Artists & Designers

Jack Whitten (1939-2018)

Jack Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939. While a pre-medical student at the Tuskegee Institute, the pursuit of discovery by the inventor George Washington Carver—who also painted—impressed Whitten. He left Tuskegee in 1959; and the following year he went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to study at Southern University. In Baton Rouge, he became involved in a civil rights demonstration inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and participated in a march. The horror of the hatred he witnessed during the march made him decide to leave the South, and he moved to New York. In New York, he attended the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; and in 1964 he graduated with a degree in Fine Art.

Whitten's early experiments with painting drew inspiration from Abstract Expressionism following his exposure to the works of artists Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis, as well as the complex harmonies and rhythms of jazz. Works from this period treat topics such as the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975). In the 1970s he turned to abstraction and developed a new method of painting related to photographic technology and printmaking traditions. He abandoned handmade gesture and brushstrokes; instead he "processed" paint and canvas with large troughs of paint and tools such as sticks, rakes, squeegee, and Afro combs to create the visual elements of texture, line, and space. During this same period, Whitten developed his continued approach to painting in which he experiments with the malleability of paint and its potential to create independent objects and new approaches to dimensional space.

Adapted from

  • Jeffrey Grove, PhD, DMA unpublished material, 2010.

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