way of measuring.
KG You must have a feeling of satisfaction to see that the work you have been doing all these years is now being recognized by a lot younger abstract artists.
JW It’s a confirmation. It says your intentions were right, your feelings were correct. Even though it took 20 years for it to surface, for it to complete the circle. Artists tend to remove the notion of doubt from their vocabulary. We do that for self-preservation.
KG And the future for you?
JW I’m desperately trying to erase notions of past/present/future. I’m in something that’s going back to Zen. I’m into factualism. I’m sensing time now as being compressed. I want to erase in my mind this presence of past/present/future. I want to learn to do that. I would like my being totally immersed in the act of what I’m doing. No past. No present. No future.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.