Watch a Video of the Late Artist Jack Whitten Working on His Final Painting

The film is the latest from the documentary series Art21.

Jack Whitten working on Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting) (2017). Film still from Jack Whitten: An Artist's Life. Courtesy of Art21.

The late painter Jack Whitten stars in the newest edition of Art21’s Extended Play” series of curated, behind-the-scenes films produced in close collaboration with artists.

The short film, titled Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life, follows the painter around his Queens studio as he works on what would become his last painting, Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting) (2017). Interspersed throughout are footage and audio snippets from the artist’s final on-screen interview, conducted in October of last year, in which he reflects on his life, work, and a handful of colorful experiences from his 60-year career. (See the full 9-minute film below.)

The artist passed away in January from complications related to chronic leukemia.

Whitten was born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, during the era of racial segregation—a time he calls “American Apartheid.” He attended Tuskegee University in Alabama, but because it didn’t have an art program, he transferred to Southern University in Louisiana. There he became active in civil rights protests and helped organize a  march that wound from downtown Baton Rouge to the state office building.

Jack Whitten in his studio. Film still from Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life. Courtesy of Art21.

“It was that march…that drove me out of the south,” Whitten says in the film. “That changed me, politically, forever.” In the fall of that year, Whitten recalls, he took a bus from New Orleans to New York, where he attended Cooper Union and met artists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Jacob Lawrence.

Jack Whitten’s painting Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting) (2017), on view now at Hauser & Wirth in New York. Film still from Jack Whitten: An Artist’s Life. Courtesy of Art21.

Whitten, known for his storytelling, goes on to talk about his early days in New York, how he reconceived the way he thought about painting, and the many in-studio innovations he made along the way. Meanwhile, the camera pans around his jam-packed studio, focusing on some of his many mementos, including a model of a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen and a framed photo of him shaking President Obama’s hand after being awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2015.

The painting featured in the video, Quantum Wall, VIII, is on view now at Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd Street location in New York—a special presentation the gallery launched this month in memory of the artist. A month from now, the Baltimore Museum of Art will open “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963 – 2017,” the first survey of the artist’s sculptural work.


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