Jack’s Jacks offers a captivating and intense look at the work of a diverse artist

Jack Whitten Apps for Obama, 2011 Acryl auf Hohlkerntür, 213,4 x 231,1 cm, Privatbesitz, courtesy Zeno X Gallery © Jack Whitten, courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Photo: John Berens

“It’s all about the materials and the paint,” says Jack Whitten in the opening video of his exhibit at the Hamburger Bahnof. He’s dressed in painter’s whites and has a palette strapped to his elbow. In his eyes, one can see the passion and painstaking attention he pays to each piece of work.

Just a few steps later, surrounded by his colourful mosaics and paintings, it becomes apparent that his materials are, in fact, the most important aspect of his collection.

The large abstract painting titled Apps for Obama, hangs opposite the entry door. Acrylic chips in varying shades of blue dominate the 213-centimeter-tall canvas. Attached are plastic bags mimicking the look of apps on a smartphone.

This piece is just one of many that Whitten has dedicated to prominent people or historical events. The collection at the Hamburger Bahnof features a few pieces dedicated to the legends of jazz. Like the rhythms of jazz music, Whitten’s work has an unmistakable flare for the improvised and provokes emotional complexity.

Whitten’s paintings are unique and varied. The influence of abstract expressionism makes his work boundary pushing and intense. From his piece Delacroix’s Palette, which features muted tones smudged onto a canvas, to the much more whimsical and colourful Quantum Wall, Jack’s Jacks shows off Whitten’s versatility and mastery of multiple materials.

His tesserae style brightens up the walls of the gallery and has visitors pressing their ears to the wall, to see the texture lifting from the canvas. Whether the painting has a cheerful or more dismal tone, Whitten has carefully selected which historical theme or important person to dedicate them to.

Jack Whitten
Foto: John Berens

Whitten was an African-American artist who grew up during the United States Civil Rights Movement. His experiences marching with fellow activists and looking up to important black figures have shaped his work.

His black monolith series memorializes pioneering African-American figures. The pieces don’t attempt to show much true resemblance to the subject. Instead, they have black acrylic chips shaped into the silhouettes of those he considers influential in shaping the conversation about black rights in America. The Hamburger Bahnof’s exhibit contains the black monolith dedicated to Muhammed Ali. This piece is imposing and a stark contrast against the brighter, joyous pieces surrounding it.

Whitten said that he never worried about the idea or plan of any of his paintings. Instead, he ventured to a much more experimental and spontaneous style. Seeing thirty of his works together can be an overwhelming array of colour, shape and texture. It is clear that Whitten was content experimenting and not willing to play it safe with his art.

This exhibit at the Hamburger Bahnof is the first solo exhibition of Whitten’s works at a European institution. After 50 years as an artist, Whitten has an impressive portfolio. The ones displayed on the walls in Berlin are a fine representation of Whitten’s impressive capabilities.

“I always did art as a kid, but it was not encouraged. The theory was it’s good for a hobby but you can’t make a living out of it,” said Whitten in the exhibit’s intro video. His journey to be an artist was held up by a venture into academics and the tough landscape for African-American artists at the time of his emergence.

Whitten’s place in art history is an important one. He had a remarkable talent and ability to create pieces that blended form and content cohesively. His work takes viewers on a journey through his interaction with politics, culture and spirituality. He disregarded any supposed rules that would govern his work and stifle creativity. His use of acrylic chips and lack of plan made his work striking, vibrant and diverse. Berlin is lucky to have his work on display until September 1.