JACK WHITTEN (1939-2018)
JACK WHITTEN (1939-2018)
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JACK WHITTEN (1939-2018)

Cultural Shift (Let's Celebrate Lena Horne) A.K.A. The Lena Horne Jubilee

JACK WHITTEN (1939-2018)
Cultural Shift (Let's Celebrate Lena Horne) A.K.A. The Lena Horne Jubilee
acrylic and Styrofoam plates on canvas
48 1⁄8 x 82 1⁄8 in. (122.3 x 208.6 cm.)
Executed in 2010.
Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2012
Antwerp, Zeno X Gallery, Jack Whitten, March-May 2011.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, August 2014-January 2016, p. 162 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Composed of a glimmering and magnificently encrusted mosaic, Jack Whitten’s (1939-2018) Cultural Shift celebrates the life of the famed actress, singer, and activist Lena Horne. 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. Whitten, who once remarked “I chisel light. I grind light. I sand light. I laminate light,” bends the natural element to his will in Cultural Shift (J. Whitten, in “Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,” The Brooklyn Rail, February 2017). From carefully laid floors of ancient Roman cities to the abundantly adorned religious spaces of the Byzantine empire through 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, echoing centuries of art history and civilization.
Whitten first began working in the mosaic style exhibited in the present example in the 1980s. Experimenting with how to extend the abstract gesture beyond just the traversal of paint from brush to canvas, he started treating the paint as a sculptural object or a building block. Channeling the spontaneous physicality of Jackson Pollock’s action painting, Whitten initially created marbled paint tiles by freezing sheets of paint and breaking them with a hammer. In later years the artist cast layers of paint on resin sheets, slicing the dried paint into orderly squares. He then affixed the paint squares to each canvas with more acrylic paint. In doing so, Whitten “broke down the paint to remake the painting. Construct, deconstruct, reconstruct. This three-part sequence is a mantra of sorts for Whitten” (K. Kanjo, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego, 2015, p. 34). The manual and meditative process of deconstructing and reconstructing paint appealed to Whitten, who worked alongside carpenter and philosopher Jeff Waite on a variety of physical projects.
Since the early 2000s, Whitten has frequently incorporated larger solid paint structures, formed in the shape of everyday objects of personal significance. The artist referred to these casts as “ready nows”, referencing the readymade movement that enticed artists from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol. In the present work, acrylic casts of bottles and plastic containers comprise circular floral formations. Cast in iridescent tones of green, red, and yellow, the ready nows emerge from the surface of the canvas like an archipelago. Cultural Shift’s acrylic forms predate the artist’s 2011 work Apps for Obama, which utilized similar ready now “apps” to comment on the rise in technology and its impact on political norms.
Looking 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. The present work commemorates Lena Horne, an African American singer and actress who broke racial barriers in the 1940s and 50s. Horne began her career as a dancer at the Harlem-based Cotton Club. By age 17, she had snagged chorus roles on Broadway. Horne toured with the all-white Charlie Barnet Orchestra in 1940, becoming one of the first African American musicians to break the color line in the United States. She continued to influence American politics by refusing to perform at segregated military venues during World War Two.
Inscribed “(LET'S CELEBRATE LENA HORNE) (A.K.A. THE LENA HORNE JUBILEE),” Cultural Shift honors Horne’s dynamic, larger-than-life stardom. Marbled paint tiles glimmer under the light. Progressing through the work, tiles’ shades shift from rich obsidian to gray and alabaster white, channeling the fluid the movement of a spotlight onstage. Against this varied background, colorful ready nows shine like precious jewels. Commenting on Cultural Shift for the Walker Arts Center, Emily Sortor notes “in Whitten’s piece, Horne’s role in shifting views of African American femininity is mirrored by a shift in the role of the medium in establishing the figure/ground relationship. …He uses his acrylic ‘tiles’ for the ground, and the more three-dimensional, colorful ‘ready-nows’ for the figures” (E. Sortor, “Allegories: The Memorial Paintings of Jack Whitten,” Walker Reader, 14 December 2015).
Much like Horne, Whitten lived as a cultural trailblazer. Having come of age in the Jim Crow era in Bessemer, Alabama, the artist was deeply invested in racial justice. In 1957, Whitten met with Dr. Martin Luther King and was inspired to follow his path of non-violent resistance. However, the artist moved to New York City and enrolled in Cooper Union after facing extreme malice during a civil rights demonstration in Baton Rouge. Cooper Union proved to be a more inclusive environment that fostered the artist’s creativity. Although surrounded by a primarily white student body, Whitten sought out Black mentors, particularly Robert Blackburn, an esteemed printmaker who managed Cooper Union’s print room. Blackburn introduced Whitten to the Black arts scene in New York, acquainting him with narrative artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. While Whitten ultimately leaned towards Abstract Expressionist styles, his oeuvre was profoundly shaped by these artists. His tesserae paintings, for instance, recall Bearden’s intimately crafted, mosaic-like collages.
In paying homage to past artists, Whitten uses his signature mosaic method to strike a delicate balance between painting and sculpture. Shimmering and reflecting various angles of light, Cultural Shift functions as a living memorial, channeling Lena Horne’s enduring, vibrant spirit.

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