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

Garden in Bessemer

JACK WHITTEN (1939-2018)
Garden in Bessemer
signed, titled and dated 'GARDEN IN BESSEMER 1986 Jack Whitten' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
58 x 52 in. (147.3 x 132.1 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Avant Garden 2015 Auction, courtesy of the artist; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 25 August 2015
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
La Jolla, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, September 2014-January 2016, pp. 33, 136-137 and 175 (illustrated).

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Julian Ehrlich
Julian Ehrlich Associate Vice President, Specialist, Head of Post-War to Present Sale

Lot Essay

A kaleidoscopic surface of acrylic, Jack Whitten’s 1986 Garden in Bessemer is emblematic of the artist’s ability to transform media into a variegated geographical terrain. Inherently geometrically yet stylistically nuanced, the present work maps an unforeseen topography amidst an otherwise flat surface. Measuring almost five feet tall and named after the artist’s hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, the canvas serves as a matured exploration of Whitten’s experimentation with the materiality of paint.

Within the art world, Whitten existed as a cultural trailblazer. Having come of age in the Jim Crow era in the American South, the artist was deeply invested in racial justice. Though Whitten met with Dr. Martin Luther King and was inspired to follow his path of non-violent resistance, he moved to New York City and enrolled in Cooper Union after a particularly tough civil rights demonstration in Louisiana. Cooper Union fostered the artist’s creativity and introduced him to Black mentors, such as 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.

For the artist, the 1980s marked a period focused on spirituality and thought. Painted in 1986, Garden in Bessemer came at a time when the concept of mechanical automatism intersected directly with Whitten’s intrigue with the divine. The period of the 1980s allowed Whitten to use paint as a metaphor for skin, creating new surfaces and textures on the flat canvas plane. Though Whitten came of age in the era of Abstract Expressionism, his technique and emphasis on the materiality of paint pushed the boundaries of painting for years to come.

Prominently featured in the pioneering 2014-2015 retrospective for the artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Garden in Bessemer was the focus of a poem by Quincy Troupe. The poem reads, “the Garden in Bessemer (1986) painting can be looked at from above as a map, a city landscape—streets, parks, blocks of square structures—with a rough, silver surface, glazed over layer upon layer of acrylic paint, blotches, appear white & gray, textures like wire fences—some broken, some not—jump into our eyeballs like an architectural drawing, without any bright colors, this garden seems unrelentingly gloomy, washed out, though compelling. . . “(Jack Whitten Five Decades of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, p. 75). Here, Whitten transforms the two dimensional acrylic into its own topographical landscape, harkening upon his childhood and upbringing in the American South. The work’s inclusion in the 2015 exhibition serves as a testament to its importance within the artist’s wider oeuvre at a critical time in his practice.

Garden in Bessemer strikes a delicate balance between painting and sculpture, at once existing within but also transcending beyond the two dimensional plane. Though inherently monotone in palette, the work elicits a deeper personal and political history for the artist, ultimately re-contextualizing his experimentation within the socio-political narrative of our time.

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