Robert Whitman is an outstanding American artist who is best known for his seminal and continuing work in creating innovative, non-narrative, imagistic theater pieces. His theater works are rich in visual and sound images, and incorporate actors, film, slides, sound, and evocative props in environments of his own making. Whitman was the first artist to use film in his theater works and in his sculpture pieces.
Born in 1935, Whitman was a member of an influential group of visual artists -- Allan Kaprow, Red Grooms, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg -- who in the early 1960s presented theater pieces on the lower east side in Manhattan. Whitman has presented more than 40 theater pieces in the United States and abroad, including American Moon, E.G. and Mouth at the Reuben Gallery in the early 1960s. Night Time Sky was his contribution to the First New York Theater Rally in New York in 1965; Prune Flat was first presented at the Cinematheque in New York in 1965; and has been performed many times since.
His work MoonRain, a collaboration with Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, was presented at 100th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the Henry-George-inspired community, Free Acres in Berkeley Heights, NJ, at the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf in 2011, and at the Dia Art Center the following year.
Along with these visually rich, innovative theater works, Whitman has been involved in projects incorporating new technology, working with collaborators – engineers, scientists, computer programmers – to find ways to use the technologies to fulfill his ideas and visions.
In 1966 Whitman was one of the 10 artists who worked with more than 30 engineers and scientists from Bell Telephone Laboratories to create 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering. From this experience in collaboration, Whitman joined engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg to start Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).
Whitman continued to collaborate with engineers on installations and works as varied as laser sculptures and Pond, a sound-activated Mylar mirror installation shown at The Jewish Museum in New York in 1969. His long collaboration with optics scientist John Forkner yielded an installation in which real images of objects float in space. He was also one of the core artists designing the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70, in which the interior of the Pavilion was a large Mylar spherical mirror, which produced real images of the floor and visitors hanging upside down in space.
Whitman, working with E.A.T., has developed and participated in a number of communications projects in the mid 1970s: Anand Project: he was part of an interdisciplinary team to develop methods for instructional television programming for rural Indian villages; Children and Communication: open environments for children to work with a variety of communication equipment; - Telex: Q&A: a world-wide person-to-person question and answer opportunity using telex equipment in New York, Stockholm, Ahmedabad and Tokyo; Artists and Television: artists’ programming on New York cable channels.
In the early 1970’s, Whitman produced his first telephone piece, NEWS, in which participants, using pay phones around the city, called in reports, which were broadcast, live over a radio station in the city. He has continued to create variations on this communications work, always using contemporary technology to carry out his ideas. For Local Report 2005, he collaborated with Shawn Van Every a specialist in online and mobile media, who wrote programs for the early video cell phones so that participants could use the phones to take short video films and sound reports that were sent by Internet to a central viewing point. Again working with Van Every, Whitman produced Local Report 2012 in which specially designed apps for participants cell phones allowed approximately ninety participants in cities around the world to make phone video clips and live voice reports and send them to Eyebeam in New York to create a live sound and video performance and continuing installation, composing in real time what Whitman called "a cultural map of the world.” In 2018 Whitman produced Seoul-New York Kids Local Report in which children between 11 and 13 years old residing in Seoul and New York used smart phones to capture video clips of the city in which they live and then spoke to each other in a real-time video conference from the Media Lab at National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) in Seoul and CultureHub Studio in New York.
In March 2015 Whitman created a proscenium theater work for the Peak Performances series at at Montclair State University, titled Swim, that was designed for both blind and sighted audiences. In working on the choice and use of sound and visual images, he had extended conversations with Emilie Gossiaux, a young artist who is blind, in which she shared insights on the perception of sound. His collaboration with her also inspired, what he has called Soundies, a series of large scale photographs each with its accompanying sound and descriptive wall label. Blind visitors, using their cell phone in front of each work, can access an app that describes the image in words, allowing them to more fully experience the work.
Whitman has received awards from: Guggenheim Fellowship; Creative Artists Public Service Grant; Citation of Fine Arts, Brandeis University; Creative Arts Award Xerox Company Grant. Among the museums and public collections which own his works are Dia Art Foundation, New York, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY: Musée National d´Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Whitman is represented by Pace Gallery, New York. He lives in Warwick, NY.