The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) will present the first exhibition dedicated to sculptures by renowned contemporary artist Jack Whitten. Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963-2016, on view April 22 through July 29, 2018, reveals an extensive and entirely unknown body of the artist’s work. Co-organized with The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), Odyssey features 40 of Whitten’s sculptures made in Greece over the course of his five-decade career. Created from a diverse spectrum of materials—including wood, marble, copper, bone, fishing wire, and personal mementos—the works are contextualized with African, Minoan, and Cycladic sculptures and objects that inspired Whitten through the years. The exhibition also unites Whitten’s Black Monoliths series for the first time to reveal how sculpture influenced his paintings. This ticketed exhibition is curated by Katy Siegel, BMA Senior Programming and Research Curator and Thaw Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University, and Kelly Baum, Cynthia Hazen Polsky, and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art at The Met.
Whitten is one of the most important artists of his generation and a major influencer of younger African American artists. His paintings range from figurative work addressing Civil Rights in the 1960s to ground-breaking experimentation with abstraction in the 70s and 80s to recent work that memorializes historical figures of Black culture such as Ralph Ellison and W.E.B. Du Bois. Whitten began carving wood in the 1960s in order to understand African sculpture, both aesthetically and in terms of his own identity as an African American. The work grew in unexpected ways when in 1969 he began spending summers on the Greek island of Crete. There, Whitten was inspired by the ancient Cycladic and Minoan work of the region, recognizing their functional role in society as repositories of power, memory, sensuality, and spirituality, much like the African works he had seen in New York institutions. The resourcefulness of the people of Crete and their connection to nature and to material life recalled his own upbringing in Alabama. In Crete, his materials expanded to incorporate local wood and marble, as well as bones left over from his fishing excursions. These organic materials—shaped by techniques such as carving, burning, and aggregation—imbued his works with a profound connection to ritual, nature, and the most fundamental experiences of human life. Whitten sees his own work as the just the latest episode in a long history of exchange between Africa, the African diaspora, and the Mediterranean. As the artist wrote in his studio log in 1975, “I am aware of the fact that this is the tradition in Art which I must connect with—a work of art with a function motivated by the tradition of African sculpture—MY WAY—not Picasso’s European interpretation.”
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