More than anything in the world, the late African-American artist Jack Whitten wanted to protect the people he loved. So, using his talent and his decades of carpentry and wood-carving experience, Whitten set out to fashion tools he thought might do the job.
Though Whitten already had a formidable reputation as a painter, his canvases seemed somehow not suited to that task.
In the early 1960s, Whitten began carving sculptures — guardian sculptures designed with specific beneficiaries in mind, and container sculptures stuffed with objects invested with spiritual powers that functioned similar to Catholic reliquaries holding the bones and blood of martyred saints.
Occasionally, Whitten fashioned weapons. A Z-shaped wooden thunderbolt is studded with nails and fit to be hurled from a mountaintop by a god. There’s also a block of charred wood embedded with a shining marble blade that stands as tall as an adult man. And to imbue his sculptures with maximum power, Whitten melded two ancient traditions close to his heart: from Africa, where his ancestors were born, and from the Grecian island of Crete, where for nearly 50 years he and his wife spent summers.
Unlike his paintings, which were meant to be seen by as many people as possible, the sculptures were private, and for many years, Whitten didn’t want them shown.
That’s why “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017” the new ticketed exhibition opening Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has been generating a certain amount of art world buzz. Whitten died Jan. 20 at age 78; though his paintings have previously been explored in solo shows at important museums, this is the first exhibit to showcase 40 sculptures that the artist created over half a century.
In addition to Whitten’s three-dimensional pieces, the show includes his Black Monoliths series of paintings honoring African-American leaders. There’s also a selection of ancient works that inspired the artist, from centuries-old carved African figures owned by the BMA to ancient Greek artifacts on loan from the Walters Art Museum. After “Odyssey” leaves Baltimore, it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which co-sponsored this show), where it will be on view from Sept. 6 through Dec. 2.
“I learned so much from Jack,” said curator Katy Siegel, who has spent the last four years editing a collection of Whitten’s writings.
“The biggest lesson I learned is that we ask too little from modern art. We ask it to look pretty and to be smart and to speak to a very narrow audience. Jack wanted his art to do things in the world: to protect his loved ones, to memorialize his ancestors, to create hope and to make an image of the future.”
For instance, “The Afro American Thunderbolt” is a hunk of black mulberry that’s two feet long, faced by a copper plate and studded with dozens of bent and twisted nails. It’s an imposing piece in which Whitten took a symbol from Greek mythology and modeled it after 19th-century power figures crafted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the nails don’t merely make the thunderbolt appear fearsome; they have a practical function.
“Driving the nails into these sculptures,” said Kevin Tervala, the museum’s Associate Curator of African Art, “releases their energy.”
Similarly, “Pluto” implants an imposing white marble blade that’s three-and-a-half feet long into a charred block of mulberry, oak and lead. Whitten asked a friend to make him a leather hood that covers part of the sculpture when it travels — an idea the artist borrowed from the medieval practice of using trained hawks to hunt for game.
“It’s like putting a hood on a falcon to keep it calm and quiet,” Siegel said. “When the sculpture travels, the blade comes out and the hood goes on. For Jack, these sculptures were living beings.”
She laughed, adding that Whitten tended to think of himself as a mythic figure. The paintings were his way of staking a claim on art history, with visual clues that amount to Whitten’s comments upon artworks by such leading 20th-century masters as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Gerhard Richter.
“Jack was rewriting the history of modern art over the past 50 years,” Siegel said.
The sculptures were a different matter.
They contain references to his childhood outside segregated Birmingham, Ala.; two jug heads in the first gallery have stereotyped African facial features and are covered with black shoe polish. Siegel noted that young Whitten’s grownup neighbors put great emphasis on shoe-shining and presenting a polished appearance as a way of deflecting criticism from white people.
At the time, Alabama’s art museums denied entrance to African-Americans — even to siblings as gifted as Whitten and his younger brother, Bill. (Bill Whitten became a fashion designer, and for much of the brothers’ lives, it seemed that he would have the more illustrious career. Among his other accomplishments, Bill Whitten created the rhinestone glove that Michael Jackson wore in “Thriller.”)
The sculptures in part are a response to the racism Whitten experienced as a young man participating in the civil rights movement. Whitten, then a student at Southern University, helped organize the 1960 march in Baton Rouge, La. When the peaceful protesters were met with violence, it was a pivotal moment in the artist’s life.
“There’s something about spilled blood that will change you forever,” Whitten wrote in an autobiographical chronology that’s included in the exhibition catalog. “I knew I had to leave the South because I would be killed or I would end up killing somebody. I threw everything I had into the lake at Southern University and took a Greyhound bus from New Orleans to New York.”
After Jack Whitten died, prominent critics noted in obituaries that the artist hadn’t received the widespread acclaim he deserved until relatively late in his career. (He was awarded a 2015 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.)
The sculptures reflect Whitten’s visits to Crete with his Greek-American wife, Mary, which began in 1969, and the building in Manhattan that the couple purchased in 1980 and spent three years renovating.
It was from the window in this studio that Whitten watched the Twin Towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001. He later created a painting called “9-11-01” that attempted to capture, as he wrote, “the tragedy of people jumping from the towers, the panic and destruction that followed.” (That artwork now hangs in the BMA, but is not part of the exhibit.)
And it was through making sculptures that Whitten refined his ideas about painting, Siegel said.
The exhibit culminates with a series of hauntingly beautiful paintings from Whitten’s “Black Monoliths” series that pays homage to such seminal African-American figures as the wrestler Muhammad Ali, the author James Baldwin and the musician Ornette Coleman. But, as the exhibition labels indicate, it could almost be argued that the canvases were more sculpted than painted.
“Instead of using a brush,” Siegel said, “Jack made mosaic tiles out of acrylic paint.”
He poured the paint into bottle caps and other molds, let the paint dry, cut and sanded it, and glued the tiles onto the canvas. On “Black Monolith VIII (For Maya Angelou)” viewers will notice that the circle in the center of the painting is studded with tiles on which several tiny faces have been carved. This, then, is a portrait of a woman whose poetry contained multitudes.
Whitten made sculptures to safeguard the people he loved, so it seems fitting that he would also create a series of paintings that memorialized the power figures in his own life. “These heroes,” as he called them, overcame the odds with their wisdom, passion and determination. Creating these paintings was a way of conjuring up their spirits.
They were there for him when he needed help the most.
If you go
"Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2017” runs through July 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr. Tickets cost $7 to $10 and can be bought by calling 443-573-1701. Details can be found at artbma.org.