Gorky and Jack

by Mary Whitten

Jack Whitten in his 40 Crosby Street Studio, New York, ca. 1976 – 1978

  • Jan 13, 2019

Jack Whitten adored Gorky. No, that’s not too dramatic. The love and admiration Jack had for Gorky was deeply felt, and was expressed many times during Jack’s life as an artist.

It was in Jack’s earliest exposure to Gorky’s work, to his purity and depth of feeling, that Jack felt the base of sadness they both carried. Jack incorporated that base of sadness in his own explorations and experiments in using paint to make beauty. Jack often spoke of visiting Alan Stone at his gallery and being allowed to handle and look closely at Gorky’s drawings. Inspired by the lyrical and beautiful lines, Jack had to have the special lettering brushes called ‘sword striper’ brushes. They have very long, tapered and angled bristles that, even when loaded with ink or paint, can make a curving line of amazing delicacy and fluidity. Some of these brushes have been hung—for both display and easy reach—in the studio. Sometimes using the same tool or material helps pay homage to and connect with another artist’s feel for their vision. Both Gorky and Jack worked from vision, not design.

Jack Whitten, Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting), 2017 © Jack Whitten Estate. Photo: Jeff McLane

Mary Whitten, New York City, April 2019. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Gorky and Jack both used the filter of landscape to express an underlying pain in their lives. For Jack, this was visiting Crete and absorbing the ancient landscape, not through painting landscape as landscape, but by using lush color and an expansive, often topographical view. The topographical view can contain more information about feelings. Perhaps this is the core of the Gorky/Whitten passion for art. Jack said that art is ‘structured feelings.’ At the end of Jack’s life, although he didn’t have his usual dynamic strength and energy, in his world—the studio—he was determined to finish the painting he was working on. He even allowed himself to be filmed while working. This was very unusual for Jack, as he never allowed anyone in the studio when he was actively making art. Although he was no longer able to put in his long studio days, he pushed himself to finish the painting anyway. Jack’s last painting is titled ‘Quantum Wall, VII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting)’ (2017). – Key works by Jack Whitten will be included in Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, on view 13 – 16 June 2019.