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Jack Whitten’s Sculpture Show Uncovers his Secret Strengths (& the Met Breuer’s Hidden Weakness) CORRECTED

As an admirer of the late Jack Whitten‘s paintings, I welcomed the chance to see his little-known, previously unexhibited wood sculptures and mixed-media assemblages now on view in the Met Breuer’s Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017. But the considerable pleasures to be derived from this admirable show were partly undermined by its subtle but substantive commercial overtones.

My previous happy encounters with Whitten’s work included this Richter-esque painting, acquired by the Whitney Museum in 2015, in time for the opening of its new downtown facility:

Jack Whitten, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” 1974
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I wended my way through the Met Breuer show, it hit me that the vast majority of the sculptures carried the same credit line—Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth—including this signature work, dedicated to black-power progenitor Malcolm X:

Foreground: “Homage to Malcolm,” 1965
Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Not only is this display a valuable contribution to our knowledge about the artist, but it’s also a potential goldmine for the artists’ heirs and the international mega-dealer representing them. It’s probably also conveniently cost-effective for the Met: With so much of this exhibition sourced through a single gallery, it was probably relatively easy and inexpensive to mount—no small consideration, given the recent revelations about the Met Breuer’s fragile finances and the Met’s desire to offload some of the costs of leasing the building from the Whitney Museum (by subleasing the space to the Frick Collection).

In what’s becoming a popular museum exhibition strategy (particularly at the Met Breuer), the show puts Whitten’s art in the context of historic African and Mediterranean works from Met’s own collection. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA’s) earlier version of the show relied for some cross-cultural juxtapositions on the historic holdings of another institution from its home city—the Walters Art Museum.

Whitten, who was “closely involved in planning the exhibition and catalogue from the beginning” (in the words of a Met spokesperson), died unexpectedly in January at the age of 78, making “Odyssey,” sadly, a memorial show when it opened in April at the BMA. Works that were previously to have been loaned by the artist now had to be borrowed from his estate via its dealer.

Whitten had deliberately kept his sculptures off the market and out of the public eye, regarding them as vehicles for experimentation and private enjoyment. The show’s curators hadn’t laid eyes on them until 2016. Met curator Kelly Baum (who co-curated with the BMA’s Katy Siegel) assured me at the press preview that “nothing will be sold out of the show.” But she also acknowledged that after the Dec. 2 closing date, “any work of art that’s not in a museum collection can be sold”…with the value-added imprimatur of the Met and of critics who have favorably reviewed the show.

Kelly Baum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A New York spokesperson for Hauser & Wirth, which has represented Whitten since 2016, told me that there are currently “no plans whatsoever to exhibit [at the gallery] or sell the Whitten sculptures.” She acknowledged that “the family has not yet decided whether the sculptures will be made available for sale in the future.” At present, though, “the gallery has nothing from the estate available” for sale. That said, its work for the estate will, of course, “include sales of his work,” according to the spokesperson.

Providing some relief from the “Hauser & Wirth” drumbeat on the sculpture labels were paintings from other lenders, including museums. This monumental, eight-panel painting is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art:

“Atopolis: For Edouard Glissant,” 2014
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This map-like work brought to my mind the architectural riffs of Julie Mehretu. (The Met’s label says it “resembles an aerial view of a landmass.”)

Here’s a detail showing “Atopolis‘s” mosaic tessarae (acrylic tiles that Whitten cut and polished by hand), giving a sculptural texture not only to this painting but also to many others in the show:

A painting loaned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art brought to my mind the Gee’s Bend quilts in the recent History Refused to Die exhibition at the Met’s flagship Fifth Avenue building. Unbeknownst to me (until a CultureGrrl reader spotted this), the Met’s Twitter feed had captured me raptly gazing at one of those quilts during that show’s press preview:

Photo from the Metropolitan Museum’s Twitter feed

The resonance of the subtle San Francisco painting with the vibrant Gee’s Bend quilts had more to do with how they were made than what they looked like:

“Bessemer Dreamer,” 1986, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to the label for SFMOMA’s painting, it embodies what Whitten (born not far from Gee’s Bend) called a “Southern sensibility”:

Here he pays homage to Bessemer, the town in central Alabama where he was born. More collage than painting, the work combines scraps of denim with independent fragments of dried acrylic paint bearing the texture and shape of found objects. The denim possibly alludes to Whitten’s mother,…who took apart old clothes and made new ones for her children.

This less alluring, more minimalist work hails from the Met’s own collection:

“Delta Group II,” 1975, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Surprisingly missing from the Met’s show was this work, a very recent acquisition of “Odyssey’s” co-organizer:

Jack Whitten, “9.11.01.” 2006, Baltimore Museum of Art

As I wrote here, this commemorative painting, which particularly resonates with New Yorkers who lived through the 9/11 attack, is described by the BMA as “incorporat[ing] bone fragments and blood, sourced from a butcher shop, as well as ash and molten materials from the site of the [World Trade Center] tragedy [which Whitten witnessed from his studio] into a composition that includes a pyramid that memorializes the dead.” In an interview with artnet‘s Julia Halperin, Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director, had described it as “the most significant acquisition I’ll ever make for a museum.” Would that we had gotten a chance to see it in the city that inspired it.

The show did give us the opportunity to see Whitten’s entire “Black Monoliths” series—11 abstract portraits of important African Americans, brought together for the first time from scattered owners, including three museums—the Brooklyn Museum (“Black Monolith II [For Ralph Ellison],” 1994; Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum (“Black Monolith VIII [For Maya Angelou],” 2015; and the newly expanded Glenstone Museum and sculpture park, the Potomac, MD, home of the collection of Emily and Mitch Rales, from which two Whittens will be absent (because of their sojourn at the Met) when its new Thomas Phifer-designed facility opens to the public on Oct. 4:

On loan from Glenstone is the first of the “Monoliths”…

“Black Monolith I (A Tribute to James Baldwin),” 1988,
Glenstone Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and the last in the series:

“Black Monolith XI (Six Kinky Strings for Chuck Berry),” 2017, Glenstone Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Whereas the Met interspersed the “Monoliths” throughout its show, Baltimore gathered them in a single gallery, which I suspect may have intensified the energy they emit.

What’s obvious from my images throughout this post is that Whitten worked in a wide range of styles. Baum suggested at the press preview that his concealment of his sculptural output may have, in part, stemmed from his desire to have his oeuvre accepted by artworld arbiters. In his personal log, he mentioned having “received some favorable feedback” from Clement Greenberg, the powerful critic, whom Whitten had invited to view his first one-person show in 1968 at Allan Stone‘s gallery.

He seemed to be channeling Brancusi here…

“Lucy” (named for the fossilized 3.18-million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor), 2011
Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and maybe Max Ernst here:

“Diavolaki” (“Little Devil” in Greek”), 1975-76
Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Truth be told, the sculptures in “Odyssey” are uneven in quality, as might be expected of provisional, personal works that weren’t created for public perusal. Pride of place goes to the powerful “Malcolm,” seen (in my third photo, above) in telling juxtaposition with the Met’s own 19th-century Male Power Figure (at the right in that photo):

Male Power Figure (Nkisi), Kongo Peoples, 19th-century, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On the left in my “Malcolm” photo is another of the “Monoliths”—“Black Monolith III For Barbara Jordan,” 1998, from the Mott-Warsh Collection.

Of the many pieces with spiritual, ancestral resonance, a particularly haunting example is this hanging reliquary for fish bones, intended to evoke both the lynching of African Americans and the destruction of fishing in the Cretan village where Whitten and his wife Mary, a Greek American, summered for decades (hence the exhibition’s Greek-inflected title, “Odyssey,” alluding to his geographical, artistic and spiritual journeys):

“The Death of Fishing,” 2007
Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Detail of “The Death of Fishing”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Whitten’s whimsical agglomerations are chaotic and clunky, as in this gawky late work, with its tall, thin marble fin and an antiquated cell phone:

“Quantum Man (The Sixth Portal),” 2016
Collection of the Estate of Jack Whitten, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

 

Detail: “Quantum Man”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the show’s biggest liability is its faintly commercial aura: When I asked Ken Weine, the Met’s chief communications officer, whether Hauser & Wirth had provided financial support for “Odyssey” (a show that could easily jumpstart a market in Whitten sculptures), he replied: “The opening reception was supported by the gallery, which is common in the industry.” However, he didn’t address my specific question as to whether any support had also been provided by the gallery for shipping, insurance, catalogue production, or other costs or services (a “pay-to-play” scenario). I asked the same funding question of Hauser & Wirth, with no reply.

There appears to be a strong possibility that the public debut of Whitten’s sculptures, “Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth,” will morph into a presale exhibition, as infamously happened with the Met’s 1973 show of 35 paintings by Alma-Tadema from the Allen Funt Collection (and, more recently, with two works loaned by dealer Richard Feigen, sold soon after the Met had shown them).

The Met and Max Hollein, its new director, should explicitly reaffirm the museum’s traditional policy of not mounting single-owner shows, no matter how worthy, unless those works are promised to a museum (preferably to the Met). And if a show is worth mounting, the museum should find a way to fund it (as may have happened with “Odyssey”), without relying on support from the owners, artists or their representatives.

Otherwise, museums may place financial exigencies above curatorial priorities in deciding which works to show.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post had mistakenly identified as a Whitten self-portrait the painting below, photographed by me last February at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

This is, in fact, a self-portrait by James Porter:

James Porter, “Self-Portrait,” ca. 1935, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Whitten self-portrait at the NMAAHC was this abstract composition:

“Self-Portrait,” 1989, on loan to NMAAHC from Collection of Eric Collins

My deep apologies for misunderstanding which wall label applied to which work.

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