Profile: Jack Whitten (1939-2018)

Jack Whitten was an American painter and sculptor. In 2016, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts.



Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama. Planning a career as an army doctor, Whitten entered pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute from 1957 to 1959. He also traveled to nearby Montgomery, Alabama to hear Martin Luther King, Jr speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was deeply moved by his vision for a changed America.

In 1960, Whitten went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to begin studying art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. Whitten participated in a march from downtown Baton Rouge to the state capitol. Whitten’s artist ability led him to be in charge of producing the signs and slogans to be used at that demonstration.

Whitten believed strongly about Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach. However, witnessing the violent reactions from the segregationist made him realize that if he remained in the South he would turn violent himself. Angered by the violent resistance to change he experienced he moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union in the fall of 1960, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1964. Afterwards he remained in New York as a working artist, heavily influenced by the abstract expressionists then dominating the art community, especially Willem de Kooning and Romare Bearden.


Shortly after graduating from Cooper Union, Whitten had the opportunity to meet other black artist which included, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, while he remained in New York to start his art career.

Whitten’s art style was known to be abstract but he liked to refer to his art as art with truth and soul. A large number of Whitten’s artwork was inspired by his own experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. Whitten concluded that slavery obstructed the culture of people of color. Therefore, Whitten believed that it was his destiny to restore the culture through his pieces.

Whitten’s paintings dated back to as early as the 1960s. A large portion of Whitten’s artwork had a feathery, soft effect which Whitten discovered was desirable by placing a nylonmesh fabric over his wet acrylic paintings. Whitten also used a T-shaped tool, which he would call the “developer”. Whitten would move the T-shaped tool across the surface of his art in one single motion. This technique was used to represent one point being related to another.

Whitten’s work was featured in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. The Whitney mounted a solo exhibition of his paintings in 1974. He has also had individual shows at numerous private galleries and universities, including a 10-year retrospective in 1983 at the Studio Museum in Harlem and an exhibition of memorial paintings in 2008 at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Whitten spent long portions of the summer in Crete, where he had a studio and made sculptures.

Throughout his career, Whitten concerned himself with the techniques and materials of painting and the relationship of artworks to their inspirations. At times he has pursued quickly-applied gestural techniques akin to photography or printmaking. At other times the deliberative and constructive hand is evident. The New York Times labeled him the father of a “new abstraction”.

When the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, Whitten was at his studio on Lispenard Street in Tribeca. In the following years, he constructed a monumental painting, with ashes embedded into it, as a memorial of the day.

President Barack Obama awarded Whitten the 2015 National Medal Of Arts Award.

Personal life

At 78, Whitten died on January 20, 2018. Whitten and his wife Mary resided in Queens, New York.

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