Jack Whitten - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 3, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'Abstraction has enabled me to explore a wide range of knowledge and emotions without depending on narration. My art is an art of materiality. I deal with paint as matter. I do not paint a painting. I make a painting.' 
    —Jack Whitten
    Executed in the twilight years of the artist’s radically innovative career, Space Buster III exemplifies Jack Whitten’s thought-provoking and investigative work. Best known for his abstract canvases, mosaic-like composition, and deep engagement with the legacy of African American history, Whitten will be honoured later this year with an exhibition at Dia Beacon in Beacon New York, which will bring together his landmark series of Greek alphabet paintings from the 1970s. Both a maverick and politically engaged, Whitten’s status as a pioneer of contemporary art is frequently reiterated, especially in regard to his relentless technical experimentalism and exploration into the materiality of painting. 


    Painting as Process

    The present work showcases the painter’s often radical experimentation with his medium; having exhausted the possibilities of paint and brush, Whitten departed from traditional applications in the 2010s in favour of more robust and forceful painterly techniques. In 2013 Whitten himself remarked on this artistic departure: ‘I cut paint, I laminate paint, I grind paint, I freeze paint, I boil paint …’i In the present work, the interrogation of the limits of paint takes place in tandem with an overtly sculptural process that juxtaposes two and three-dimensional forms to create a composition bursting with the kind of energy the artist employed to veritably shatter the distinctions between painting and sculpture. In the artist’s own words: ‘My paintings are not painting in the traditional sense of painting a painting. I “make” a painting. They’re all done through process, as opposed to painting with a brush. That came out of sculpture. When you’re carving wood, you’re “making” – cutting, chiselling, grinding, sanding, laminating. All those practices figure into the painting process for me.’ii


    Cosmological Jazz


    Detail of the present work

    Whitten’s deft negotiation between the conventional boundaries of artistic media is beautifully captured in the present work – the ‘space’ of the flat two dimensions of the canvas being stretched, elevated and finally burst by the sculptural elements of the composition. Whitten’s playful interrogation of space is analogous to the experimentation and subversion of what might be his foundational artistic inspiration – Jazz. Noting that  ‘the person who got me trapped in all of this was John Coltrane’, Whitten’s own artistic practice bears the hallmarks of crafted improvision and chromatic alteration characteristic of Jazz music.iii In Space Buster III, the taut lattice of tiny white orbs, sculpted by the artist through casting a mixture of polyurethane and acrylic, provides a clean, static structure, or in musical parlance a composition, around which an improvisation of whorls of inky black, cobalt blue, and jade green paint swirl and oscillate in undulating concentric loops.

    The interplay between composition and improvisation, so redolent of Jazz, is captured visually in this work, as is the artist’s preoccupation with the cosmological. Indeed, Whitten regarded his position as ‘closer to that of a cosmologist’ than a modernist painter; rather than being in lockstep to a notion of artistic progress, his focus was on going back through time to reimagine and reconstruct the past in order to better represent the present.iv In this way Whitten conceived the role of the artist as analogous to that of the scientist, albeit with an injection of the subversive qualities of the Jazz musician. Whitten’s reverence for the ordered forms of nature, as well as the theories that explain them, is evident in Space Busters III. Laden with ‘tesserae’, Whitten’s preferred term for the acrylic structures which first appeared in his work of the early 1970s, Space Busters III poses hemispheric forms against a backdrop of gaseous nebulae, themselves analogies for the paradoxical operations of Nature where chaos and life unfold according to an axiomatical logic of creation. This astronomical symphony creates a sublimely affecting experience for the viewer achievable only through the artist’s mastery of material and paint.
    'I can build anything I want to. I’m not a narrative painter. I don’t do the idea or the painting being the illustration of an idea. It’s all about the materiality of the paint.' —Jack WhittenIn seeking the sublime through the manipulation of materials and support, Whitten found contemporary company in peers such as Mark Bradford. Like Whitten, Bradford transforms such trivial materials like fragmented posters, hairdressers’ permanent endpapers, and bits of collage into kaleidoscopic maps that bridge the gap between abstraction and representation, painting, and sculpture. Space Busters III is the visual expression of the paradoxical relationship between composition and improvisation, between the galactic dimensions of cosmological time and the pixelated detail of its minutely crafted tesserae. 


    Jack Whitten, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © The Estate of Jack Whitten. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

    Of the limited suite of three Space Busters paintings Whitten executed in 2013-2014, the present work features the most complex composition, possessing more than five times the sculpted spheres of paint. The present work is further distinguished by a deeper and more variegated colour palette. In addition to the seafoam green that dominates Space Busters I and the dark teal of Space Busters II, Whitten here introduces flickers of violet, indigo, and aquamarine, creating a much richer tableau of colour and a greater interplay of abstracted forms. 

    In its relentless material creativity, Space Busters III sprawls across the canvas in an incandescent explosion of form and colour. Among the more mature works executed by the artist in the 2010s, Space Busters III epitomizes the dynamism and experimentation for which Whitten is best known.


    Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life, Art21, ‘Extended Play’


    Collector’s Digest 

    •    Jack Whitten is being honoured later this year with an exhibition at Dia Beacon in Beacon New York; this will be the first-ever exhibition devoted to the artist’s Greek Alphabet painting series (executed in 1975-78), and will include 40 paintings from private and institutional collections (opens November 2022).

    •    Examples of the artist’s oeuvre are included in esteemed museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

    •    Former President Obama awarded Whitten the National Medal of Arts in 2016, just two years after he executed the present work.

    •    The top 10 prices for the artist at auction have all been achieved in the past 5 years, indicating huge demand for the artist’s work.

    i Jack Whitten, quoted in the 2013 catalogue archive for Two x Two: For Aids and Art, online. 
    ii Jack Whitten, quoted in Andy Battaglia, ‘Jack Whitten: Abstract Painting’s New Heavyweight Artist,’ BlouinArtInfo.com, 6 February 2013, online
    iii Jack Whitten, quoted in Victoria Sung, ‘Jack Whitten and the Philosophy of Jazz’, Walker Art Magazine, 22 September, 2015, online
    iv (https://www.alexandergray.com/attachment/en/594a3c935a4091cd008b4568/Publication/594a3ceb5a4091cd008b71d1 

    • Provenance

      Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • 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.

      View More Works

Property from an Exceptional European Collection


Space Busters III

signed, titled and dated 'SPACE BUSTERS III 2014 JACK WHITTEN' on the reverse
acrylic and polyurethane on panel
121.4 x 121.4 cm (47 3/4 x 47 3/4 in.)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £403,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+ 44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 3 March 2022