Jack Whitten is an African-American painter who has been working in New York since the 1960s. Carrying the tradition of Abstract Expressionism through the decades, he brings to it his own brand of technical innovation and social allusion. In this recent exhibition, 18 small works on paper, a series titled “Saturation” (2011), were arranged on opposing walls in grid formations. Their colorful abstract planes of leaky visual information contain hints of skulls, landscapes, targets and urban debris. The parallel arrangements of discrete images led to a 7-by-7 1/2-foot work composed of thousands of tiles made of acrylic paint; it was hung on the adjoining back wall. The tiles create a shallow space of gently modulated blue on which rows of small square, round or irregular shapes sit in relief. Some of the raised shapes suggest emblems or shields, while others look as though they are made from crumpled, discarded bags. With the work installed as it was, the space recalled an apse in an ancient church.
The title of the large tiled piece, Apps for Obama (2011), encourages the interpretation that the hovering shapes are like buttons on a touch screen. While these buttons are not meant to be touched with greasy fingers, the bubbling, textural, crinkling forms invite imaginary probing and questioning. What are they made of? Can you poke into their folds and find another world behind them? It’s as if the artist wants us to see the “apps” as partially occluded views into future possibilities or as vehicles for nonverbal, prophetic advice to our president.
Whitten has always insisted on bringing language to bear on abstract painting through his use of titles. What may look like nonobjective fields of painterly gesture or accretions of pictorial units transform into something else through their affiliation with words. Whitten shows that abstract painting can become a sometimes willing, sometimes unruly cipher for social consciousness.
Whitten’s tesserae are reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics. The shapes nestled within the tiles look like icons and seem to radiate spiritual significance. In a black painting titled Time’s Dilemma (2011) in the back gallery, tender pieces of flotsam are cradled and amplified by the surrounding tiles. We don’t know what they are, but the air around them hums with reverberating energy.
Titles will not always stick to artworks: the artist’s intention and cultural point of view falls away over time. Apps for Obama suggests a specific reading, but what remains after viewing it are the notions that paintings themselves aspire to be portals to other dimensions, where language as we know it isn’t necessary, and that they can emit vitality centuries after they were made, when the specific impulses that generated them are unknown.
Photo: Jack Whitten: Apps for Obama, 2011, acrylic on hollow-core door, 84 by 91 inches; at Alexander Gray.