“Wake Up!” Artist Jack Whitten at the Monday Night Lecture Series

By Larissa Pham, CC '14

 Every week, the Yale School of Art invites an artist, critic, or otherwise creatively inclined individual to speak to the community on a variety of topics, covering mediums both old and new. In just the past academic year, the series has featured artists such as Cathy Opie, Gregory Crewdson, and most recently, Jack Whitten. Given the space to talk freely about their own studio practice, as well as the making of art in general, the Monday night lecture series is a valuable contribution to Yale’s vibrant creative community.

Whitten is an abstract painter whose career spans several decades: in fact, “Artists do not retire!” he proclaimed. In his compelling lecture the evening of March 25th, Whitten, an African-American artist, spoke of the relationship between his personal background and the way he makes art. “Art is an act of necessity,” he said. “Money should not be your first priority.” He referred to his youth growing up in the South as an “American Apartheid” which shaped his sensibilities: “When you see someone bleeding next to you,” he said, referring to the civil rights movement, “it will change you.” A pioneer in the fields of abstract and Black art, Whitten’s strong sensibilities both encompassed and pushed the boundaries of what it meant and means to be an African-American artist.

“Wake up!” Whitten encouraged the audience. “Art frightens people. But it’s not just paint that’s going into that painting.” By underscoring the importance of his subject—whether a work dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. or a memorial for 9/11—even in the non-representational field of abstract painting, Whitten pushes his work into “something other.” Over decades, his paintings have constantly evolved, mixing gesture, tactility, and form in a myriad of ways. He offered a gem of advice to the fledgling artists in the room; advice he himself received when younger. “From the moment you pick up the brush in your studio,” he said, “you’re part of history.”