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, AL, he moved to New York City in 1960 to attend The Cooper Union. Noted for their raucous colors and density of gesture combined with topical content, these artworks manifest 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 black artists during this period, Whitten’s works reintroduce gesture with aspects of sculpture and collage.
In the 1990s, Whitten's experiments with paint as a medium progressed further towards sculpture, as he transformed paint compounds into tiles, and applied them to the canvas as mosaics. These works allude to ancient architecture and murals, serving as both an homage to and memorial of celebrated public figures and intimate friends.
Whitten's work has been exhibited in the 1969 and 1972 Whitney Annuals (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); the landmark 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum; Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964–1980 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY (2006); and High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, organized by Independent Curators International (2006); and Art 41 Basel (2010). Whitten’s 1960s paintings and memorial works have been celebrated in solo exhibitions at P.S.1/MoMA Center for Contemporary Art, New York (2007), and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, GA (2008).