Carmen Cicero was born on August 14, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. From 1947 to 1951, Cicero attended the New Jersey State Teachers College (now Kean University), Newark, and in 1953, he briefly pursued graduate work in painting at Hunter College, New York, studying under Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell. The two abstract painters and their circle of artists, poets, and musicians were immensely influential for Cicero, whose singular explorations of abstraction coalesced within the overarching New York school of his teachers and friends.
Cicero's early work combined the gestures of Abstract Expressionism with the artist's interest in Surrealist automatism. Many of his paintings were first executed in light brushstrokes, free-associating shapes with geographic locations or literary motifs, such as the mountains of Catalonia (in Near Tibidabo, 1950) or the strange creatures of Franz Kafka (in Odradek, 1959). The artist would work his black-and-white compositions further, adding the sharp lines and erratic forms that distinguished his oeuvre in the 1950s.
In 1957, Cicero had his first solo exhibition at Peridot Gallery, New York, the gallery that exhibited the works of Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston in solo shows a decade prior; Peridot continued to exhibit Cicero's abstractions through 1969. His work was also shown at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1953, 1955, 1957); Newark Museum (1955, 1964, 1966, 1967); Art Institute of Chicago (1957); Fine Arts Pavilion, New York World's Fair (1964); Whitney Annual (later the Whitney Biennial), New York (1955, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1966); as well as the Guggenheim Museum's 1959 exhibition inaugurating its Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building. In 1957 and again in 1963, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. From 1959 to 1968, Cicero taught painting at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York.
In 1971, the contents of Cicero's Englewood, New Jersey, studio, which included the entire body of work still in the artist's possession, were lost in a fire. From that point forward, his painting took a personal turn, combining figuration, landscape, and wit in compositions with Surrealist overtones. Eschewing pure abstraction, Cicero focused instead on the continued development of what he referred to as "figurative abstraction," a style he experimented with in the 1960s that would become emblematic of his later work's representation of states of mind. From 1970 through 2001, Cicero was a professor of painting at Montclair State University, New Jersey, where he earned an MFA in 1991. In 2007, Cicero received the Krasner Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. He lives and works in New York and Truro, Massachusetts.