Tesserae, Et Cetera: Jack Whitten at The BMA and The Met Breuer


plural noun
Ancient Greek, from téssares 'four', meaning the small square blocks of stone, tile, glass, or other materials used in the construction of a mosaic.

et cet·er·a
Latin, from et ‘and’ and cetera ‘the rest’, used at the end of a list to indicate that further, similar items are included.


We stand before a huge picture that suggests an aerial view of urban sprawl – yet this is no regular city. What we see here, from a bird’s-eye view, is a futuristic megalopolis, more organic than orthogonal. It resembles Wakanda’s Birnin Zana, the fictional African home of Marvel’s Black Panther, a hugely popular film adaptation of which came out earlier this year. 

The comparison makes sense in light of the other works in the gallery. This picture is part of the artist's "Black Monoliths" series, which pays homage to important black icons: there's one dedicated to Maya Angelou, another to James Baldwin. They are all beautiful. But this one in particular stands out. The only horizontal picture in the group, it especially evokes an aerial image. Only, it’s not: as the wall text explains, this picture is an abstract painting composed of thousands of acrylic paint-tiles, or tesserae, that create an abstract composition which only appears to be a city seen from above.

Jack Whitten  Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant , 2014

Jack Whitten
Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014

The late American artist Jack Whitten created Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant in 2014. It is the final piece in ‘Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017’, recently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art and currently at the Met Breuer in New York. As its subtitle suggests, Odyssey emphasizes the three-dimensional output of the artist since 1963. Whitten, who is known more as a painter, created these works privately while vacationing in Crete with his Greek wife. The sculptures in Odyssey are mostly figurative and reflect Whitten’s interest in traditional forms. Greek artefacts loaned by the nearby Walters Art Museum and several traditional African pieces from the BMA supplement the exhibition.

Like the ancient Greek and African works that inspired him, Whitten’s sculptures are not simply formal explorations; they hold meanings and serve functions beyond their role as art objects. A row of wooden sculptures referred to by the wall text as ‘guardians’ protects the members of his family; his ‘containers’ consist of reliquaries with hidden drawers and secret meanings. Many of Whitten’s sculptures blend Western and African traditions, such as The Afro American Thunderbolt (1983–84), a dynamic zigzag of black mulberry wreathed with rusty nails, capped at each end with squarish copper plates. The accompanying text explains that this work was created ‘for the protection and empowerment of all Black people.’ Its blocky, wooden thunderbolt recalls the divine weapon of Zeus, while the embedded nails refer to the nkisi nkondi figures sculpted by central African artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, an example of which stands next to Thunderbolt.

Jack Whitten  The Afro American Thunderbolt , 1983–1984

Jack Whitten
The Afro American Thunderbolt, 1983–1984

Yet, while his sculptures are thoroughly engaging, it’s Whitten’s paintings that steal the show. The American painter Ad Reinhardt once quipped, "Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting." While we don't have to fully endorse Reinhardt's aphorism, we can see what he might have been aiming at here. Sculptures invite us in for a closer look allowing for scrutiny from various angles, whereas large-scale paintings stop us in our tracks. They envelope us and disorient us. Before the sublime, we are forced to pause and reorient ourselves. When entering the final gallery of Odyssey, incidentally the only one with benches, we are further compelled to take a seat and behold.

To get a fuller picture of Jack Whitten, it helps to travel beyond Odyssey. After exiting the show, we find ourselves in the museum’s Antioch Court, named after the ancient Roman city where its early Christian-era mosaics of animal motifs that line these walls were extracted. The tesserae of Whitten’s Atopolis are echoed here. Rounding the corner, you make your way to the museum’s contemporary wing, where Whitten’s painting, 9.11.01 (2006) is displayed. A dark, cosmological pyramid sits amid swirls of colour. Though technically not part of the exhibition, the work acts as a cultic mirror to the hope and spirit that animates Odyssey, particularly Atopolis.

Jack Whitten  9.11.01 , 2006

Jack Whitten
9.11.01, 2006

Though not coined until the 1990s, halfway through his career, the term Afrofuturism aptly describes Whitten's aesthetic and worldview. Afrofuturist art ranges from the avant-garde jazz music of Sun Ra to the Marvel Comics superhero Black Panther. Like his fellow Alabaman, Sun Ra, Whitten believed he could travel to distant times and places through his creative energies. Both in the large abstractions from his professional career and in the sculptures quietly made on Crete, Whitten's oeuvre represents a significant contribution to and enhancer of the Afrofuturist cultural tradition. In fact, by highlighting Whitten's sculptural output, Odyssey underscores the Afrofuturist connection by revealing to the public for the first time the playful and powerful soul of Jack Whitten. 

Whitten, who grew up in the southern US during the Jim Crow period and met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, travelled widely: he attended art school at the Cooper Union in New York; in the late 1960s he began what would become regular visits to Crete with his wife and daughter; and in 2015, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama. Whitten passed away this past January at the age of 78. A self-described ‘time traveller’, Whitten’s work has an almost science fictional quality to it, blending the disparate forms and materials of past and present. Perhaps utopia is always out of reach. Odyssey suggests that it's worth striving for anyway.

A version of this essay was selected as the winner of the 2018 Frieze Writer’s Prize.