Jack Whitten - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 7, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Los Angeles, Michael Kohn Gallery, Into the Mystic, 17 November 2012 - 26 January 2013

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘Music has had a great bearing on my painting. The music is what has kept me going…’ Jack Whitten, 1994

    Painted in 1995, Bright Moments: For R.R. Kirk is a remarkable example from Jack Whitten’s most renowned series, Black Monoliths which in title and inspiration pay homage to African-American visionaries such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and visually push the boundaries of painting toward a more sculptural and three dimensional surface.

    Sound and the composers of harmony reverberate throughout Whitten’s practice, as he actively referenced acclaimed African American musicians in many titles from the Black Monolith series, including works dedicated to Miles Davis, Betty Carter and Thelonious Monk. Bright Moments (for R.R. Kirk) honours Jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1973 album Bright Moments. As Whitten said of jazz music and its influence on the series specifically, ‘For me personally, being African-American and the jazz music coming out of that culture, and meeting all those early jazz musicians, I realize there is something unique in that experience connecting time and sound. I have to tell a lot of painters who say they are working with jazz, that they are only working with it as simplistic narrative notion; until they can connect with it in terms of light, colour and sound, they’re only skimming the surface of jazz’ (Jack Whitten, quoted in ‘In conversation, Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,’ Brooklyn Rail, 1 February 2017, online). Indeed, Whitten connected each of these elements at play within a single image—light, sound and colour— as realised in Bright Moments: For R.R. Kirk. Though formalised in this mosaic series, Whitten actually declared his mission in the search for light in painting as early as 1965, when he said to John Coltrane ‘I was looking for light – light in painting’ (Jack Whitten, quoted in ‘In conversation, Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,’ Brooklyn Rail, 1 February 2017, online).

    While studying art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Whitten became troubled by the Southern resistance to the Civil Rights Movement and relocated to New York in the 1960s. Initially influenced by the vigorously fearless abstract paintings of Willem de Kooning and the sculptural monumentality of David Smith, Whitten would, within the next ten years, actively break away from being defined by a singular New York art movement by challenging the limitations of abstract form. During the 1970s and 1980s Whitten investigated minimal and austere forms, eventually moving towards grid like paintings which predict the mosaic quality of the Black Monolith series, sparked by the artist’s voyage to Sinai, Egypt. Whitten attended the services for Greek Christmas at Saint Catherine’s Monastery and was stunned by its interior, built into the pink granite foothills of Mount Sinai. The dappled light from the interior chandeliers danced over the mosaic glass tiles, which, in uneven form, cut and refracted the light, creating an almost prism like reflection. As Whitten explained, ‘Each one of the tesserae was put down in such a way that it collects the light and throws it off very specifically’ (Jack Whitten, quoted in ‘In conversation, Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,’ Brooklyn Rail, 1 February 2017, online). Absorbing the brilliance of this religious scene, Whitten returned to New York to begin his Black Monolith series, inventing an artistic process which would allow him to 'paint as collage' (Jack Whitten). He 'mixes acrylic medium gels, varnishes, and binders with powder pigment to produce small pieces of dried-acrylic paint that are then layered, mosaic-like, onto the canvas' (Jack Whitten, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014). Producing a final composition that echoes the mosaic structure of Saint Catherine’s, specifically, the refraction and throwing of light, Whitten discovered ‘that within those densities of light there is a sound. It is a much higher and a more complex notion of sound, but there is a sound in there’ (Jack Whitten, quoted in ‘In conversation, Jack Whitten with Jarrett Earnest,’ Brooklyn Rail, 1 February 2017, online).

  • Artist Biography

    Jack Whitten

    American • 1939 - 2018

    Jack Whitten, who passed away at age 78 in January 2018, is celebrated for his influential approach to painting. While initially aligned with the New York circle of Abstract Expressionists in the mid-1960s, particularly Willem de Kooning, Whitten became known for his focus on the experimental aspects of process and technique in painting. Fascinated with the materiality of painting at a time when the medium was deemed “dead”, Whitten in the early 1970s fervently sought an alternative approach to art making. He achieved his artistic breakthrough with what he called the “developer”, a proprietary floor-based tool that allowed him to quickly spread a layer of acrylic paint onto the canvas with a single gesture – resulting in his signature slab paintings. For the next five decades, Whitten relentlessly pushed his practice to new heights – bridging gestural abstraction with process art, mechanical automation with intensely personal expression. 

    His all-embracing vision led him to create works on such diverse themes as quantum physics and contemporary events, such as 9/11 or school shootings, as well as experiment with different media. While former President Barack Obama awarded Whitten the National Medal of Arts in 2016, he was profoundly under recognized by the mainstream art world for most of his 55-year career. Most recently, his sculptural output was subject to a major exhibition that travelled from the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018.

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Property of an Important American Collector


Bright Moments: For R.R. Kirk

signed and dated 'J. Whitten '95' lower right; further signed, titled and dated '"Bright Moments: For R.R.Kirk" 1995 Jack Whitten' on the reverse
acrylic, coal and gold leaf on canvas, in artist's frame
127.3 x 106.7 cm (50 1/8 x 42 in.)
Executed in 1995.

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £333,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018