Reminiscent of the dizzying sensation brought about by staring upwards at a spectacular ceiling, Jack Whitten’s (1939-2018) magnificently encrusted Crystal Palace: For Jeanne Siegel (2014) is equally rich in tactile experience as it is in ideological symbolism. Emanating from a central focal point are rings of the artist’s hallmark “tesserae”, or tessellated squares. Distinctive in his architectural approach to acrylic paint, Whitten lifts the medium off its support, slices it into ribbons and then lays the three-dimensional strips atop a wet field of paint, a process inspired by his diligent study of ancient mosaics across Europe and North Africa. Specifically when these individual elements are laid at irregular angles, the mosaic spectacularly reflects the light it catches, playing up the amethyst, citrine and emerald jewel tones radiantly present in Crystal Palace.
…I carve light. I chisel light. I grind light. I sand light. I laminate light.”
Often used as a signal for reverential awe, the mosaic technique boasts a robust history of harnessing the power of light by upending its perception. From carefully laid floors of ancient Roman cities to the abundantly adorned religious spaces of the Byzantine empire through to painstakingly crafted Mexican skulls and contemporary installations, mosaics, whether they be of metal, gems, plaster or paint, capture the heavens and bring them to earth. Having spent a great deal of his career in Greece, Whitten immersed himself in histories like these, etching his own name into the ledger of artists keen to catch the spiritual: “…the technique I’m using in these paintings goes back to ancient mosaics, what we call direct method. The direct method used pieces of stone, marble, precious metal or glass…and the thumb of the master would set it in such a way that it would hit to govern light and reflect light….It was built to put you in the presence of God” (J. Whitten, in “Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017). Inherent to being in divine presence is the act of looking up; thus, the mosaic ceiling, represented here in Crystal Palace is the inevitable union of an aim and an act.
In looking up from Whitten’s point of view, we witness his artistic forebears and cultural idols honored in tributes across his practice. Over the years, Whitten intentionally created works in homage to a wide range of people he admired – Miles Davis, Malcolm X and his own mother included – and dedicated one of these particular series, the Black Monoliths, to African-American visionaries. Whitten strove for the soul of his subjects in these symbolic totems, avoiding physical representations and instead conceptualizing the works as gifts: “…for me abstraction is essence. What we do in abstraction is we take the whole of life and we distill it” (J. Whitten, in “Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017). The present lot distills the life of art historian Jeanne Siegel, who was instrumental in the 1980s art world, exploring central themes of contemporary art during her time, like what makes art political, the commodification of artistic production, the overarching importance of language and the increased recognition of female artists.
Never one to shy away from such critical propositions, Whitten weaves in his contemporary iteration of an age-old practice to deify the eloquent rebels, those speaking for the mute in the spheres of influence with greatest personal relevance for the artist. Whitten’s commitment is exemplified in Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, a monumental painting executed in the same year as the present work, held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and referencing the Martiniquais philosopher Édouard Glissant. In each tangible dedication, both to Siegel and Glissant, Whitten casts his sublime tokens across the surface in a defined composition that simultaneously defies logic as it adheres to it. The elements themselves shimmer with mystery, seducing the eye with the interplay between light and sight and reducing the artistic impulse to its most primal meditation: “Every painter, whether they’re abstract or figurative, has to discover that the only light they’ve got is color. I don’t care about all the other stuff that people attach to it – the politics, the social issues – O.K. In terms of contemporary thought and the world we live in, I won’t say that’s not important. But ultimately, it’s what’s in that tube of paint that matters” (J. Whitten, in “Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).