Richard Whitten’s mysterious, wildly imaginative machines are on display at Morris Museum


“Sablier” is part of the “Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds From the Studio of Richard Whitten” exhibition at The Morris Museum.

Many artists aim to create a window into another world. Painter and sculptor Richard Whitten bangs the shutters open with uncommon emphasis. Standing at one end of “Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds From the Studio of Richard Whitten” at the special exhibition gallery at the Morris Museum and looking toward the other prompts a case of horizontal vertigo. The walls feel like anchors for portals — and the portals all lead to the same hallucinatory place.

Whitten’s achievement is made more improbable by the scope of the show. “Kinetic Worlds” is a generous exhibition: nearly 60 pieces, with many large paintings full of odd details and corresponding sculptures, including some miniature three-dimensional realizations of the machines depicted in the pictures, and others that are more like the models of an architect in a fairy tale. The artist has labored long on the far side of the looking glass and sweated the details to create a conduit between the reality we inhabit and a cool, haunted, airless zone that (we think) exists only in his head.

How does Whitten pull the viewer into his vision? Begin with his disinclination to cast his visions into the usual dull rectangles. Instead, he paints on wooden panels cut into evocative shapes, including frames with fan-like curves and grooves, and notches that look like they are begging for a gatekeeper’s key. One peculiar little painting — the star-framed “Sablier” — comes with a cupola built in its upper left corner.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this sort of innovation might feel like a gimmick; for Whitten, it’s an opportunity. He paints borders within borders, giving dimensionality to flat fields of color. This prompts double takes. Is that ridge along the rim of that Whitten work a three-dimensional feature, or is it the trick of a painter with command over minute brushstrokes and the interplay between colors and shapes? A Whitten work often resembles a diorama, at first glance: an inversion of expectation, a cut-out in the fabric of reality, a slide of a secret panel and a glimpse at a wall behind the wall.

Richard Whitten’s “Pendant.”

The illusion is amplified by the artist’s understanding of the dynamics of light. Objects in Whitten’s universe cast precise shadows. They are mysterious and inscrutable, but full of specific astronomical information. In the masterful “Pendant,” a diagonally striped cylinder dangling from the ceiling of an arch catches sunbeams coming from its left. Much of the grotto behind it is dark, but an arc of brightness to the cylinder’s right gives away the sun’s position in the sky. The object’s shadow is slightly elongated and softened to communicate the curve of the grotto wall behind it.

Is this a depiction of a primitive clock? Or is it a lever set to delineate the border of twilight? Curator Anne Ricculli of the Morris Museum cleverly positions Whitten’s works so the rays seem to slant at telling angles. She and Whitten have opened imaginary skylights in the ceiling of the Museum, and visitors step into a crosshatch of beams — the residue of some strange and unknown celestial transit.

But mostly, the curious mood of “Kinetic World” is established by the peculiar things that Whitten has chosen to represent. The paintings in this show are often depictions of odd, sturdy, handsome machines. Contraptions they aren’t: They are elegantly, economically assembled by a fashioner with an eye for aesthetic detail. There is no whisper of electricity anywhere in the show; instead, Whitten gives us tensely coiled ropes, paddles, flywheels and levers, weights and counterweights, poles and cubbyholes. Pull on the cable that winds through the weird and wonderful “Metropolis,” and it is possible to trace exactly how the device might spring to life — even as Whitten gives us no indication of the machine’s purpose. (He also has built a small, three-dimensional version of the object in the painting, in case you are wondering if it could actually exist. You almost certainly won’t.)

Though the operators of these devices are nowhere in sight, their presence is felt. There is no dust on these gears: Somebody, or something, has been running this show. Supervisory maintenance and a certain wizardly oversight are implied by the smoothness of the surfaces, the taut cords and the bright finish of the paint on the parts of the machines that are purely cosmetic, as in the pagoda-like dome that covers the turn wheel in “Phiale.” The metal joints show no sign of rust. Many of them are visibly gilded.

Whitten’s kinetic world is quietly opulent — a fantasy of industry without sweat. We don’t know who the scientist-magician is who has put this together and calibrated it all so it runs effortlessly, but we get the sense that he’ll be back. As viewers, we become apprentices, novices stumbling around the master’s halls, creeping through still chambers, gazing at devices that we don’t understand, but that carry the heft of authority.

Richard Whitten’s “Froebel.”

Whitten’s work is unusual, but it’s not without its antecedents. “Froebel,” a play of geometric solid blocks suspended over a shadowed guardrail, is a crisper version of the art that graced the covers of pulp paperbacks by authors of heady speculative fiction like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Other pieces lean toward the detailed, sharp-cornered industrial-age precisionism of technology painters like Charles Sheeler. The twisting staircase and the cable-thin spiral banister of “The Observatory” aren’t many leagues away from the impossible landscapes and visual riddles of M.C. Escher, even if Whitten’s work always seems physically and geometrically probable in a way that Escher prints do not.

Older traditions — some much older — are felt, too. The wooden panels and curved borders of Whitten’s paintings are reminiscent of those from the Renaissance. Some of these images could be altarpieces with a mute clockwork mechanism in the place of the Madonna and Child. His palette, too — full of deep, velvety reds and accents of peacock blue and the gold of a modest prince — feel indebted to the 16th Century. The architecture of Whitten’s pre-digital world evokes the stone piazzas and arched porticoes of Northern Italy. Leonardo da Vinci, famously, sketched hypothetical machines in his notebooks. Centuries later, Whitten operates with the same curiosity about what levers, wheels and winches can do.

The difference, of course, is that da Vinci’s kinetic world lacked internal combustion. Whitten’s embrace of nonelectric tech is a self-conscious choice, and a rejection of the means by which modern mechanisms are animated. That “Kinetic Worlds” never feels nostalgic or atavistic is a testament to how magisterial Whitten’s world is, how well he’s appointed it, and how internally consistent his vision can be. His exhibition isn’t a da Vincian celebration of the mechanical, but it isn’t pessimistic, either.

Richard Whitten’s “Tellurian.”

We spend a lot of time worrying about machines. We fear that they’re going to replace us, or get out of control and dictate the terms of our lives, or even achieve an artificial sentience incompatible with ours. The Morris Museum’s large collection of music boxes and its current “Mystery Clocks and Magic Automata From the Collection of Richard Garriott” exhibition remind us of how long these question marks have been hanging over our heads, like a Richard Whitten pendulum.

It isn’t hard to understand why. We spend most of our days in front of machines whose workings we can’t begin to fathom. We, too, marvel at the sleek contours and arcane purposes of objects that could have come out of the fever dreams of our forerunners, and we, too, never get to see the hand of the maker.

Maybe the strangest and spookiest thing about Whitten’s world is how closely it resembles our own.

“Set in Motion: Kinetic Worlds from the Studio of Richard Whitten” will be at The Morris Museum in Morris Township through Sept. 1. Visit

RICHARD WHITTEN from NetWorks Rhode Island on Vimeo.


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