In 1974, a monolithic, fire-red painting by Jack Whitten debuted in the Whitney’s lobby gallery. Whitten made the painting, titled Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by laying the canvas on the floor, dragging a squeegee across it to mix colors, and letting the quarter-inch-thick layer of paint dry. It was one of several pieces known as the artist’s “Slab” works, and, like the others in the series, it came and went from the museum without much fanfare. Whitten was an abstract painter—and an African American one, at that—when the odds were stacked against him; in the mid-’70s, as tastes skewed more toward the restraint of Minimalism and black artists were largely ignored by institutions, he was lucky to have gotten a show at the Whitney at all.
Thirty-one years later, in 2015, the Whitney’s curators, realizing they had a gap in their collection, acquired Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and showed it in “America Is Hard to See,” the inaugural show of the museum’s permanent collection in its new building in the Meatpacking District. The Whitney now joins MoMA, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and others who have acquired work by Whitten over the past few years, concluding that Whitten is an important, if under-appreciated, piece of American art history after all. The painter’s work has never been more visible than it is right now, thanks to a traveling retrospective now on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Whitten, at age 76, is more famous than he has ever been in his half-century career.