From March 29 to September 1, 2019 the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin will present a comprehensive exhibition of works by the American painter Jack Whitten (1939–2018), the first solo show by the artist in a European museum. Jack’s Jacks, which was conceived in close collaboration with the artist, shows how Whitten, over a period of more than five decades, continually extended the boundaries of abstract painting. The exhibition focuses on works dedicated to historical events and prominent figures, offering a personal perspective on the history and people that surrounded Whitten, and the influence they had on his thought and development as an artist.

Born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama, Jack Whitten came of age in the Southern States of the United States of America under laws enforcing racial segregation, a social reality that he described as “American Apartheid”. In 1960, he moved to New York and enrolled in a Visual Arts course at Cooper Union. In Manhattan Whitten met with key protagonists of the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. He also became good friends with fellow African American artists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, who were strong supporters of Whitten. His works of this period, paintings influenced by Surrealism and the spontaneous gestural abstraction of the New York school, were primarily explorations of the artist’s own identity. Aside from a keen interest in the work of his contemporaries and the history of art, Whitten studied philosophy, psychology, and African sculpture, as well as the natural sciences and the latest technological developments. These different strands of Whitten’s thinking came together in his painterly work along with a further important influence: jazz music. Whitten would regularly visit concerts in the clubs of the thrilling and progressive music scene of New York City and met musicians such as Max Roach, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman to name a few.

Jack Whitten, Porträt | © Foto: John Berens

Jack Whitten, King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968 | Oil on canvas, 172,4 x 131,4 cm | © Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: John Berens

From 1970 onward Whitten’s work became more experimental and his conception of painting was concentrated on the act of creation itself. He constructed a workspace on the floor of his studio, and, instead of a brush, Whitten now created his paintings with a self-constructed tool, the “developer”. He used this enormous rake-like blade with a rubber or metal edge to spread large quantities of thick acrylic paint onto a flat canvas lying on the floor. He continued to build up the work through the applications of further layers of acrylic, before using “the developer” to create abstract constructions that were formed in one sweeping motion of the tool across the surface of the paint. This meant that his pictures no longer consisted of individual brush strokes set in a relation to one another; instead the complete surface of a painting was created through the economy of a single gesture. Whitten also realized that these dried slabs of paint could be cut into pieces and reassembled as elements of a collage. These technical innovations underscored the object-like character of Whitten’s paintings, allowing their material properties to come to the fore. He often spoke about this development in his work by citing the maxim: “I make a painting, I do not paint a painting.”

In 1980, Whitten returned to working with the support in a vertical position, now using the upright surface to continue the experiments he had developed on the floor. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, he furthered his use of paint as a collage material by creating casts of found objects and patterns from the urban environment of New York City. He then assembled these elements into an illusionistic collage on the canvas. Around 1990 Whitten began to avoid reproducing recognizable structures, concentrating instead on geometrical shapes that he cut from dried acrylic paint. Using these pieces, or tesserae, which were first fashioned from thin sheets but became increasingly sculptural, Whitten now created mosaic-like compositions, a style that became characteristic of his late work.

From the beginning of his career, Whitten would dedicate his paintings to friends and relatives, as well as prominent contemporary figures. Yet Whitten was never concerned with illustrative methods of representation. Instead, he understood the material itself as a means of carrying information and saw his works as vessels to be filled with the essence or spirit of the person referenced in their titles. Whitten explicitly saw this process as a means of broadening the spectrum of abstract painting: “to take a subject, and build it into the paint medium, that extends the meaning of abstraction. It’s an extension.”

This body of memorial paintings forms the core of the exhibition Jack’s Jacks. The presentation at Hamburger Bahnhof brings together thirty major works from European and American collections that Whitten considered “gifts” for those acknowledged in their titles. His fellow painters and artists are afforded a special place with works on display dedicated to his mentors Norman Lewis and Willem de Kooning, and prominent colleagues such as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg and Arshile Gorky. Also appearing on the canvases are
figures who helped give shape to Whitten’s socio-political environment, for example King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream) (1968), a psychedelic elegy to Martin Luther King, or the painting Apps for Obama (2011), which testifies Whitten’s unceasing interest in politics. Whitten composed the latter in honor of the 44th US President, Barack Obama, who in 2016 presented the artist with the National Medal of Arts. The dazzling colors of Whitten’s fragmented paintings are reminiscent of the improvised solos and rhythms of jazz, and reveal the artist’s unmistakable love for this style of music. Several paintings were created in memory of the greats of jazz, such as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, and Bud Powell.

In part formally reduced, in part overflowing with material, emotional, and visual power, the works on display map out the cultural, political and spiritual vectors that shaped Jack Whitten’s cosmos. They are Jack’s Jacks.

Jack Whitten, Apps for Obama, 2011 | Acrylic on hollow core door, 213,4 x 231,1 cm | Private Collection | © Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Photo: John Berens

Plan your Visit


March, 29 – September 1, 2019


Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Invalidenstraße 50-51
10557 Berlin


regular: 8 Euro
reduced: 4 Euro
house ticket incl. temporary exhibitions:
regular: 14 Euro
reduced: 7 Euro
Free admission on every first Thursday of the month from 4 to 8 pm.
Free admission for children and young people up to the age of 18.

Book tickets online


U-Bahn U55 Hauptbahnhof, U6 Naturkundemuseum
S-Bahn S3, S5, S7, S75 Hauptbahnhof
Tram M5, M8, M10 Hauptbahnhof
Bus 120, 123, 142, 147, 245, M41, M85, TXL Hauptbahnhof


Café/book store/free cloak room


10 am – 6 pm
10 am – 6 pm
10 am – 8 pm
10 am – 6 pm
11 am – 6 pm
11 am – 6 pm


Good Friday to Easter Monday (April 19 – April 22, 2019): 11 am – 6 pm
May Day (Wednesday, 1 May 2019) 11 am–6 pm
Ascension Day (Thursday, 30 May 2019) 11 am–6 pm
Whitsun Saturday, Sunday and Monday (8–10 June 2019) 11 am–6 pm


On the occasion of the exhibition, Prestel Verlag will publish a comprehensive, illustrated bilingual catalogue with contributions by Udo Kittelmann, Sven Beckstette, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., David Reed and Stanley Whitney, as well as an interview between Zoé Whitley and Melvin Edwards, and writings by Jack Whitten himself.

The publication shows how the artist Jack Whitten (1939-2018) constantly redefined the boundaries of abstract painting over a period of six decades. Starting from gestural images created under the influence of abstract expressionism, the book traces the development of Whitten’s painterly style, from the slab paintings of the 1970s to his later experiments with structure and materiality, which culminated in his unmistakable mosaic style. In order to shed light on the contemporary context of his works, the book focuses on paintings dedicated to historical events and prominent figures such as Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Romare Bearden, Art Blakey, and Prince.

Bilingual edition (German/English)
208 pages with 96 colour illustrations
Hardcover, 23 x 29 cm
WG1580 ISBN 978-3-7913-5862-8
ISBN 978-3-7913-5862-8
Price during the exhibition in the museum: 35 Euro (regular 42 Euro)

Delivery: July 2019

Preorder now!

Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin

The Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin presides over a comprehensive collection of contemporary art, which it presents in a variety of exhibitions. It is the largest among the buildings housing the Nationalgalerie’s extensive holdings, the remainder of which are divided into the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Museum Berggruen, and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg.

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