Jack Whitten, an artist who began as an Abstract Expressionist but pushed that genre to new places and explored many others in a long career, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 78.
The cause was complications of chronic leukemia, said Andrea Schwan, a publicist speaking for his family. She said he died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Mr. Whitten, a black man who grew up in the South as the civil rights movement was gaining steam there, brought those experiences and sensibilities north when he came to New York in 1959. They are evident in many of his works, including a series he called “Black Monoliths” honoring figures like Ralph Ellison and Muhammad Ali.
Yet Mr. Whitten, whose work has been featured in numerous gallery and museum shows, did not want to be overly bound by race.
“I sincerely believe that in the black community of artists, especially those of us dealing with abstraction, art has to go beyond the general notions of race, gender, nationalism,” he told Art in America magazine in 2013. “Things have evolved to the degree where there is a possibility of a new sensibility out there. We’re into a global aesthetic here, and anyone that doesn’t see that has a real old-fashioned way of thinking.”
That curious and all-embracing spirit led him to create works on subjects as diverse as quantum physics and the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. It also led him to experiment with different ways to use paint, and even occasionally to try other art forms. In April the Baltimore Museum of Art is scheduled to open an exhibition featuring 40 sculptures he made, beginning in 1963.
Mr. Whitten was born on Dec. 5, 1939, in Bessemer, Ala., near Birmingham. His father, Mose, was a coal miner who died when Jack was young. His mother, Annie B. Cunningham, was a seamstress and, as Mr. Whitten put it in a 1994 interview with Bomb magazine, “a believer in education”; she later opened a private kindergarten.
Mr. Whitten attended Tuskegee University in Alabama and briefly met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 when Mr. Whitten went to hear him speak in Birmingham. After he transferred to Southern University in Louisiana, he said, he joined student civil rights protests, trying to practice Dr. King’s precepts of nonviolence, but a march on the state Capitol was a personal turning point.
“We made it all the way to the state Capitol building as they were hitting us with sticks,” he told the arts journal The Brooklyn Rail in an interview last year. “I did it then, but I made a vow I would never put myself in that position again. That march is what drove me out of the South. I took a Greyhound bus to New York City.”
He studied art at the Cooper Union from 1960 to 1964, falling in with the Abstract Expressionists of the day. Willem de Kooning was a particular influence and mentor.
“I came in one night after a horrific critique when one of my professors put me down for concentrating too much on process,” Mr. Whitten recalled in a 2013 interview with The Boston Globe. “That was not a word used much then, in 1961. He said I accepted too many accidents. I spoke to de Kooning, and he said to me, ‘There’s no such thing as accidents in painting!’ That was very helpful to me.”
As the 1960s advanced, Mr. Whitten began venturing into different ways to paint, trying to avoid the pop trends of the decade.
“Anybody with any sense from my generation who was serious about painting by the late ’60s had to realize that the psychedelic was a perpetual dog chasing its tail,” he said in a 2007 interview with The Brooklyn Rail. “And in our way, we had to invent our way of making paintings.”
He became interested in process art, which espouses the idea that the making of a work is as vital as the end product. In 1970, he and three other artists received grants from the Xerox Corporation, which invited them to experiment with its equipment and work with its engineers.
And Mr. Whitten moved beyond the paintbrush, creating art by dragging paint across a canvas with a squeegee, an Afro comb or a large rakelike tool he had made. He began to attract attention.
“What Mr. Whitten does is to rake across a richly prepared paint substance with a 12-foot-wide instrument of his own devising,” John Russell wrote in The New York Times in 1974, describing an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “It is, as he says himself, a gambling situation, and sometimes the gamble doesn’t come off; but in the best pictures the immediacy is captured intact.”
Over the years Mr. Whitten worked in paint so heavily layered that he could, and did, cut slices out of it. He made a sort of tile from paint compounds, applying the result to canvas for a mosaic effect. On the Greek island of Crete, where he spent many summers, he began making the sculptures that will be the focus of the Baltimore exhibition.
Mr. Whitten sometimes responded to the events of the day with artwork. One such event was the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, which Mr. Whitten witnessed at close range, from his studio on Lispenard Street in TriBeCa.
“When it hit,” he said of the first plane, “the first thing you saw was this big crystal burst; before you saw any smoke, before you saw any flame, the sky was just filled with crystal glass.”
He produced from that experience the painting “9-11-01” in 2006.
Mr. Whitten, who at his death lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, was divorced from his first wife, Florence Squires. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Staikos, whom he married in 1968; two daughters, Mirsini Alexandra Amidon and Keita A. Whitten; two brothers, James M. Cross and Jesse Whitten; and two grandsons.
Among the many exhibitions centered on Mr. Whitten was a show at Alexander Gray Associates in Chelsea in 2013.
“With a career grazing the 50-year mark,” Holland Cotter wrote of that exhibition in The Times, “Jack Whitten is still making work that looks like no one else’s, which is saying something, given the flood of abstract painting in New York in the past few years.
“He invented new forms of abstraction and standards of beauty to match them. Even more to his credit, he’s still restless enough to make every picture a complex one-off formal event. And he’s stayed invested enough in art as an intimate medium to make those events personal.”
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