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Jack Whitten

Visual artist Jack Whitten was born on December 5, 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama to Annie B. Cross Whitten and Mose Whitten. He was a pre-med student at Tuskegee Institute before leaving the university in 1959. He then studied art at Southern University in Baton Rouge briefly, before moving to New York City and enrolling at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1960, where he earned his B.F.A. degree.

In New York, Whitten became influenced by artists such as Willem de Kooning and Norman Lewis, as well as jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Whitten had his first group exhibition in 1965 at Allan Stone Gallery in New York, which also hosted his first solo exhibition in 1968. In the late 1960s, he became an art professor at The Cooper Union and School of Visual Arts. He later taught at Manhattan Community College. Beginning in the 1970s, Whitten broke away from abstract expressionist influences and began to experiment with tools he created to apply paint to canvas, such as a twelve foot rake that he called the “developer.” In 1974, he participated in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1983, a solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem celebrated his paintings from 1970 to 1980. In the 1980s, Whitten became interested in using paint as the base of a collage; and in the 1990s and the 2000s, he experimented with the casting of acrylic paint from molds and the construction of paintings as mosaics made from acrylic tesserae. His work was installed in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. His work was also featured in a fifty year retrospective exhibition in 2014. With Hauser & Wirth and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp as his representation, Whitten has shown his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Savannah College of Art and Design, Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium, Art Basel in Switzerland, Walker Art Center, Alexander Gray Associates, and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Whitten has been awarded the 2015 National Medal of Arts, John Hay Whitney Fellowship, an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the National Endowments for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute and Brandeis University in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Whitten passed away on January 20, 2018 at age 78.

Jack Whitten was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 3, 2016 and October 27, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.033

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/3/2016

10/27/2016

Last Name

Whitten

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Occupation
Schools

George Washington Carver Elementary School

Carver Junior High School

Dunbar High School

Tuskegee University

Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College

Cooper Union

First Name

Jack

Birth City, State, Country

Bessemer

HM ID

WHI21

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Crete

Favorite Quote

Shit Happens.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

12/5/1939

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fish

Death Date

1/20/2018

Short Description

Painter Jack Whitten (1939 - 2018 ) created abstract paintings for over half a century, exhibiting at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.

Employment

The Cooper Union

School of Visual Arts

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Jack Whitten's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten recalls segregation in Bessemer, Alabama

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten remembers his mother's first husband, James Monroe Cross

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten lists his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten remembers his younger brother, Bill Whitten

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Jack Whitten talks about his upbringing in Bessemer, Alabama

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Jack Whitten describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Jack Whitten describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Jack Whitten describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten describes his father's job as a coal miner

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten recalls his childhood interests in the arts

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten talks about his early jobs

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten recalls learning how to hunt

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten remembers influential people from his grade school

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten describes his experiences at Tuskegee Institute

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten recalls his difficulties in the Air Force ROTC at the Tuskegee Institute

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten recalls meeting Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten describes bus segregation during the 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten recalls going swimming during his childhood in Bessemer, Alabama

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten talks about his decision to transfer to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten recalls working in construction

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten talks about his summer jobs while attending Tuskegee Institute

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten recalls a civil rights protest at Southern University

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten remembers meeting Fats Domino in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten recalls his decision to study at Cooper Union in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten remembers the artists that he met at Cooper Union

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten recalls his interactions with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten talks about his course of study at Cooper Union

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten describes the art styles that influenced him at Cooper Union

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten remembers attending music shows in New York City during the 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten describes how music and science influenced his artwork

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten recalls his experiences in New York City during the 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten describes New York City's Lower East Side during the 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten talks about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s influence on his art

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten describes the autobiographical content of his art during the 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten remembers his first marriage

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten describes the start of his teaching career in New York City

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten recalls his exhibitions in New York City art galleries during the 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten talks about the difficulty of making a living as an artist

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Jack Whitten describes his marriage to Mary Staikos Whitten

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten narrates his photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten narrates his photographs, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten describes how his artistic style changed from the 1960s to the 1970s

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten talks about his decision to work with acrylic paint

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten describes how he began to use collage in his paintings, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten describes how he began to use collage in his paintings, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten talks about his use of tesserae in his paintings

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten describes his Greek alphabet series

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten talks about the concept of opticality in his art

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten recalls showing his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten describes his college teaching career in New York City

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten recalls creating specialized tools for his paintings

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten shares his ideas about autobiographical content in art

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten describes his painting 'Dead Reckoning I'

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten talks about the concept of compression in abstract art

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten describes his background in black history during his youth

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Jack Whitten talks about the influence of scientific discoveries on his art

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten recalls his solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten talks about the fire that destroyed his home in 1980

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten describes his home and studio in Tribeca, New York City

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten describes the inspiration behind his artwork in the late 1980s

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten recalls incorporating tesserae into his work in the 1990s

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten talks about his love for undersea spearfishing

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten recalls fishing in Greece

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten describes his Black Monolith series, pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten describes his Black Monolith series, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten talks about the process of making tesserae

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten recalls the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten recalls the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten talks about his painting, '9-11-01'

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten describes his 2007 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art PS1

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten talks about joining the Alexander Gray Associates gallery

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten reflects upon political messages in his work during the 2000s

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - Jack Whitten describes his artistic interests at the time of the interview

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - Jack Whitten talks about his American exhibitions during the 2010s

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - Jack Whitten describes his European exhibitions during the 2010s

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - Jack Whitten talks about his family's reactions to his artwork

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - Jack Whitten recalls working with Hauser and Wirth

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - Jack Whitten remembers meeting President Barack Obama

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - Jack Whitten describes his plans for the future

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - Jack Whitten reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 11 Story: 9 - Jack Whitten talks about his artistic processes

Tape: 11 Story: 10 - Jack Whitten reflects upon his life

Tape: 11 Story: 11 - Jack Whitten describes his hopes for the future

DASession

1$2

DATape

4$8

DAStory

4$6

DATitle
Jack Whitten talks about his course of study at Cooper Union
Jack Whitten describes his painting 'Dead Reckoning I'
Transcript
You had had such a different experience in the South--well not even (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Totally different with white people.$$--not even having conversations with white people.$$Oh no, no you kept your distance. But coming to New York [New York], going to Cooper Union [Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, New York], that was the first time that I sat into a classroom with white students. First time I had sat next to a white kid in school. And of course, the first time I had white instructors. But my experience--$$(Unclear).$$--my experience. Well the worst thing was, nobody understood me. I mean I'm talking with this southern dialect and it was difficult to make myself--people to understand what I was trying to say 'cause my southern accent was so thick. But I had one professor at Cooper Union, his name was Robert Gwathmey. He was my first year drawing instructor, who was a southern white man. Gwathmey was a painter. His paintings--he did paintings of black people in the South. And Gwathmey loved me, boy he took me under his wing. The two of us would start talking in all the southern talk and the rest of the kids would just lay back, like whoa (laughter). And that helped. Gwathmey was a big help.$$How do you spell Gwathmey?$$Gwathmey, G-W-A-T-H-M-E-Y. He is the father to Charles Gwathmey, the great architect. I knew Charles too. But Charles was not like his father. His father was an old time leftist Socialist. The son was very different.$$So you were being exposed to a completely different type of relationship with art and with whites?$$Oh yeah, totally different. Totally different from anything I had ever experienced in the South. Not a little bit, totally.$$And then de Kooning [Willem de Kooning], where was he from?$$Oh he's Dutch.$$Well see so, it's also that he was not American.$$Oh no, he--it was hard to understand him. He still spoke with a thick Dutch accent. You know, de Kooning came to this country illegally. He was a stowaway on a boat and jumped ship. That's how he came here. Worked as a house painter.$$And by the time you met him, he was a very established--$$Oh by the time I met him he was known. He was showing in the galleries. I used to go to his opening of his shows here in New York, whenever he had a show.$$The art that you had been making, at least the utilitarian art had been signs and posters, and this kind of thing. When do you discover that--what your art is?$$Oh that became much later.$$Okay.$$I would say--well not too much later 'cause I was a--I'm a fast learner. I would say about the second year at Cooper Union I started getting there, picture of what this stuff was about. And another thing that I learned from the Cedar bar [Cedar Tavern, New York, New York] and the abstract expressionists, and I think it's very important, these people didn't take no shit. Like nothing stopped them. They spoke boldly about what they were and what they wanted to do. And they had this amazing degree of freedom about them. And that struck me as being, whoa, I've made the right decision. Like whatever this art thing is, that's what I wanna do. That convinced me. And that's from meeting people across the board both black and white. Like when you start seeing the commitment that people had who were much older than you, you started getting the picture, right, of what to expect and what it was about.$$And as you're figuring out what style of art is working for you, you're taking classes--are you learning each--like what are you learning?$$I'm learning primarily gestural abstraction. I'm taking from Bill de Kooning, I'm taking from Norman Lewis. Romare Bearden, I used to go to his studio. He had just started his collages with the black faces and black subject matter. So I'm learning about the notion of theme and style. I'm learning a lot from Bearden about the nature of collage. All Bill's work was about collage. Which is what I'm doing today, but I do it with paint. My--the paintings I do today are acrylic collages. They're not taken from media, they're just paint that's used as collage.$So in the '80s [1980s], how is it shown?$$The '80s [1980s]--$$How are you using the raw material?$$See, the '80s [1980s] was a big break. The painting that's on the cover of the Studio Museum catalogue, 'Dead Reckoning' ['Dead Reckoning I,' Jack Whitten], that was 1980. That painting was the first time after ten years that I could really stand up and do something (laughter).$$'Dead Reckoning.'$$'Dead Reckoning,' it's at the Studio Museum. My brother Billy [Bill Whitten] bought that painting, paid me for it and donated it to the Studio Museum in Harlem [New York, New York]. That's how they got it.$$And tell me about the painting?$$The painting is 'Dead Reckoning.' Dead reckoning is a term I had first heard when I was at Tuskegee [Tuskegee Institute; Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama], when I was with the [U.S.] Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps], or--deals with navigation. I remember the instructor explaining, using that term. He says, "At a certain point," there--something happens--as he put it, "as some shit happens" (laughter), he says, "You have to make a decision, which is your best chance for survival? Do you continue on your present course, go forward, or do you have a best chance of survival to turn around and go back?" That was the first time I'd heard that term, dead reckoning. And then later I heard it in terms of celestial navigation in terms of how to plot by the stars. And it was my buddies in Crete [Greece], the fish captains who were good friends of mine in Crete that I learned that. At night when we are out on the sea and blue water fishing, or if you don't--if it's your first time you don't know where you are, you can't see nothing (laughter). But one--the great revelation for me though in blue water was that, whoa, I'm in the middle of a huge circle. It's amazing, in blue water you turn around you realize you're in the middle of a big circle and the circle's center is always changing. That's amazing. That is truly amazing. Now my buddies, the fish captains, Captain Yonni, in particular, Captain Yonni Baganakos [ph.] good, good buddy of mine. He knew exactly where he was, but Captain Yonni, father was a fisherman, his grandfather was a fisherman. The kid grew up on the boat since he was four, five years old, and he's still fishing today.$$See he had a sense of--he knew exactly where he was?$$He knew exactly where he was, always (laughter). So that was--I found that to be a sense of comfort.$$Of recognizing?$$So dead reckoning is a rich term, right. Another version is that you throw away all your navigational tools, get rid of all your tools, learn to plot, to navigate. No tools, just go by your heart, go by your feeling. It's a rich term, very complex, loaded.$$And this piece has a lot of circles in it, a lot of math in it?$$Yeah, those circles is gun sights, so that's like a targeting system, navigational gun sights, you know. It was by that time, I had located the target.$$And it was?$$Oh I knew where--what I had to hit. I had, I was going, I was pulled down into deeper into what I call the unit. This is where my theory of molecular perception comes from. I had narrowed it down to molecular perception, to go down deep into something. To go to a place where the naked eye cannot see. And for the painter, we can only do that through our mind. We feel our way by hard intuition, go through the mind. So at that point, we're talking about a combination of conceptual skills, intuitiveness, you know, the perceptual plus the conceptual I call it.