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Whitten, Jack, 1971 March 17, 1988 April 26

 Item — Multiple Containers

Scope and Contents

Painter and sculptor Jack Whitten delivered 2 lectures. He spoke on 3/17/1971 (2015-0002/RR295) and 4/26/1988 (2015-0002/RR296). Jack Whitten (December 5, 1939 – January 20, 2018)[1] was an American painter and sculptor. In 2016, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts.

Originally not an artist, Whitten attended Tuskegee University as a pre-medical student and ROTC cadet, but transferred to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to study art in 1960. There, he became involved in the American civil-rights movement and took part in the spring 1960 student demonstrations, staging sit-ins and a shutdown of the university. After living in New Orleans, Whitten moved to New York City, where he received his BFA in painting from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1964.

While Whitten’s early work combined figuration and abstraction, he later made a significant conceptual and stylistic shift, moving from oil paint to acrylic to focus on the process and materiality of painting. Whitten’s “developer”—a twelve-foot-long wooden rake invented by the artist to move large amounts of acrylic paint in a single gesture—resulted in his “slab” paintings, large color fields defined by a single movement. Whitten’s proclivity for invention also manifested in his signature kind of tesserae: small cubes cut from slabs of acrylic paint and adhered to the canvas, angled to catch and reflect light. Investigating the notion of paint as a collage element, Whitten used the tesserae as a vehicle to further explore his passion for science and technology; he thought of the tesserae as individual bytes of information.


  • 1971 March 17, 1988 April 26

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Links to digitized content are included in the finding aid.

Biographical / Historical

Whitten was born in 1939 in Bessemer, Alabama. Planning a career as an army doctor, Whitten entered pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute from 1957 to 1959. 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. In 1960, Whitten went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin studying art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. Whitten participated in a march from downtown Baton Rouge to the state capitol. Whitten's artist ability led him to be in charge of producing the signs and slogans to be used at that demonstration. Whitten believed strongly about Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent approach. However, witnessing the violent reactions from the segregationist made him realize that if he remained in the South he would turn violent himself. Angered by the violent resistance to change he experienced he moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union in the fall of 1960, graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1964. Afterwards he remained in New York as a working artist, heavily influenced by the abstract expressionists then dominating the art community, especially Willem de Kooning and Romare Bearden.

Shortly after graduating from Cooper Union, Whitten had the opportunity to meet other black artists which included, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, while he remained in New York to start his art career. Whitten's art style was known to be abstract but he liked to refer to his art as art with truth and soul. A large number of Whitten's artwork was inspired by his own experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. Whitten concluded that slavery obstructed the culture of people of color. Therefore, Whitten believed that it was his destiny to restore the culture through his pieces.

One of Whitten's most famous pieces of work are his Black Monolith Series. Most of the work in this series was a homage or tribute to black activist, politicians and artists. Whitten's work was featured in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. The Whitney mounted a solo exhibition of his paintings in 1974. He has also had individual shows at numerous private galleries and universities, including a 10-year retrospective in 1983 at the Studio Museum in Harlem and an exhibition of memorial paintings in 2008 at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Whitten spent long portions of the summer in Crete, where he had a studio and made sculptures.

Throughout his career, Whitten concerned himself with the techniques and materials of painting and the relationship of artworks to their inspirations. At times he has pursued quickly-applied gestural techniques akin to photography or printmaking. At other times the deliberative and constructive hand is evident. The New York Times labeled him the father of a "new abstraction." When the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, Whitten was at his studio on Lispenard Street in Tribeca. In the following years, he constructed a monumental painting, with ashes embedded into it, as a memorial of the day.

President Barack Obama awarded Whitten the 2015 National Medal Of Arts Award. His works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others.

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2 Reels (Magnetic tape audio recordings ) : RR 295 1 reel, 1:01:47; tape speed 3¾ IPS; track position ½-Track Mono; Substrate: Polyester. RR 296 1 reel, 1:10:23; tape speed 3¾ IPS; track position ½-Track Mono; Substrate: Polyester.

Language of Materials

From the Series: English

Repository Details

Part of the Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library Repository

University of Connecticut Library
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