Abstraction is that which goes against naturalism. I like that… All of these years I have learned how to create matter. Now, I must learn how to dematerialize the matter which I have created. If I can do this, I will be able to see through life. — Jack Whitten*
Although the art writer and professor Richard Shiff didn’t meet Jack Whitten until 2014—three years before the artist’s death—the personal encounter proved critical to both Shiff’s practice and our understanding of Whitten’s work. Over the past decade, with imaginative lucidity grounded in deep admiration for his subject, Shiff has written or contributed to a number of publications devoted to Whitten.**
JACK WHITTEN: COSMIC SOUL, published this year by Hauser & Wirth, is a culmination of sorts. Featuring 129 full-color plates of Whitten’s work ranging from the 1960s to the end of his life, the volume brings to lively detail many examples of his layered mosaic-like acrylic-on-canvas works. Including new writing—the essay “Soul Space” and “Introduction, to Jack”—as well as revisions of three of Shiff’s previously published texts, COSMIC SOUL is a comprehensive reader and guide for Whitten’s many followers around the world and a beautiful introduction for those as yet unfamiliar with the artist and his œuvre.
When I first saw [Whitten’s Bar Code II,] Lateral Shift, which was hanging in the kitchen of Whitten’s studio, I thought that I was perceiving “space” for the first time. This was a space different from that of modern painting, whether representational or abstract. Whitten’s “space” needs a new word… [He] occasionally referred to a “soul space”… and he used the term to title paintings that connote scans of environments of wave activity. As a designation, soul space is novel, and perhaps it fills the verbal gap without implying more precision than language can provide. Words, understood through other words, do no more than approximate. — Richard Shiff***
Currently at Dia: Beacon in upstate New York, JACK WHITTEN: THE GREEK ALPHABET PAINTINGS is the first exhibition to showcase this 1975–1978 series. Breaking free from an expressionist paintbrush practice to enact a form of tracing, Whitten employed combing, frottage, and imprinting techniques on canvases placed atop a surface strewn with cords and wires. In 2023, Dia will publish an exhibition catalog from the show edited by Donna De Salvo, Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, and Deirdre O’Dwyer, with essays by Greg Bordowitz, De Salvo, Guidelli-Guidi, Courtney J. Martin, and Fred Moten, and documentation from Whitten’s personal archive.
See links below for details.
Essays and introduction by Richard Shiff
Designed by Rita Jules and Miko McGinty Inc.
Published by Michaela Unterdörfer
Hauser & Wirth, New York, 2022
Curated by Donna De Salvo and Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, with Zuna Maza
Through July 10
3 Beekman Street, Beacon
*Jack Whitten, studio notes November 26 and 28, 2012, in Notes from the Woodshed, edited by Katy Siegel (New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2022), 413–414. Texts © Jack Whitten Estate.
**See Richard Shiff, More Dimensions Than You Know: Jack Whitten, Paintings 1979–1989 (New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2017); Katy Siegel, ed., Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 (New York: Gregory R. Miller; Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2018); and “I Am the Object,” Hauser & Wirth New York exhibition brochure, 2020.
***Richard Shiff, “Soul Space,” in Jack Whitten: Cosmic Soul (New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2022), 303. Text © Richard Shiff.
Also see “In Conversation: Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017; and “In Conversation: Fred Moten and Legacy Russell,” Hauser & Wirth, January 19, 2021.
Jack Whitten, from top: Windows Of The Mind: A Monument Dedicated To The Power Of Painting!, 1995, photograph by Dan Bradica; Richard Shiff, Jack Whitten: Cosmic Soul (2022), cover spread, image courtesy and © Hauser & Wirth Publishers; JuJu Bundle #4, 2014, acrylic on plywood; Escalation II (x^2 + y^2 = 1) For Alexander Grothendieck, 2014, acrylic on canvas, photograph by John Berens; Eta Group IV, 1976, from Whitten’s Greek Alphabet series; Jack Whitten, 2014, photograph by Elfie Semotan, courtesy Hauser & Wirth; Vibrations For Milt “Bags” Jackson, 1999, acrylic on canvas, photograph by Berens; Black Monolith III, For Barbara Jordan, 1998, acrylic on canvas, photograph by Berens; Richard Shiff, Jack Whitten: Cosmic Soul (2022), page layout featuring detail of Whitten’s The Predominance of Tan, Black, and Blue: The Duke of Ellington’s Centennial Celebration, 1999, photograph by Jeff McLane, publication image courtesy and © Hauser & Wirth Publishers. All art images © Jack Whitten Estate, courtesy the estate and Hauser & Wirth.