Frederick J. Whiteman considers himself an analytical painter, an approach that grew out of childhood interests in motors, electricity, and radio instruments. Like a scientist or engineer, he visually dissects his subjects to understand the nature and function of their constituent elements and rebuilds as he seeks new expressive possibilities.
Whiteman grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and on a farm in Indiana. From an early age he worked with his father, a merchant, contractor, and distributor of electrical, mine, and railway supplies. Cultural activity in his rural Indiana focused on music and theater, rather than the visual arts, and Whiteman became a musician at an early age. But Whiteman was also an inveterate draftsman and did character drawings to amuse his classmates. In high school he enrolled in a correspondence art course, and although he calls his early drawings stiff, mediocre, and pale, by the time he was sixteen he had developed sufficient ability to obtain employment as an engineering draftsman after the death of his father left the family in financial straits.(1)
After completing high school in 1927, Whiteman studied for a year with Alexander J. Kostellow in Pittsburgh, and from 1930 to 1932 he worked with Jan Matulka and Eugene Fitch at the Art Students League in New York City. During these early years, Whiteman made a living working in the art department of a Brooklyn advertising agency. Yet he was already a committed modernist, and by 1935 he was one of the few young artists to be included in the Whitney Museum’s controversial Abstract Art in America exhibition.
After several years in the advertising business, Whiteman began teaching privately. With Kostellow, he hoped to establish a school for modern art in which students would study design and work in a school factory to produce commercially viable products. Based partly on Bauhaus ideas of the unity of art and life, the school did not materialize. When the Federal Art Project was established, Whiteman joined the teaching project. From 1937 to 1939, he served as director of the WPA art centers in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Greenwich, Mississippi.(2) He returned to New York in 1939, and the following year joined the faculty at Pratt Institute, where he remained until his retirement in 1974.
Whiteman’s paintings of the 1930s reflect a highly developed understanding of the principles of artistic structure, space, and color. Much of his work, including the 1935 Still Life with Pitcher, is Cubist in inspiration and spatial arrangement, although the compositional arrangement of Italian Renaissance art has also contributed to his ideas about space. Never a theoretical artist, Whiteman concentrated on teaching his students to see with analytical eyes and to evaluate form, space, color, and structural line in objective terms.
1. The information about Whiteman’s early years is drawn from his “Personal History Statement” provided by the artist and now in the curatorial files at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. I am grateful to Mr. Whiteman for this information.
2. For further information about his work with the Federal Art Project, see Frederick J. Whiteman, interview with Dorothy Seckler, 21 April 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)