Jack Whitten

American  •  1939-2018

Biography

Jack Whitten, who passed away at age 78 in January 2018, is celebrated for his influential approach to painting. While initially aligned with the New York circle of Abstract Expressionists in the mid-1960s, particularly Willem de Kooning, Whitten became known for his focus on the experimental aspects of process and technique in painting. Fascinated with the materiality of painting at a time when the medium was deemed “dead”, Whitten in the early 1970s fervently sought an alternative approach to art making. He achieved his artistic breakthrough with what he called the “developer”, a proprietary floor-based tool that allowed him to quickly spread a layer of acrylic paint onto the canvas with a single gesture – resulting in his signature slab paintings. For the next five decades, Whitten relentlessly pushed his practice to new heights – bridging gestural abstraction with process art, mechanical automation with intensely personal expression. 

His all-embracing vision led him to create works on such diverse themes as quantum physics and contemporary events, such as 9/11 or school shootings, as well as experiment with different media. While former President Barack Obama awarded Whitten the National Medal of Arts in 2016, he was profoundly under recognized by the mainstream art world for most of his 55-year career. Most recently, his sculptural output was subject to a major exhibition that travelled from the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018.

Insights

  • Selected honors: Skowhegan Medal for Painting (2017); National Medal of Arts (2016); The Aldrich A2A Award (2017); National Medal of Arts (2015); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellowship (1976) 

“I’ve done so much. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried the saw blade, afro comb… To be as clear as possible without becoming confused. I JUST WANT A SLAB OF PAINT.” 

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