Originally from Alabama, Jack Whitten moved to New York City in 1959 at the age of nineteen where he began studying at The Cooper Union. In the city, he quickly became friendly with a number of Abstract Expressionist artists, in particular Willem de Kooning who would become a mentor and artistic influence on the young artist.
African American artists including Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were likewise important mentors for Whitten, however while many in his circle embraced the narrative of the African American experience in their work, he, was a dedicated abstractionist. For many years Whitten would not see the success or museum recognition of his peers, but in spite of this lack of critical awareness, he stuck with his artistic voice.
In the dynamic Ancient Mentor I, Whitten is focused on the physicality of the paint. Tiles are organized in a mosaic-like manor that at first glance reads as a field of color; closer inspection, however, reveals a remarkable objecthood to each element of the painting. Here, Whitten has actually cast paint into tiles and arranged them into this composition.
Though Whitten was a figure in the New York art scene from the 1960s right up to the last decade, he is in some ways a lost painter. Always working, always innovating, Whitten’s place in the history of abstraction is of unquestionable importance and though he passed away in 2018, he is becoming increasingly recognized both critically and in the art market.