Donor Spotlight: Kean University Alumnus Carmen Cicero ‘51

June 2023

Carmen Cicero

Renowned artist Carmen Cicero ’51 has recently donated one of his works to the Kean University Foundation to become part of the permanent art collection at Kean University. “We are honored to add this intriguing example of artist Cicero’s work to our collection,” stated Dr. Lynette Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Liberty Hall Academic Center and the Galleries. “It is all the more meaningful coming from an accomplished artist who began his journey at Kean.”

Cicero grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and, following the completion of military service during World War II, he was unsure of which direction to take in life. New Jersey State Teachers College (now Kean University) was right in the neighborhood, and, with the financial assistance provided by the GI Bill, Cicero decided he might as well give the College a try. He found his artistic passion during his time as a student and credits his instructors with fostering this passion. After graduation, Cicero pursued graduate studies at New York’s Hunter College, studying under Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofman. He found early success working in an abstract expressionist style, with his works being collected by prominent museums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.

As his life progressed, Cicero’s artistic style evolved from abstract expressionist to figurative expressionism to a current visionary, or deep expressionist stage. His later works have been described as “fantasy,” “mystery,” “surreal,” “satiric” and “edgy.” Cicero shared that many of his works are inspired by his dreams, as they capture an ethereal sense. As described on his website,, “These works produce a peculiar atmosphere, a strange, enigmatic spell – images that linger in the unconscious mind.”

Along his artistic journey, Cicero has had parallel careers as both an educator and musician. He initially put his Newark State Teachers College training to use by teaching at elementary, junior and high school levels. Cicero then taught at Sara Lawrence College for nine years and later at Montclair State University for 31 years, where he also achieved a Master of Fine Arts. He has had a lifelong love affair with music of all genres, having begun playing the clarinet while in elementary school. Cicero is accomplished on the alto saxophone along with the clarinet. He is perhaps best known for his jazz works, having led a 17-piece jazz band early in his career and later performing with numerous jazz greats and Tony Bennett. Cicero’s solo albums can be found on Youtube.

"Teaching is a noble profession, and not every artist can be a teacher; it requires both aptitude and training. Teachers must stimulate students to find their talents – their own “truths within” – and help them develop the means by which to express them."

Mr. Hiltwein

When asked if he is foremost an artist, academic or musician, Cicero claims all three - but makes an important distinction. “Teaching is a noble profession, and not every artist can be a teacher; it requires both aptitude and training,” he said. Teachers must stimulate students to find their talents – their own “truths within” – and help them develop the means by which to express them. Artistry, both visual and performance, is more than a profession; it is a life calling. While he was able to retire from teaching, Cicero could never stop painting. His wish for today’s Kean students is that they find their life’s passion, be it in artistry or elsewhere.

At 96, Cicero continues to create. His art is widely shown, having recently been featured at the Annual Art Show at the New York Armory and with a show at Texas’ famed Menil Collection currently under consideratioln. A monograph, The Art of Carmen Cicero, was published in 2013 and can be found in the Nancy Thompson Library, as well as most internet retailers. A new book of his drawings and watercolors is in production for a Fall 2024 release date. He and his wife, art historian Mary Abell, split the year between their studio residences in New York City and in Truro, MA.

Cicero has won many awards including two Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships, a Ford Foundation prize, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award.

However, the award that Kean University holds most dear is the one that proves him a valued member of our community: his 1990 Kean University Distinguished Alumni Award. We are grateful to now include his work in our permanent art collection.