In the Brooklyn Rail, artist Jack Whitten
on what matters after matter.
Formalism for me is a step toward something. It’s a means—and that is all it is. Speaking personally, for someone to take it as an end unto itself is bullshit. The formal is a way to get to something else—in my work that something else exists off in a more meditative, contemplative, and spiritual domain. The essence of it is metaphysical in the original meaning of the word, which in Greek is metá physiká—that which comes after the notion of matter. When we talk about metaphysics, especially for me being a black person, I have to talk about it coming from different sources. For example, Mr. Heidegger wrote a book called the Introduction to Metaphysics where he starts from the Greeks and walks down through western civilization. I read that and learned a lot from it. But still I had to go off on my own and find out that there is more than one root for what he’s talking about. The ancient Chinese knew this, the ancient Africans did too—it’s just because the way that spheres of influence have worked, politics and power, that it gets presented as being totally Greek, and that’s a mistake.