An Epic Journey Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017 celebrates one artist's incredible life.


“My life has been an epic adventure,” reads the introductory wall of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017. The quote, attributed to Whitten himself, is fitting; born in Alabama in 1939, the artist traveled freely between New York and Greece for most of his adult life. Throughout his journeys, he forged his own epic, both literally and figuratively–and now, just months after his unexpected death in January, the world has a chance to follow him through time and space.

The new exhibit at the BMA is a triumph. Curated by Katy Siegel in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Odyssey presents Whitten’s rarely seen sculptures alongside the ancient art that inspired them from Africa and Ancient Greece. Though Whitten was well-known for his paintings, which hang in museums and galleries around the world, Siegel says, his sculptures were “personal.”

“He lived with his work,” she explains. “Most of his [sculptural] work was not considered fine art, not made to sell, not made to be out of the context of his everyday life.”

Because the arc of Whitten’s life took on a nearly mythic significance, however, the pieces seem perfectly suited to the crisp white walls of the gallery that houses them. His life is familiar, as Siegel tells it, because of the way it has interwoven with the American story–with Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South, exploring New Orleans with Fats Domino, meeting and mingling with Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and other extraordinary contemporaries.

His life and art connects too, she says, with the “story of humankind,” a fact that is underscored by the artifacts that join Whitten’s pieces in the gallery. His “blade” pieces, for example, which each feature a large blade of white marble, echo African hunter figurines; his octopus-inspired sculpture, created in Crete, echoes an ancient urn embedded with a cuttlefish.

“For Jack, it was about understanding what [the pieces] do, and how they do it,” Siegel says, referring to some of the ancient African art from which Whitten drew inspiration. “Not just on a formal, artistic level. Unlike Picasso, he said ‘I own these works, these works belong to me.’ These African objects that are now in Western museums were taken from people, so he was reclaiming them.”

The 40 Whitten sculptures, created in Crete over five decades, do more than reflect, however: they serve, too, to protect. According to Siegel, Whitten saw sculptures as guardians–for his family, for black Americans, and for all of humankind.

“There is this idea that we’re all under threat–ecological threat, the threat of technology, the destruction of the natural world,” says Siegel.

It may be so, and the increasingly violent hectic elements of Whitten’s work suggest we may need the protection now more than ever. Walking through the Odyssey of this great artist, however, it’s hard to feel anything but lucky.

Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963-2017 will be on display to the public April 22- July 29 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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