Whitten had seen it all: born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1939, the artist was raised in the segregated South, studied at the famous Tuskegee Institute, joined the civil rights movement, moved to New York in 1960 and met Jacob Lawrence and John Coltrane, and witnessed the September 11 attacks from his Tribeca studio. Yet his art does not depict these momentous events. In fact, he nearly rejected literal representation altogether. His work charts a different history, one no less searing, of a transformation of vision: of how we see rather than what we see, rendered not in realistic depictions but in abstract forms.
In the early 1970s, Whitten began experimenting with new technologies of Xerox and photographic reproduction. He also changed his painting process, pouring acrylic onto canvases and dragging various devices—afro combs, squeegees, and a twelve-foot-wide tool he called “the developer”—across the plasticine liquid. The effect is one of forms moving at terrific speed, the rush of blurred vision from a vehicle, or a radar scan. Whitten’s abstraction was a charged choice in 1974, when many artists were championing social realism and figuration as political tools. But his stunning pictures explore mediums rather than specific messages; they suggest the ways in which struggles for freedom and power were now being fought in the realm of new media: the mass-reproduced image, the television screen.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)