Exhibit of the week
Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017
Baltimore Museum of Art, through July 29
The art of Jack Whitten (1939–2018) “has a lot to teach us,” said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. “Visually arresting, technically ambitious, and personally urgent,” Whitten’s abstract paintings were finally gaining the recognition they deserve when the Alabama native died in January at age 78. But only now is his most deeply personal work being exhibited, and its debut appearance opens a window on everything else Whitten produced over the last half-century. An African-American civil rights activist who fled the South for New York after helping to organize a 1960 march that was met with violence, Whitten spent almost 50 summers on the Greek island of Crete and used the time to create sculptures that he chose not to show. He found inspiration in the art of Africa, but also of ancient Greece, and he adopted from those cultures formal ideas as well as beliefs about art’s ritualistic roles.
The 40 sculptures included in this year’s traveling Whitten exhibition make his intent obvious, said Mary Carole McCauley in The Baltimore Sun. A man who wanted most to protect the people he loved, he began building talismans with specific beneficiaries in mind. Some of the pieces resemble weapons: The Afro American Thunderbolt (1983–84), a large, nail-studded corkscrew of mulberry wood, is “fit to be hurled from a mountaintop by a god.” Other works, which invite the protection of forebears, resemble the Catholic reliquaries that hold bones of martyred saints. To Whitten, these sculptures were alive, and the ideas he developed through them leaked back into his two-dimensional work. A series of “hauntingly beautiful” recent paintings—tributes to Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, and other black heroes—closes the exhibition, and they’re “more sculpted than painted.” Each one is largely composed of tiles of dried acrylic paint pasted to the canvas.
Whitten didn’t only look back, said Tess Thackara in Artsy.net. Technological Totem Pole—a tower adorned with cellphone parts and other digital-age detritus—is crowned by a clock that points toward a future where human traditions offer remedies for today’s ecological and technological crises. Whitten long feared that these works, because of their ties to African art forms, would obscure his achievements as a contemporary painter. Today, they’re the reason “Odyssey” rates “without doubt” as one of the most important and vital exhibitions of this year. “See it, and let the artist enlarge your sense of what’s possible.”