Jack Whitten grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, where racial segregation made up the fabric of his early life. Angry and impatient with resistance to social change in the South, he moved New York City in 1960 to study at the School of Art at the Cooper Union. It was his first experience of living in a racially integrated community. There, he began to explore abstraction through the influence of more established Abstract Expressionists— such as Franz Kline (1910–1962), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), and Norman Lewis (1909– 1979)—while maintaining his concern with the American civil rights movement.
Whitten produced Birmingham (1964) by gluing aluminum foil onto a plywood panel that he had blackened with oil paint. The work’s dramatic gesture comes not from the surface treatment of paint, as it would for Abstract Expressionist works, but instead from the raised puncture in the center of the panel, offering viewers a glimpse of what lies beneath: a newspaper photograph of a policeman with a dog attacking an African American protestor during the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Although the exploded hole alludes to the gash on the body politic, it also renounces the “all-over painting” of Abstract Expressionism, where the action takes place only on the surface.
Jack Whitten works in gestural abstraction, incorporating aspects of sculpture and collage. During his pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute, Whitten discovered the legacy of inventor, scientist, and artist George Washington Carver (1860–1943). In the late 1950s, while studying art at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he became involved in the civil rights movement. Whitten moved to New York in 1960 and earned a BFA degree from Cooper Union in 1964. During the 1960s, Whitten created dynamic works, from brightly colored abstractions to ghostly evocations in his “Head” series (1964). He often experiments with color, technique, and materials (iron oxide, dry pigments, crushed Mylar, ash, bone, and blood). During the 1970s he created textured surfaces with squeegees, rakes, and Afro combs. In the 1980s he came to consider paint as similar to skin, but in the 1990s, he began to create canvases with small painted tiles. Whitten’s work has been featured at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013); MoMA PS1, New York (2007); and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2006). He received an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2014