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Press release

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017

Jack Whitten

Exhibition Dates:  September 6–December 2, 2018
Exhibition Location:  The Met Breuer, Floor 3

On view at The Met Breuer from September 6 through December 2, 2018, Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 will present the extraordinary and previously unknown sculptures of acclaimed American artist Jack Whitten (1939–2018), who has long been  celebrated for his work as an innovative abstract painter. Featuring 40 sculptures and 18 of his most notable paintings, Odyssey will be the first exhibition in New York City to span the entirety of Whitten’s career and the first time in 36 years that Whitten has enjoyed a monographic exhibition at a New York City museum. Ultimately, Odyssey will not only rewrite the history of a canonical artist whose oeuvre has yet to be fully explored; it will also showcase an exciting, alternative to mainstream modernism and expand our understanding of the aesthetic vocabularies favored by artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

"This exhibition presents a thrilling opportunity to experience an important and virtually unknown component of Jack Whitten's work," commented Max Hollein, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Having his seminal sculptures and paintings here is also something of a homecoming—New York City and The Met were great sources of inspiration throughout the artist’s long and productive career. Our installation is a special tribute to Whitten‘s outstanding work and its interaction with the art of the past." 

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

It is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Baltimore Museum of Art.

“With this exhibition, we are given the unique opportunity to view the African, Cycladic, and Minoan works which inspired Whitten, alongside his own interpretations,” added Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art, “and that is one of the many reasons that Odyssey: Jack Whitten lies at the very heart of The Met Breuer’s vision. In embarking on his voyage of exploration, the artist himself thought deeply about how best to approach history’s complex entanglements in each of his works, a process complemented here by The Met’s ability to combine art and expertise from many corners of the earth across humankind’s history to cast new light on this extraordinary artistic project.”

Whitten’s sculptures, which he first created in New York and later at his home on Crete, where he began to summer in 1969, consist of carved and sometimes charred wood, often in combination with found materials sourced from his local environment, including bone, marble, paper, glass, nails, and fishing line. Representing a radical break from the assemblages most often associated with the 1960s and 1970s, Whitten’s sculptures are of roughly five types—jugs, totems, guardians, reliquaries, and swords, many of which serve a ritualistic or commemorative function. Inspired by art historical sources rooted in Africa, the ancient Mediterranean, and the Southern United States, Whitten’s sculptures address themes of place, memory, family, and migration. They also give expression to a transnational, cosmopolitan perspective—one that reflects the geography of Whitten’s life and of the African diaspora as a whole.

Among the 18 paintings in the exhibition will be Whitten’s entire Black Monolith series (1988–2017), displayed together as a group for the first time. Named for a rocky outcropping visible from his studio on Crete, the Black Monolith paintings are composed of acrylic tesserae that Whitten painstakingly assembled by hand. Each work in the series honors a leader in the world of black music, art, literature, and politics, from James Baldwin and Jacob Lawrence to Maya Angelou and Chuck Berry. Whitten’s monument to postcolonial poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014), will also be on view, along with Bessemer Dreamer (1986), a poignant ode to the artist’s place of birth (Bessemer, Alabama) and The Met’s own Delta Group II (1975), acquired the year it was made. These and other paintings in the exhibition illuminate the technical, conceptual, and thematic parallels between Whitten’s work in two  and three dimensions, unifying his practice across media.

Reflecting a cross-disciplinary, trans-historical profile in perfect keeping with Whitten’s sensibility as an artist, Odyssey will also feature 16 objects from The Met’s collection of African, Greek, and American art, including an early Cycladic figure (2700–2600 B.C.), a Mycenean krater embellished with octopi (13th century), a Kongo Power Figure (Nkisi) (19th century), an Okpoto mask encrusted with resin and seeds (19th­–20th century), and a rare ceramic face vessel (ca. 1845–55) produced by an unknown slave in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Integrated throughout the exhibition, these works will reconstruct Whitten’s art historical debts, serving as potent reminders of the long, rich histories out of which contemporary art arises. From the beginning of his career, The Met was a key resource for Whitten. The Museum was one of the first places he encountered African art, and it was his introduction to African art, in turn, that prompted him to begin carving wood and to create some of the very sculptures featured in the exhibition.

About Jack Whitten

Born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, Whitten passed away in January 2018. He studied at Alabama’s Tuskegee University as well as Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the late 1950s. In 1960, he fled the Jim Crow South for New York, enrolling in The Cooper Union, from which he graduated in 1964 and at which he taught from 1971 to 1997, first as a visiting artist and later as professor. As he was developing the innovative painting techniques for which he is best known today, Whitten began to study African art, visiting not only the collections of The Met and the Brooklyn Museum but also of his first dealer, Allan Stone. In 1962, he began to carve wood, seeking advice from faculty member Leo Amino, fellow student Christopher Wilmarth, and friend Jeffrey Waite. In the 1960s, he befriended African American artists living uptown, such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, as well as white artists based downtown, including Philip Guston and Barnet Newman. Both of these communities jointly influenced his approach to art. An important breakthrough in his sculptural practice occurred in 1969, when Whitten traveled to Crete for the first time with his Greek American wife, Mary (Staikos) Whitten. Later, in the mid-1980s, he built a summer home in the village of Agia Galini, where he produced the bulk of his sculptures. In keeping with the expanded geographic network in which he worked, Whitten’s vocabulary grew to include references to the art of the ancient Mediterranean, especially Minoan and Cycladic cultures. Just as Whitten’s sculptures incorporate local materials, so too do they recognize the places where they were made and pay homage to his family, ancestors, and personal pantheon of heroes, such as Malcolm X. Taken as a whole, his sculptures are formal and technical masterpieces, rich in historical, philosophical, and spiritual content. Whitten received many honors during his lifetime, including the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015.

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 is curated by Kelly Baum, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Katy Siegel, Senior Programming and Research Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Thaw Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University. The Met’s presentation is assisted by Meredith Brown, Research Associate in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue that includes essays by curators Kelly Baum and Katy Siegel as well as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Kellie Jones, and Richard Shiff; an interview with Whitten conducted by Courtney J. Martin; and object entries by Aleesa Alexander, Meredith A. Brown, and Karli Wurzelbacher .

The exhibition will be accompanied by an Audio Guide in which Jack Whitten discusses his artistic process and the inspiration behind select sculptures and paintings in excerpts from two interviews, including one recorded in December 2017.

The Audio Guide is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.


Programs and events will include a dedicated Teen Studio on Saturday, September 22, and Family Tours on Saturday, November 10 and Sunday, November 11 (2-3 pm). MetFridays programs include Reflections on Jack Whitten that will bring together renowned artists and scholars as they reflect on the life and work of Jack Whitten (September 21, 6:30-7:30 pm); “Conversations with…” will explore where Whitten drew inspiration from Greek and African objects with Kelly Baum, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art; Seán Hemingway, John A. and Carole O. Moran Acting Curator in Charge, Greek and Roman Art; and Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; and The Legacy of Jack Whitten, which will invite artists Julie Mehretu, Odili Donald Odita, and Adam Pendleton to discuss the influence of Whitten's practice (October 19, 6:30-7:30 pm).

Education programs are made possible by DELAHUNTY Ltd and Oliver Tarlow.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum's website, as well on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #JackWhitten and #MetBreuer.


September 4, 2018

Image: Jack Whitten. The Tomb of Socrates, 2009. Wild cypress, black mulberry, marble, brass, mixed media. Collection of the Artist's Estate © The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy The Estate of Jack Whitten and Hauser & Wirth

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