Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Matisse, Whitten devotin’ full time to floatin’

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Jack Whitten, Acrylic Collage I, 1973.

Henri MatisseOceania, The Sea, 1947. Collection of the Beyeler Foundation, Basel, Switzerland.

It’s hard to look at Jack Whitten’s 1973 paintings made up of collaged bits of acrylic paint without thinking of Henri Matisse, specifically the late 1940s and early 1950s works Matisse made in a strikingly diverse range of media — collage, lithograph, screenprint, gouache. Six of the Whitten ‘paint collages’ that seem Matisse-ian are in “Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971-73,” a show of early Whitten that Katy Siegel curated for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. It’s on view through December 15.

But is there any specific relationship between the Matisses and the Whittens? When Whitten was on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast, I asked him if he was thinking about Matisse when he made these small — not more than 16-inches tall — little acrylic collages.

“I’m aware of that, yes. I’m very much aware,” he told me. “One of my great influencers, Romare Bearden, was a great believer in Matisse… so those Matisse cutouts, oh, hell yeah, I’m very much aware of them.”

And about the similarity between space and forms in Matisse and Whitten’s own works of 19 years later? Many of Matisse’s late works reference the undersea world, sometimes so directly that he makes the connection explicit in his titles.

“I’m trying not to think too much of design,” Whitten said. “I’m aware though — I’m a diver, I’m a sea diver. I’m very much aware of the illusion [that] happens when perspective changes when you’re under water. You see a whole different space when you’re underwater. … The perspective switches dramatically. So I’m aware of this… not that I’m trying to replicate or duplicate that, but I am aware of the influence of my diving on those paintings.” [Image at right: Whitten, Acrylic Collage V, 1973.]

Whitten’s somewhat unexpected answer reminded me of something else completely. Check out how closely what Whitten said lines up with something painter Eric Fischl wrote in his excellent memoir “Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas”:

“Collage is the most important innovation in art since perspective was discovered in the fourteenth century. It’s one of the defining techniques of modernism, especially for the surrealists. Perspective is a mathematical construct that creates the illusion of deep space. It enabled painters to move art away from the religious icon and into the realm of realism. Perspective imitated how we see. Collage, on the other hand, is an artificial construct that imitates how the mind works. It breaks down the world of images into fragments of memory torn from their original context.”

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