Jack Whitten (1939-2018) was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1939, the son of a seamstress and a coal-worker. Planning a career as an army doctor, Whitten entered pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute where he took some pilot training and became inspired by George Washington Carver's legacy as a scientist, inventor and artist. Whitten transferred to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to study art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. He also traveled to nearby Montgomery, Alabama to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was deeply moved by his vision for a changed America. Angered by the violent resistance to change there, Whitten moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union, graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1964. Afterwards he remained in New York as a working artist, strongly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists then dominating the art community. Whitten had his first New York show in 1965 in an exhibition titled Four Voices–One Theme, with his first solo show following in 1969, both at the Allan Stone Gallery.
Throughout his career, Whitten's experimentation with the materiality and techniques of painting has informed many of his choices. Employing an array of acrylic polymers, he has explored the variances in viscosity, clarity, brilliance and elasticity. To create color he has used an inventive and broad range of materials such as iron oxide, dry pigments, crushed Mylar, ash, bone and even blood. The materials, color use, and paint application all manifest emotionally complex meditations on his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the political turmoil of the 60s.
Jack Whitten has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including the most recent, Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art of San Diego in 2014-2015; Jack Whitten: Erasures at SCAD Savannah College of Art and Design in 2012; an exhibition of memorial paintings at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Georgia in 2008; a solo show at MoMa PS1 in 2007; a ten year retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1983; and a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1974. His powerful painting, 9-11-01, 2006, was recently included in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2013. Whitten was awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in September, 2016, and was inducted into the National Academy Museum and School in October, 2016. He also received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University in May 2016. Whitten's work is in numerous prestigious collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tate London, among others. The artist died in New York in 2018.