Jack Whitten and Simone Leigh
A work of art called Aphrodite’s Lover can only be an act of love. Jack Whitten meant all his sculpture that way. He made it for himself, his family, and friends and hesitated to display it, while he built a reputation for large paintings, in dense networks of mostly black and white.
He took up sculpture as early as 1963, the year before his graduation from the Cooper Union in New York, and he kept at it almost to his death in 2018. And the selection in “Odyssey,” at the Met Breuer, encourages a fresh assessment of his painting as well. It also shows the diversity of his loves—as a Southerner, a modernist at a time of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, a black male, and a citizen of the world. He returned to teach at Cooper Union while summering in Crete with his Greek American wife. He must have imagined it as a stop for Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey and a welcome relief from racial tensions in America. It also contributed new sources for African American identity and abstraction, and Simone Leigh pursues them to this day.
Fire and ice
Aphrodite’s Lover dates from 2015, but it still looks back to modern sculpture. A curve of white marble rises from its very center, like a bird in flight for Constantin Brancusi. Not everything, though, is quite so smooth. It rises from a coarse lead block, itself nested in cherry wood. One can see it as contrasting with both, like three versions of the origins of the world. One can see it as piercing the wood like the sword in the stone—and indeed Whitten called a more pointed weapon the year before The Apollonian Sword. Although ever the Apollonian, as Friedrich Nietzsche called an art of reason and order, he could only barely keep the unrestrained frenzy of Nietzsche’s Dionysian at bay.
He may have shared his love, but he knew, too, the coarseness of Aphrodite’s lover. Cast from the heavens and crippled in his fall, Hephaestus became a blacksmith to the gods and the god of metalworking, fire, and sculpture. Zeus married him to the goddess of love only to put an end to the war for her hand. That did not stop her from cheating on him at that. The Wedding, from 2006, embeds threatening metal studs in wild cypress along with bits of marble. Eros is enjoyed but not so easily controlled.
Speaking of the forge, the show opens with the fiery red of charred wood, named for a spiny fish, from 2008. It also pairs that first work with Bessemer Dreamer, a large white painting from 1986. The curators, Kelly Baum and Katy Siegel with Meredith Brown, maintain throughout a back and forth between painting and sculpture. They include forty of the first and half as many of the second. They include, too, Whitten’s inspiration in the art of the South, western Africa, and the Mediterranean across the centuries. He valued Crete for its access to Mycenaean, Minoan, and Cycladic civilizations.
Born in Bessemer, in Alabama, and educated at Tuskegee University, Whitten was still dreaming of home. He was remembering an aunt there and her craft. Still, the painting acquires its crude textures not from tapestry, like Gee’s Bend quilting, but from the direct impress of his art. He pressed household and industrial materials into acrylic, as if into wet cement. Two years later, he does something similar in a black canvas to honor James Baldwin. Tire tracks cross its surface soon after the writer’s death, recalling a people both toiling and trod upon.
That painting marked the start of his Black Monoliths, a series that took him to the end of his life. Each alludes to a prominent African American in politics or the arts, from W. E. B. Dubois and Barbara Jordan to Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, and the show has them all. Their portraits fade in and out without ever fully emerging. They also introduce his technique of acrylic tiles set against a painted ground in black or white. They add color and allow his paintings, for all their roughness, to shine. He may have learned from Christopher Wilmarth, a friend and fellow student who went on to develop his own mix of metal and glass.
Not that everything is a matter of black and white. A work from the early 1970s has a jagged hollow at its center pointing to a small sphere, for The Heart of Humanity. For Whitten, the center of a work of art is the center of the world. Other nails and stud earn the title Bush, a pun on a wild country and a woman’s pubic hair. John Lennon Altarpiece came not after Lennon’s death but with the Beatles in their groove in 1968. Still, much the same bush overruns Lennon’s crotch as well.
Whitten speaks of his Ancestral Totem, his Guardians, and his Mask of eggshells. He is anything but primitive all the same. The show has as about many artifacts as painting, and he plays against them from the first. He picks up a harvest jug from just before the Civil War with his Jug Heads. And then he dispenses with his source’s comic or tragic big ears, toothy grin, and gaping eyes. Like African art for Pablo Picasso, a distant past brings him all the closer to Modernism.
He can pay a price for that, in a loss of specificity. Even in the Black Monoliths, the relation to portraiture and raw feelings is elusive. The first in the series may show the anger in Baldwin’s face, while the very last may depict a broader form, for Chuck Berry strutting his stuff on guitar. Or maybe not. I cannot even swear that Whitten changed all that much over the years. And why exactly does a painting for Jacob Lawrence have a field of white rising like a mountain crag and outlined in red? Without the wall labels, dating or naming is almost impossible.
That uncertainty pays off, though, in breadth, craft, brute mass, and ambiguity. An homage to Malcolm X from 1965 lies fallen, but its coiled wire maintains Malcolm’s vigor and refusals. And sculpture outdoes painting in its connections between past and present. It makes a stronger case than ever for black abstraction—and for Jack Whitten. An early sculpture could pass for dark bronze, but he has covered its wood in shoe polish. It remakes the heritage of slavery and Modernism for shoeshine boys and lawn jockeys.
The installation adds its confusion as well. The monoliths would surely have had more cumulative weight and imagery displayed together, but that would have privileged painting. It would have undercut, too, the argument for an interplay between painting and sculpture. The show’s progression is more confusing still. It starts with a room for beginnings and another for African art, but already it is looking backward and ahead. It places Baldwin before Berry, but Jordan before them both. Here, too, it makes it difficult to discern the artist’s development.
If the Met abandons chronology, it cannot a theme either. Wall labels interrupt now and then for assertions of “typologies,” “at home on Crete,” and “continental drift,” but good luck trying to connect any of them to surrounding work. By the time of a label for the Monoliths, the tilings have long since begun. Still, there may be method to the madness. Here, too, the emphasis is not on the fixed heart of blackness or humanity, but eclecticism.
Whitten’s sculpture shows an artist in private trying things on for size while confident in himself—and a painting may hold the clues after all. An “open circle” honors for Ornette Coleman, the sax player, and Whitten is having his own version of free jazz. Rather than distinct rooms for media or messages, he has riffs. I cannot swear that the show makes the case after all for his more abstract painting, but then that is not its intent. Sculpture wins out, from an artist equally at home in the myths of ancient Greece and New York. More than his painting, it need not trade elegance for the brute force of love.
Grass skirts and fired clay
When Simone Leigh brought her modest huts from Zimbabwe to Harlem in 2016, one could almost overlook that they had drifted so far from home. Art, after all, is always crossing borders and never altogether at home. One could almost miss, too, that she had doomed them to lie forever empty. They lacked so much as doors, but the artist’s hand was everywhere on their clay and thatching, and they took on memories easily—of their native land and a neighborhood park. With its “inHarlem” program, the Studio Museum (shut entirely at present for expansion and renovation) was presiding over them every step of the way.
Now Leigh’s materials have found a home in Chelsea, for a solo show, and also residents. A girl or woman brings them to life several times over. Larger than life, she takes the baskets for a skirt. On a more human scale, she lends her features many times over to smooth fired clay. They seem more than ever at home in the art world with their clean shapes and minimal form. What, for that matter, were the huts but cylinders on a human scale with conical tops?
Leigh could be boasting of all that—her craft, her monumentality, and her reach. She is giving expression to black radical women and the African diaspora. She comes when ceramics as art have gone beyond trendy as well. That same opening week in fall, one could encounter cute enough versions in a solo elsewhere in Chelsea and a three-person show on the Lower East Side. That same week, too, Whitten’s museum survey in sculpture opened with the very same points of reference, in “jug heads” from slavery in the American south and African art from two millennia before. So why do her works seem so vulnerable and so sad?
In part, she just never forgets her subjects and their history. In Harlem, too, she spoke of her village as “locked up while its owners live in diaspora.” She has bared a woman’s back and exposed the fragility of cowrie shells. Her raffia skirts bustle outward, but still with the vulnerability of emergent gender. In dressing a sculpture, she is also picking up from Edgar Degas. Say what you will about the Post-Impressionist’s leering, but one Degas ballerina held her own beside the realism of Yinka Shonibare, the African artist, at the Met Breuer in “Like Life.”
In part, too, Leigh’s girls have lost something vital to their peace of mind along the way. It may be, as with Whitten, from her refusal with folk art to leave well enough alone. Like him, she is smoothing out the clumsiness through her affinities with Post-Minimalism, while deepening the reserve. Often as not, she effaces outright the eyes. In another case, like Alberto Giacometti with Spoon Woman, she leaves only a stem for a neck and a hollow for a face and head. These smaller works, compared with the full bodies, look that much more alone.
At other times, she uses a busier design to efface the eyes, like Louise Bourgeois. One work covers them in what might be shells or cigarette butts. Others treat the entire head and hair as a mask, while additional ceramics, shaped like urns, have a woven surface like dreadlocks. I cannot swear how far Leigh intends the sadness and the comedy alongside the pride and the pageantry, but I would not sell her short. A sculpture can reach out boldly while losing her face or spread her elbows between sagging breasts. And ceramics may lend blank faces a deeper blue or fiery red.