platform. Afro combs and saws were among his favored tools. As Kellie Jones has observed, the “former was a sign of African-American identity and the latter of manual labor and the construction trade in which Whitten worked when he arrived in New York.”43 Whitten also built large tools that worked like huge squeegees; as they were raked across a canvas they created large-scale abstract images in a single movement. An innovative method that stands with Pollock’s dripping, Louis’s pouring and Frankenthaler’s staining as a technique that transformed the possibilities of postwar painting, this approach was later taken up and popularized by Gerhard Richter. In 1979, Whitten made a significant change in his practice by shifting his canvases to the wall as he worked. As he told me in a recent conversation, this was “the first time I could stand upright to do a painting. It was like coming out of a salt mine.” While he still used his set of tools to striate the ground, Whitten also began introducing geometric forms into the paintings, in particular concentric circles. Thinking of telescopic gun sights and navigation techniques, Whitten understood clearly that the introduction of circular lines “wasn’t just geometry.” Along with these striated black paintings, in 1980 Whitten was also employing string and collage to produce multi-panel acrylic paintings, two of which paid tribute to Norman Lewis, who died in 1979. The painting in this show, Red, Black, Green (1980) deploys the colors of the Pan-African flag not in their usual horizontal stripe format but as three abutting blocks of color. This structure mirrors the triptych format of Whitten’s Norman Lewis paintings, while also suggesting a military ribbon. The painting invites us to speculate what it meant to evoke the theme of black power in 1980, as the liberation dreams of the 1960s seemed increasingly far away and the U.S. stood poised to elect Ronald Reagan, largely thanks to his “Southern Strategy” and coded appeals to racism. But if the concentric circles can be read as the view through an assassin’s gun sight, they can also be understood less ominously as a means to direct attention, the artist’s and the viewer’s. The title of a similar painting, Dead Reckoning (1980), which resembles a radar screen, seems to invite both interpretations. Another related work, Psychic Intersection (1979-80) suggests more metaphysical concerns. In the spring of 1980, Whitten stopped painting for three years (a fire had seriously damaged his Tribeca home and he had to put his art aside as he rebuilt it). As he emerged from this hiatus, the Studio Museum in Harlem mounted a mid-career survey “Jack Whitten: Ten Years 1970-1980.” Whitten’s paintings in the second half of the 1980s rely largely on tight, meshlike grids, sometimes broken into many fragments, out of which indistinct images seem to be emerging. Most of them are grisaille and many were painted as memorials. In 1988, Whitten wrote to a curator that he was “very much involved with the process of eliminating the known Metaphorical devices in Modern art.”44 He went on to list nine metaphors he had targeted for elimination: naturalism, sex, religion, politics, decoration, formalism, art history, ethnic stereotype and corporate aesthetic. Given this reductivist agenda, so reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt’s exhaustive proscriptions, it is surprising how visually rich and full of associations are Whitten’s 1980s paintings. I don’t think that he was trying to exclude identifiable content from his work (note that “formalism” is one of the entities he was against). Rather, he wanted to ground his work ever more in the physicality of his materials. Whitten’s intention, as he said to me in a 2012 studio visit, was to “make it rather than paint it.” Perhaps painting, at its best, is always about the charged dialogue (which sometimes breaks out into open warfare) between making it and painting it, between materiality and image. It was by opening themselves up to all the contradictory conditions of their medium, and rethinking all its established categories, that the painters in this exhibition discovered new territory for abstraction, in the 1980s and beyond.
Text by Raphael Rubinstein