Jack Whitten (b.1939) began his earliest experiments in painting during the 1960s by creating dynamic works inspired by Abstract Expressionism. Born and raised in Bessemer, Alabama, he moved to New York City in 1960 to attend The Cooper Union. Noted for raucous colors and density of gesture combined with topical content, his artwork of this period manifests emotionally complex meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Experimentation turned to abstraction for Whitten in the 1970s; a new method of painting developed, one that resonates more closely with photography. Gesture is removed from the making of the work; the paint and canvas are “processed”, produced from large troughs of paint dragged across the canvas with tools including squeegees, rakes, and Afro combs. This process yields palpable surface texture, line, and void.
Paint became a metaphor for skin during the 1980s when Whitten experimented with “casting” acrylic paints and compounds to create new surfaces and textures. In contrast to the narrative-based and didactic work made by many African-American artists during this period, Whitten’s artworks reintroduce gesture with aspects of sculpture and collage.
Since the 1990s, Whitten’s experiments with paint as a medium have progressed further towards sculpture, beginning with transforming paint compounds into tiles, and applying them to the canvas as mosaics. These artworks allude to ancient architecture and murals, and serve as both an homage to and memorial of celebrated public figures and intimate friends. Recently, Whitten has repurposed the gamut of techniques he developed over the decades to deepen his engagement with art history, re-contextualizing his experimentations to achieve innovative new surfaces, structures, and symbols.
A retrospective on Whitten’s 50-year long career is currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH; it will travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego presented Whitten’s first retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting in September 2014. His work has been exhibited in the 1969 and 1972 Whitney Annuals at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and a landmark 1974 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Recently, Whitten’s work as been featured at the Brooklyn Museum (2014); 55th Venice Biennale, Italy (2013); Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, Belgium (2014); Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT (2014); Rose Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA (2013); Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA (2012); Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, GA (2008); MoMA PS1, New York (2007); and Studio Museum in Harlem, NY (2006); among others. His work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Whitney Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; and the Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, MI; among others. Whitten received an Honorary Doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2014.