Rather, what’s interesting is that, from his perch in Dusseldorf, Richter was wrestling with comparable problems: how to escape the intensified subjectivity of abstract expressionism yet still retain sensual surfaces; and, just as importantly, how to get one’s artistic tuning fork and one’s political tuning fork humming on the same frequency. Remarkably, he found a similar solution: abstract paintings made by pushing paint across the canvas with a mechanical tool.
Whitten’s works were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. Writing in The New York Times, John Russell registered the element of chance in Whitten’s raked paint technique (at times he used an Afro comb), and applauded their immediacy. Roberta Smith, writing in Artforum the following year, noted the sense of velocity in Whitten’s surfaces — a key insight, which holds also for Richter’s squeegee abstracts.
The two largest paintings at the Rose, “Asa’s Palace” and “The Pariah Way,” have velocity in spades. Their impact is tremendous.
Incredibly, until the Rose show was installed, Whitten hadn’t seen either of them since he painted them. They had remained rolled up in his studio for 40 years.
“The Pariah Way” has a mottled, purplish surface. It’s full of random glimpses of earlier layers of different colors — rust-colored in the top half, green below. What’s striking is how taut the entire surface appears, as if the whole complex symphony of layered paint had been fired in a kiln, its surface unified that way.
“Asa’s Palace” punctuates an all-over field of horizontal pink and gray striations with elongated blobs of bright or metallic color. Some of these marks have a flat, bubbled texture, like pumice stone; they seem to emerge from layers below. Others seem to sit on top of that field. The longer you look, however, the more spatially ambiguous and technically mysterious they become.
A nearby set of six small collages on brown linen offers clues to Whitten’s process. Thin slices of colored acrylic have evidently been removed from the blobs in “Asa’s Palace” and pasted to the brown linen to make new works, resembling miniature cutouts by Matisse.
Other, primarily black-and-white works on paper — the “Cut Acrylic” and “Dispersal” series — stress Whitten’s interest in arbitrary effects of splatter, spray, resist, and removal. All suggest not only industrial processes but the chemical, dark-into-light hocus-pocus of photography (another link with Richter, for whom the photographic image is central).
Even if the mechanical-looking works of Whitten, from the ’70s, and Richter, from the ’80s and beyond, suggest a reaction against the rhetoric of abstract expressionism, they should also be seen as complications of, and hence salutes to, that legacy.
Abstract expressionism’s most celebrated figure, Jackson Pollock, died not long after reintroducing figurative elements into his paintings. Whitten’s belief is that Pollock “had discovered something that he didn’t understand fully” — something “he was just desperately trying to make sense of. . . . My friend David Budd,” he continued, “used to tell me repeatedly, ‘You know, after Pollock, something was swept under the rug,’ and I never knew what he was talking about.”
The statement sets off bells in one’s head; after all, it might just as easily be applied to Whitten. A restless, inventive spirit, he has gone on to make brilliant, commanding work in a variety of styles. But this small show has enough in it to make you wonder whether, around the mid-1970s, he wasn’t desperately trying to make sense of what he had discovered, and whether that discovery wasn’t subsequently swept under the rug.
It’s a discovery that he, and we, are still trying to make sense of.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.