A tribute to mosaics, moonlight and mystery

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Identity politics has its uses, obviously. It won’t do to claim that “women” is a redundant political category or that there is no such thing as “Japanese literature” or “Black music.” But pinning all our explanatory powers on the concept of “identity” is like expecting toast to meet all our nutritional needs.

Why does art exist? Not so much to beat up on toast as to enact and embody a whole other set of possibilities. The possibility, for instance, of continual transformation. Of richness and subtlety and surprise. The possibility of promiscuity when it comes to meanings, and susceptibility when it comes to ideas and emotions. The possibility that all things known and unknown are interpenetrated.

This is why, as our body politic splutters and chokes on the weeds of identity politics, we need art more than ever.

It may also be that we may need Jack Whitten more than ever. This massive, sprawling work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was made by Whitten in 2014, three years before his death. “Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant” is about10 feet high and 20 feet wide. It’s constructed from eight panels of stretched canvas covered in shiny black anthracite paint and thousands of handmade tiles.

Whitten, a Black man from Bessemer, Ala., was the son of a coal miner. (“The color black is in my blood!” he wrote.) He would marry Mary Orsini, a woman of Greek descent, and for decades they spent the summers in Crete.

The artist was fascinated by ancient mosaics. As he traveled the Mediterranean, he studied how their makers carefully positioned pieces of stone, marble, precious metals and glass to reflect light. He made his own tiles, or tesserae, by pouring aluminum-colored acrylic gel into trays to dry, and then cutting it into pieces.

The splintered tiles that he stuck to the surface of “Atopolis” seem to form sprawling networks. Their density increases at the center, but they don’t ever establish a pattern. The effect — of opaque materiality, glittering light and infinite sprawl — is overwhelming. Looking at it, you may feel you are flying over a city at night or observing the glitter of moonlight off the broken surface of the sea.

The work’s title combines the Greek words for “place” (topos) and “city” (polis). The “a” denotes a negation (as in “atypical”), so “Atopolis” might be translated as “without place.”

“Ever since White imperialist entrepreneurs forced us into slavery, Black identity has been linked to our not having a ‘sense of place,’ ” Whitten wrote in 2015. So for members of the African diaspora, “without place” was a powerful concept.

Whitten’s thinking here was influenced by Édouard Glissant (1928-2011), the celebrated Martiniquais critic of colonialism and racism. When Whitten discovered Glissant late in life, he was bowled over. “A Black writer,” he marveled, “has entered a space that I work with every day in painting.”

The way Whitten thought about that “space” was complex. He was always — and inescapably — aware of his identity as a Black man. Active during the civil rights era, he was committed to claiming both his African American and African heritage.

But what Whitten liked in Glissant was his (very political) rejection of hierarchies as well as his concept of a universal space that was neither Utopian nor “hippie,” but concrete, just like “Atopolis.”

He responded, too, to Glissant’s idea of “opacity” — his belief that there is power precisely in not being known — in remaining untranslatable, inscrutable, irreducible to skin color or to any other limiting notion of identity — and therefore impossible to dominate.

Opacity. What could be more attractive for an abstract artist? (If you choose to be an abstract artist, you probably want — more than most artists — to remain inscrutable.)

Glissant’s idea of “opacity” was surely seductive, too, to someone whose assigned identity (“Black”) has been used as a basis for oppression, despite abjectly failing to describe the constant transformations of his inner life, his creativity, his curiosity, his passion. His limitlessness. His “no-place-ness.”

If Whitten was susceptible to the seductions of abstraction, materiality and opacity, it’s because no one can survive on just toast.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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