The 1990s marked a turning point in Whitten’s career, in which he began creating acrylic tesserae through
a complex process that he continued to use in subsequent decades. To create Church Street Spring, the
artist poured paint in a shallow mold and allowed it to dry, then cut, tore, and shattered the resulting slab
into smaller pieces to make “tiles” out of paint. For Whitten, these acrylic tesserae are vessels of
information. The grid, the artist maintains, “Is the essential element of visual perception… the DNA of
perception,” and like DNA, he pieces together the acrylic tiles to configure a larger painting. This grid-like
composition adheres to modernist sensibilities, but Whitten’s use of the tesserae grid is equally inspired
by the concept of the three-dimensional grid he sees in African sculpture, and Greek, Italian, and Turkish
mosaics. Since 1969, Whitten has spent his summers in Greece, and has traveled extensively throughout
the Mediterranean. The grid-work and cumulative process also have a connection to his mother’s quiltmaking.
This collage-like approach to paintings has inspired subsequent generations of African-American
abstract painters, such as Mark Bradford and Leonardo Drew.