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Epsilon Series II 1977 is a painting on canvas made from graphite, silica and aluminium powder suspended in AC-33 acrylic medium by Jack Whitten. The medium is transparent and applied over a ground of titanium which creates a high density optical glow. The composition is formed from horizontal, vibrating stripes that appear as grooves in the acrylic medium, a large white circle in the centre of the canvas, and a white diagonal line that begins in the top left corner and extends to the bottom right corner, dividing the canvas into two equal triangles and bisecting the circle. Thus the painting is organised according to Euclidean geometry, taking it away from the gestural abstraction that had characterised Whitten’s earlier style of painting. However, the composition is complicated by the introduction of unequal and apparently random diagonal interruptions that run from upper right to lower left and were most likely formed by placing string beneath the canvas.
Whitten, who was seeking new ways to make abstract painting at the time, also began to improvise new tools to assist in the process, with a particular desire to change the form of the mark away from abstract expressionist painterly gesture and extend it to a single, horizontal action that encompassed the entire picture plane. Historian Kellie Jones has commented: ‘what distinguishes Whitten from his peers … was his invention of processes and tools for painting. In 1970 he made a decision to let go of the brush and remove the marks of the hand from the canvas. He created … a variety of objects with which to manipulate or intercede in the liquid surface’ (Jones 2011, p.374). Whitten named the new tools ‘processors’ or ‘developers’, in part in reference to photo-processing; a measure of the way he was attempting to re-conceive the conceptual basis of his painting. He has described the process of making his works at this time as ‘taking my cue from Ad Reinhardt’s suggestion of a nonrelational painting’ (Jack Whitten, ‘Artist’s Statement’, in Segal 2006, p.101). In an unpublished artist’s statement he provided further detail:
From 1970 until 1980, I worked on a large 14 foot by 20 foot drawing board built on top of the studio floor. It was constructed with a honeycomb grid of 2 x 4’s at 16 inch centers, a layer of 3/4 inch construction grade plywood topped with a layer of industrial linoleum for easy cleaning. The drawing board was built absolutely flat and level to prevent any haphazard flow of paint. I wanted to be in control of the flow. My ‘developer’ which started in 1970 as an Afro comb had morphed into a huge 12 foot Afro comb! I built it from 16 gauge galvanized sheet metal with 1/8 inch notches cut into the metal. The lines were drawn in a single three second pull of the developer across the canvas. The whole picture plane was conceived as a line.
(Jack Whitten, unpublished artist’s statement.)
The experimental use of unconventional pigments was also a characteristic of Whitten’s work at this time. Curator Stuart Horodner has written how in acrylic paint Whitten had ‘found a hospitable host for the incorporation of dyes, powders, and various organic and inorganic materials’ (Horodner in Zeno X Gallery 2011, p.13). Whitten’s work is thus constituted by a process-based and conceptual abstract painting that tests the materials as well as the nature of painting itself.
This painting is one of Whitten’s Greek Alphabet series, in which he made a painting for each letter in the alphabet, although in the case of some letters there is more than one painting. At the time of making these works, Whitten was studying modern spoken Greek at the New York School in New York City. He stated that ‘the Greek alphabet freed me from the emotional hassle of titling each painting’ (Whitten, unpublished artist’s statement). This factor also informed his choice of monochrome white for the painting. He has explained that he was ‘desperately trying to distance myself from Abstract Expressionism’, thus ‘spectrum color was forbidden in the studio. Red, yellow, blue etc. with their heavy historical and psychological references had become unwanted baggage. I trusted only black and white’ (Whitten, unpublished artist’s statement).
Behind this statement is the fact that Whitten formed part of a group of black painters who in the late 1960s and 1970s moved away from explicit political subject matter and expressions of identity towards a concentration on abstraction as their primary concern. One series made in the 1960s that had preceded the Greek Alphabet works was a group of abstract expressionist paintings inspired by Willem de Kooning’s Woman series of the 1950s. Named the Martin Luther King series, Whitten’s paintings dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, four of them being individually dedicated to Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. In New York’s Cedar Bar, Whitten had met and conversed with many artists including de Kooning and Franz Kline, who, he says, ‘put up with my youthful enquiries into the nature of abstract painting’ (Whitten in Segal 2006, p.101). However, it was not long before Whitten realised that he had to shake off the influence of these figures, as well as overt political content, to find a method of painting that would satisfy his aim to create a new form of abstraction.
In 1960 Whitten had moved to New York to attend the Cooper Union, where he later became a professor. On his arrival in New York, he became part of an interdisciplinary artistic context centred on the Lower East Side from where he established a dialogue with abstract expressionist artists including de Kooning and Kline as well as an older generation of black artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. He later became part of a scene of black artists who, from the late 1960s, gave priority to abstraction over overtly political content, including Ed Clark, Al Loving, Howardena Pindell, Joe Overstreet, Frank Bowling, William T. Williams and Sam Gilliam.
Whitten had not denied the political dimension of his work, but has emphasised that it is a latent rather than an explicit presence. For the works of the 1970s, a parallel can be drawn with contemporary music of the time, both having an underlying cultural value rooted in an African-American context, where the abstract sheets of paint drawn across Whitten’s canvases are comparable to the ‘sheets of sound’ of jazz music. The artist has said:
I had a conversation with John Coltrane, in 1965, at the Club Coronet in Brooklyn … Coltrane told me how he equated his sound to sheets: the sound you hear in his music comes at you in waves … I think that, in plastic terms, translating from sound, I was sensing sheets, waves of light. A sheet of light passing, that’s how I was seeing light. That’s why I refer to these paintings as energy fields.
(Quoted in Jones 2011, p.373.)
Thus, after the Martin Luther King series in the late 1960s and just prior to the Greek Alphabet series in the mid- to late 1970s, Whitten made a series of works in the early 1970s in which a number of bright coloured hues were roughly mixed and dragged across the canvas in a single gesture. These works were the transition from his early abstract expressionism to the conceptual abstraction of the Greek Alphabet series where he more fully realised the break with abstract expressionism and manifested the sheets of light he envisaged when reflecting on the jazz of Coltrane. To follow this analogy, the seemingly arbitrary diagonal ‘interruptions’ across the canvas of Epsilon Series II might be likened to the improvisations that characterise ‘bebop’ and ‘free jazz’.
Katy Segal (ed.), High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975, New York 2006.
Kellie Jones, ‘To The Max: Energy and Experiment’, in Eye Minded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Durham, North Carolina 2011, pp.363–96.
Stuart Horodner, Jack Whitten, exhibition catalogue, Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp 2011.