Copper in the Arts

February 2019

Unprecedented Jack Whitten Retrospective Opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston

By Paul David

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) recently unveiled the first major retrospective of renowned American contemporary artist Jack Whitten, on view through May 27. A mixed media artist who frequently pairs copper wire and brass bolts with a diverse spectrum of materials like wood, marble, bone, fishing line and personal mementos, Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 features more than 40 significant works by the artist spanning his 5-decade career interweaving traditions of African, European, and ancient art.

Jack Whitten, The Saddle (detail), 1977, © Jack Whitten Estate.
Courtesy of the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963–2017 has introduced the public to a hidden body of work by this contemporary master, drawing attention to the cultural traditions and figures that have influenced Whitten’s work,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “We are pleased with the opportunity to bring this revelatory exhibition to Houston.”

The exhibition follows presentations last year at the organizing institutions, The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Whitten’s sculptures will be joined by several paintings, many of which come from his Black Monolith series honoring African American cultural figures—including Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, and Ornette Coleman—revealing the connection between Whitten’s paintings and his previously unknown sculptures, and also marks the first time these works have been exhibited together.

According to the museum’s curators, Whitten (1939–2018) was one of the most important artists of his generation. His paintings feature groundbreaking experimentation with abstraction, including recent process and material-based work memorializing African American historical figures, such as Barbara Jordan and W.E.B Du Bois. Whitten began carving wood in 1962 in order to understand African sculpture, both aesthetically and in terms of his own identity as an African American. His introduction to African art came when he visited the Brooklyn Museum in New York as a young man in the summers of 1958 and 1959. The encounters left a lasting impression, as he believed African sculpture was a vital inheritance for artists working in the African diaspora.

“I am continually fascinated by the breadth of styles, techniques, and materials that Whitten’s sculpture encompasses. From nails to bones to wire to even circuit boards in an array of forms and with a range of personal and cultural references, these objects constitute not only Whitten’s truly original ways of making art, but also his intensely and fully cultivated worldview,” said Kanitra Fletcher, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the MFAH.

Alongside Whitten’s sculptures, several paintings honoring African American cultural figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, and Ornette Coleman, will be on display as well, marking the first time these works have been exhibited together.


Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX, (713) 639-7300

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