Jack Whitten, April’s Shark, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 52 inches
Gerhard may be the Jack of all Trades but Jack was the King.
In 1974 I saw an exhibition that astounded me and elicited a longing to return to painting. It was early 2018 when I finally did so. In looking back at Jack Whitten today I took note of the date of that show and realized that Gerhard Richter began using the squeegee in his abstract works much later than Whitten, in 1985. Guess who got all the credit? That’s right, the white guy who offered up “his” innovations more than a decade later than the former Tuskegee student who lived around the corner from me.
Svetlana Boym talks about innovation that comes from being an outsider. Jack’s work from the 70s utilized handmade squeegees and African American hair picks. The work was freighted with meaning and opened new ways to push the medium around that were both material (sculptural) and illusionistic (painting). He lived in his content in the deepest bodily and psychic sense.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (687-2), 1989, Oil on canvas, 125cm x 100 cm
Richter arrived at the use of the squeegee initially via a completely different route: that is to say the need to blur photos, thereby addressing the potential loss of an image, the victimization and erasure of entire histories by a class of people who were his Nazi forebears. Once again, racism, cruelty, and prejudice are being addressed. Richter’s immense skill allowed him to paint accurate grisaille portraits and then he obscured them with a squeegee, thus blurring memory. It is only in his later abstract paintings from 1985 on that he begins to squeegee entire surfaces for non photo related purposes. According to Phillips auction house, “Richter‘s Abstraktes Bild series celebrates his mastery of the squeegee technique, widely considered one of his greatest contributions to art history.”
Whitten was clearly first. Though neither artist himself claimed the mantel of innovator, art world institutions clearly tipped the scale in favor of Richter. Like many pioneering people of color in the art world, this important aspect of Whitten’s legacy was attributed to a white man. Yet I find it interesting that both Whitten and Richter turned away from descriptive brush painting and used a squeegee to shove the materiality of paint onto the mental space of painting in order to comb through the brutality of their histories.
Jack Whitten in his Tribeca Studio with his handmade squeegee
Gerhard Richter and his squeegee (some time after 1984)
Heide Fasnacht, Momentary Moons, 2022, 60 x 48 inches
Heide Fasnacht is an artist who, after making sculpture for many decades, has returned to her first love: painting. Her work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the DeCordova Museum, the Walker Art Center, the DeYoung Museum and many others. www.heidefasnacht.com
Next up from Heide Fasnacht: Janet Sobel vs Jackson Pollock.