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Whitten, Jack

Born: 1939 
Occupation: abstract artist
From: African Americans in the Visual Arts, Revised Edition, A to Z of African Americans.

An abstract artist of great depth and complexity, Jack Whitten raises profound philosophical questions and social concerns in his bold paintings.

He was born on December 5, 1939, in Bessemer, Alabama. His father, a coal miner, died when he was still a child. His mother was a seamstress. Whitten studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1957 to 1959; spent a year at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and graduated from the School of Art of The Cooper Union in New York City with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1964.

Whitten made New York his permanent home and taught at Manhattan Community College from 1970 to 1975. During this time he developed a unique technique of abstract art in which he screened paints through fibers and then removed the excess paint to create images. While he never exhibited these paintings, he became well known for such experimental works as Look Mom, Look, See the Funny People, a composition consisting of strange beasts, symbolizing the polarized attitudes of different peoples in the United States and other countries.

Other works created strange optical illusions through thick buildups of paint, which he cut into, and the spraying of paint into bands of pure color. Whitten's more recent work has focused on mixed-media collages, such as 28 Black Holes (1994), which includes such diverse materials as tinfoil, coffee, and a chair. In another work he juxtaposed acrylic paint pools with Afro-picks, homemade rakes, and other found objects. His painting Black Monolith III: For Barbara Jordan, a tribute to the late black U.S. congresswoman, hangs in the U.S. Embassy Mission Residence in Dakar, Senegal, Africa.

Jack Whitten has been an adjunct professor at Cooper Union since 1971 and also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work was included in the group exhibition Free Expressions: Contemporary Voice and Contemporary African American Artists from the Collection (2002) at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. He was a recipient of the Painting and Sculpture Grant Program Award from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in 1995.

Whitten was working in his studio in lower Manhattan when he saw the first airplane, commandeered by terrorists, strike the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As a memorial, he created a huge panel embedded with ashes that took two years to complete. In 2008, the painting was exhibited at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Art historian and writer Richard J. Powell has called Whitten "one of the leading virtuoso abstract artists in the United States."


"Jack Whitten." Alexander Gray Associates. Available online. URL:<i>Jack Whitten%Fi%. Downloaded March 14, 2009.

Riggs, Thomas, ed. St. James Guide to Black Artists. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1997, pp. 566–568.

Wright, Beryl J. Jack Whitten. Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum Association, 1990.

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Otfinoski, Steven. "Whitten, Jack." African Americans in the Visual Arts, Revised Edition, A to Z of African Americans. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE01&iPin=AAVA0183&SingleRecord=True (accessed April 29, 2016).

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