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Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life | Art21 “Extended Play”

[sound of tools being sharpened] [“Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life”] Now I find myself doing a type of painting
where my hand doesn’t touch it. This is an adaptation of the artist’s palette. Okay. About ready to go. Each one of these carries information– it’s compressed into each one– because it relates so much to
what’s happening with modern technology. You know, bytes of information.
Bits. That kind of a thing. I can build anything I want to build. I’m not a narrative painter. I don’t do the idea, or the painting
being the illustration of an idea, I don’t do that. It’s all about the materiality of the paint. I grew up in Bessemer, Alabama. Everything was segregated–
transportation, the buses. What I call American apartheid. I always did art.
I always did painting since I was a kid. But it was not encouraged, the theory being that it’s good for a hobby,
but you couldn’t make a living out of it. Lucky for me, I graduated with good grades. I went to Tuskegee. The idea was for me to be a doctor
in the U.S. Air Force and a pilot. It was always in the back of my mind
that I was an artist. That’s what I wanted to do,
I wanted to do artwork. Tuskegee did not have an art program, so I left Tuskegee to study art at Southern
University. And that went well, for a while, but I got involved politically with the demonstrations. We organized a big civil rights march
that went from downtown Baton Rouge to the state office building. It was that march, what I experienced,
is what drove me out of the South. After that march,
which turned vicious and violent, that politically changed me forever. The fall of 1960,
I took a Greyhound bus from New Orleans to take the test at Cooper Union. And I was accepted. I studied art–painting. It was a good thing
and it was tuition-free. When I came to New York,
some of the first people I met was Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Jacob Lawrence. And in 1960 in New York City,
the scene was open. Bill de Kooning would talk to you! I had a dialogue,
what I call, on both sides of the divide. I don’t make a distinction between
there being Black, White, and whatever. I really don’t. If they’ve got information
and my instincts tell me, “Boy, you got to meet that person”– “You got to find out what they’re doing,”
“you have to understand this stuff”– I’d reach out. The young artist has to
have something to react to. My first influence was Arshile Gorky. Nobody springs forth from the head of Zeus! That was my first influence. Early surrealism. Figurative expressionism. It wasn’t until the end of the ’60s, though,
that I made a drastic change toward more conceptual ideas
that dealt with the materiality of paint. I removed all the spectrum color. Made a big move to acrylic. Restructured the studio. Restructured my thinking about painting. I built a tool. I called it “the developer.” With that tool, I could move large bodies of acrylic paint
across the surface of the canvas. I call them “slab” paintings.
S-L-A-B. It became a slab. I wanted a painting to exist as a single line– one gesture, three seconds. That’s why I built that big tool. I spent ten years working on that drawing
board. Ten years bent over, stooped down. I can’t do that no more. There comes a time when the body
will not accept that type of abuse– and it was abuse. The slab is what led me into the tesserae. It’s a chunk of acrylic that has been cut
from a large slab of acrylic. My interest, of course, is always about
how I can use it to direct the light. So with these surfaces,
depending on how I place them, I can direct the light. You see how it changes? That painting came out of a lot of pain. I started that painting
and then I developed a serious illness. I spent a month in the hospital. So that knocked me on my ass. And that painting was a way of hitting back. [LAUGHS] I’m not going to let this shit defeat me,
you know? It’s one of the “Black Monoliths.” It’s called,
“Six Kinky Strings: For Chuck Berry.” And that title comes from the fact that, anybody who knows about the personality
of Chuck Berry, he did some weird shit. The “Black Monolith” is a series of paintings that
I’ve been doing for a number of years, though. It started back in the early ’80s. It’s a Black person who has
contributed a lot to society. So I make it my business
to memorialize those people. And I find that each one,
I have to locate the essence of that person. That person becomes a symbol and I build that into the paint. I want to be remembered
as a very average guy who pretty much stays to himself. [LAUGHS] Dedicated worker.
But on top of that… The question was asked to Count Basie once, he says, “I just want to go down as
one of the boys.” There was a kind of a modesty in that
that I’ve always admired. Nothing big,
just one of the boys. I like that. [“Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My
First Love In Painting)”] [Jack Whitten (1939–2018), In Memoriam]

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