Some artists use their long careers to perfect a style by creating variations on a theme, while others try to keep up with the times by continually doing something new. Jack Whitten was the latter kind of artist. By the end of his life, he had experimented with formalist painting, abstract portraiture, and even mystical visions of current events. “I want a worldview that will teach me how to conduct myself in this new world order,” he told ARTnews in an interview for a profile on the occasion of a traveling retrospective. “That’s what I’m working on”—and it was something he continued doing up until the end.
Whitten, whose process-based canvases pushed abstraction into new territory, has died at age 78, according to his gallery Hauser & Wirth. “It is with great sadness that we confirm the passing of Jack Whitten,” Marc Payot, a partner and vice president at the gallery, said in a statement. “He was a remarkable man—an artist of endless inventiveness, originality, and honesty, as well as a wonderful friend. His intelligence, compassion, and love for life have influenced all of us who knew and worked with him. Our hearts are with Jack’s family at this time.”
As with many painters whose style matured during the late 1960s and early ’70s, Whitten’s career wasn’t widely recognized until the past few years. But today, when Whitten’s visually seductive paintings appear in major museum shows, it has become difficult to imagine a history of abstract painting without his work.