Jack Whitten's 'Homage To Malcolm' (1965)
Jack Whitten's 'Homage To Malcolm' (1965) © The Estate of Jack Whitten/Hauser & Wirth

In the Met Breuer’s latest show, aptly titled Odyssey, sculptures that spent years in the Mediterranean have finally returned to the native land of the artist who made them. Jack Whitten, who died in January at 78, earned modest renown as a painter of deft abstractions. He dragged pigment across canvases with rakes and squeegees, and crafted tesserae that he built into glimmering mosaic portraits. These “Black Monoliths” — honouring Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, among others — hint at race and resemblance obliquely, through veils of exploded colour. This was the public face Whitten presented to the art world: a black painter happy to acknowledge but unwilling to be defined by his race.

But as with many African-American musicians, writers and artists, identity took on a different cast when he left the country and headed across the Atlantic. Ensconced in Crete, Whitten discovered a secret self. He set aside his brushes and made sculpture instead, private totems fashioned with no incentive to impress. These pieces were as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as the paintings, integrating African carvings, Greek mythology, fishing and technology. But they also articulated a more internal landscape, memorialising intimate moments and giving vent to grief. Whitten exhibited them once or twice on Crete, but never sold any. He just liked having them around. So do we.

Jack Whitten's 'Black Monolith II (For Ralph Ellison)' (1994
Jack Whitten's 'Black Monolith II (For Ralph Ellison)' (1994 © The Estate of Jack Whitten/Hauser & Wirth

The Met’s show, organised by Kelly Baum and Katy Siegel, is the model of a well-timed, precisely executed revelation. Just when Whitten was in danger of being forgotten, Odyssey brings him back onstage with a generous voilà. He was born in Bessemer, a town in central Alabama then in the grip of Jim Crow. He fled to New York in 1960: “I knew I had to leave the South because I would be killed or I would end up killing somebody,” he said. He enrolled in the visual art programme at the Cooper Union and began studying the African holdings in various New York collections, as well as African-American folk traditions.

Learning meant doing, and Whitten started making statues of his own. He carved vessels out of elm trunks, modelling them on small, smiling ceramic “face-jugs” of the 19th century. These small utilitarian objects, decorated with human eyes, noses and ears, served as a kind of samizdat that could be easily stashed away when white overseers showed up to enforce slavery’s rigid programme of dehumanisation. Whitten carved faces roughly and darkened them with shoe polish, which carries powerful overtones of race. His neighbours in the South used it to protect their dignity with gleaming brogues, hard-working African-Americans (including Ralph Ellison) used it to make a living by buffing the white man’s wingtips, and white entertainers used it to “black up” for minstrel shows.

In 1968 Whitten married a fellow student, Mary Staikos, and a year later they travelled to Greece in search of her roots. They landed in the tiny Cretan village of Agia Galini, which he found so nourishing that they returned every summer. Whitten saw Crete as a crux, where the cultures of Europe and Africa had been colliding and coupling for thousands of years. In his outdoor workshop, he elaborated a psychological and formal fusion of continents that was also distinctively his own.

“Anthropos”, from 1972, titled after the Greek term for man, is about the “beginning, the genesis of people,” Whitten said. The trio of figures combines facets of ancient Cycladic marbles and African sculpture, refracted through the sensibility of artists such as Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti, who had already fallen for those same pre-modern styles. Whitten fashioned one figure’s lean but lumpy physique from mulberry, adding olive branches to its head like crimped hair or twisting horns. The uptilted round face and long columnar neck of “The Heart of Humanity” (1972-73) also springs from DNA shared by Ghanaian and Cycladic forms — or so Whitten thought.

Jack Whitten's 'Anthropos' (1972)
Jack Whitten's 'Anthropos' (1972) © The Estate of Jack Whitten/Hauser & Wirth

Today, his credo of amalgamation, integration and mixture would run afoul of a political environment shot through by separateness. What some might condemn as cultural appropriation, he saw as common heritage. In a 2013 interview, he described his philosophy in terms that read as though they were uttered in a completely different era. “I sincerely believe that in the black community of artists, especially those of us dealing with abstraction, art has to go beyond the general notions of race, gender, nationalism,” he said. “Things have evolved to the degree where there is a possibility of a new sensibility out there. We’re into a global aesthetic here, and anyone that doesn’t see that has a real old-fashioned way of thinking.”

These inclusive ideas sit awkwardly in the current art world, which is obsessed with ever finer gradations of identity, but the power and beauty of Whitten’s creations remain irresistible. When he saw Kongo power figures, those astonishing African eruptions of nails, spikes and blades, he was moved to create similarly potent effigies such as the spectacular “Homage to the Kri-Kri”. The piece is dedicated to the wild goats that have roamed the Cretan mountains since Minoan times. Whitten hammered together nails, keys, bones and tarnished silverware into a magical construction that quivers with energy. The corner of his American Express card blinks brightly among the rust and refuse, announcing the indestructibility of money, as well as its spiritual limitations.

Jack Whitten's 'Homage to the Kri-Kri' (1985)
Jack Whitten's 'Homage to the Kri-Kri' (1985) © The Estate of Jack Whitten/Hauser & Wirth

Whitten claimed to be immune from sentimentality or nostalgia. “I live in a modern technological society and I insist that art should reflect the present,” he said. And yet “Homage to the Kri-Kri” is also a memorial of sorts, representing both the goat’s longevity and fragility. By the time Whitten paid his tribute in 1985, the beast was in decline, and he only ever saw one once. His “Technological Totem Pole” (2013) also injects traces of wistfulness into its jumble of circuit boards, TV remotes, flip phones and copper wire transistors. Crammed with gizmos that were out of date even when he glued them into place, and are now on their way to antiquity, it’s an invocation of ancestry and obsolescence.

The last few years of Whitten’s life brought a slicker, more Brancusi-esque look. “Aphrodite’s Lover” (2015) advertises itself as a luxury object, with its polished marble slab cantilevered from a structural base of cast lead. “Geraki” (2014), an ode to the hawk, also features a marble blade honed to a sharp beak. Streamlined and ready to fly, this is one of Whitten’s last and most optimistic gestures, an invitation to glide free from the heaviness of the past.

Until December 2, metmuseum.org

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