Jack Whitten in the Woodshed

Hauser and Wirth, January 28 – April 4, 2020

“King’s Garden # 6” (1968), watercolor on paper, 22″ x 31”

Do you know what woodshedding is?
Practicing alone where no one can hear. And not only that— according to Paul Klemperer* “woodshedding is more than just practicing— it is the place where you work out the techniques that form the foundation of your improvisational ability.”

I first heard the term a few months ago at The Sassy Awards, the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, and I was so excited by it. I did not know there was a word for going deep into yourself to learn your instrument and find your voice.

Jack Whitten took that concept seriously; his diary is called “Notes from the Woodshed.” The drawings are a revelation; not that they are all great, in fact most of them are failures—as drawings that is, and not that they surprise me—I’ve made many of them myself. The revelation is to see all three floors of them and glimpse what they mean as a whole and why the improvisation in his paintings is so sustained and complex. Many painters practice early in their careers (or at least they used to) but Jack Whitten is something else. From the numbered works we can see that there are many more that are not shown here and even from what I have selected the dates go from 1968 to 2015— in other words, he never stopped practicing.

“Study for Circles #5” (1983), pencil, charcoal and pastel on gessoed paper, 19” x 19”

Study for Circles #5, for example, is only one of many drawings that explores how to express the power of a ball of energy in two dimensions. The world is made up of atoms, right? So how much emphasis should be given to the boundary of the sphere? Should that energy be expressed in straight or curved lines? In primary colors?

“Cosmic Bopper #4” (1993), compressed charcoal, carbon stick, pastel on Ingres paper, 20” x 11”

Or Cosmic Bopper #4. How do you make a block of sound—like Coltrane did, where individual notes or rhythms are highlights, ephemerally interrupting and shaping the density of what has also been called a “sheet of sound”? The darks are compressed charcoal, the lighter darks are graphite strokes that catch the light differently. Or at least I think they are—graphite is not mentioned in the listed materials.

One of Whitten’s preoccupations in the drawings was to find a place where abstraction and figuration meet:

“I am looking for a tighter arrangement of the forms, something with no loose ends. I can no longer afford the ambiguity of Abstract Expressionism or the sterility of Constructivist thought. I want something free of those movements, something to exist just for what it is worth. I still insist on its abstract nature for the present but that might change unless I can speak of something that exists between realism and abstraction. I do not know of such an animal.”

Dec. 5, 1979 from “Notes from the Woodshed”

“King’s Garden #9” (1968), Sumi ink on paper, 20” x 20”

I can see the effort he is making to achieve that “animal.” In King’s Garden #9, for example, Whitten has laid down a field of random expressive strokes and searched for images embedded in it. He has developed some of those nuclei into faces and eyes. It doesn’t quite work. The faces become too important to the viewer—it ends up as a search for them. There are many other drawings like this too, where the figurative imagery has a forced quality.

“King’s Garden # 6” (1968), watercolor on paper, 22″ x 31”

There is no forced quality to King’s Garden # 6 though.  I’m finding it hard to describe how I felt looking at it. Elated?  It shines from within, the colors are insanely vibrant—and it shapeshifts, never quite becoming nameable, never completely abstract. So nice, I’m posting it twice!

“Presence II” (1994), Sumi ink on rice paper, 22” x 19”

There are so many kinds of experiments that I won’t get to them all but here is another way of conjuring up a rich field for the imagination to play on. I see a hedge with a clearing beyond—perhaps. It’s unclear how these marks were made— or how randomly— or with what tool. Possibly a brush, maybe a stick; the marks are quite varied and beautiful individually.

“D-1” (2015), Renaissance wax and dry pigment on Yupo, 15” x 13”

Another whole area of experimentation uses collage, prints of grids and screens, pours, drips and scrapes. In comparison to some of the other drawings I’ve mentioned, here Whitten sets up the possibility of accidents that might allow him to see other ways of creating an image—to surprise himself into seeing something new. We are all aware (aren’t we?) that we most often see what we expect to see. If an artist doesn’t try to interrupt that somehow, they will always come up with the same results.
D-1 is a very happy accident that reverses expectations of positive and negative space.

The Sassy Awards, by the way, is an annual event that takes place in November at NJPAC in Newark. Five finalists perform and they are good but the most wonderful part is the intermission when the audience explodes with their own very knowledgeable and passionate opinions. Strangers are talking to each other in the aisles, the halls, the bathrooms and the smoking section.

I wish art openings were like that.

—CNQ

*“Woodshedding & The Jazz Tradition” by Paul Klemperer

Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition: The Sassy Awards

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