JACK Whitten, the African-American painter and sculptor who died Sunday at 78, was once given a tour of St Catherine’s Monastery, at Mount Sinai. His guide, a young monk, led him down into the ossuary – “room after room of bones, of every monk who had served at St Catherine’s.”
“This monk,” he told the cultural forum Brooklyn Rail last year, “said, ‘I understand you are a professor.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, humbly so.’ And he said to me, ‘Here,’ pointing to the bones, ‘they are the professors and we are the students.’ “
In departing this world, Whitten leaves behind not just bones but an extraordinary body of work that, after decades of neglect, is just beginning to receive its due. It has a lot to teach us.
In an art world lately bent on rediscovering neglected artists – not all of them deserving – Whitten is the