Jack Whitten: 'My paintings teach me how to live'

Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Whitten with Rose curator-at-large Katy Siegel.

At a Saturday talk featuring honorary degree recipient Jack Whitten, Interim President Lisa Lynch announced that the Rose Art Museum has acquired a 2015 painting by the famed abstract artist, "Black Monolith VIII for Maya Angelou."

"I'm thrilled to announce today that we will be adding to our collection at the Rose with another piece from Jack Whitten from his "Black Monolith" series," Lynch told the audience.

Whitten was on campus over the weekend to receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts at Sunday's main Commencement ceremony.

At Saturday's talk at the Pollack Fine Arts Teaching Center, Whitten's 1964 work "Birmingham" was projected behind him as he spoke about growing up in segregated Alabama and explained how his upbringing has informed his life and art.

"I'm a product of American apartheid. My baptism was by fire," Whitten said. "I have witnessed some of the worst things you can imagine."

Whitten created "Birmingham" in response to 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The painting is made of aluminum foil, newsprint and oil on plywood, and it reads as a silvery open wound through a black surface.

Along with Rose Art Museum director Christopher Bedford and curator-at-large Katy Siegel, Whitten discussed his decades-long career, covering his earliest works from the 1960s to the recent "Black Monoliths," abstractions dedicated to African-American icons.

Whitten, who has long been engaged as a civil rights activist, has continually leveraged abstract painting's ability to address political and social issues. Iconic works include "Birmingham" and others from the 1960s focusing on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to his monumental artwork "9.11.01," into which he incorporated crushed bone, glass and ash, as a memorial to the lives lost on September 11.

"My paintings teach me how to live," Whitten said.

The Rose featured Whitten's work from the 1970s in a 2013 retrospective, "Light Years: Jack Whitten 1971-73," curated by Siegel, who is co-editing a forthcoming book on his work. During Saturday's talk, she noted Whitten's ability to make connections between different circles and eras in the art world, both personally and among other artists.

"Jack makes a community where ever he goes," Siegel said. "He's certainly done that here at the Rose and at Brandeis, but also with other artists."

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