Critics’ Picks

Jack Whitten, Birth Of An Enigma, 1964, oil on canvas with burlap collage, 50 x 84 x 1".

Jack Whitten, Birth Of An Enigma, 1964, oil on canvas with burlap collage, 50 x 84 x 1".


Arshile Gorky and Jack Whitten

Hauser & Wirth London | Savile Row
23 Savile Row
Online only. May 20 - December 31, 2020

Arshile Gorky and Jack Whitten were both exiles who saw painting as a place. Gorky’s family fled the Armenian genocide when he was a child, eventually settling in New York City in 1920. Whitten, an African American born in segregated Alabama, inevitably experienced color as a more punitive index. Both artists suffused their work with a tension between the rural and the city as a space of self-reinvention, creating vivid sense impressions as buoyant and evanescent as butterflies in a net.

Despite the generation gap—Gorky took his own life in 1948; Whitten began painting in the early ’60s—these works talk to each other: a kinship plotted through restless surfaces attuned to displaced souls. In Gorky’s Virginia Landscape, c. 1944, fiery pockets of crayoned yellow and cerise bloom into white clouds, rendering the Southern bucolic with trembling vitality. From the same vintage, Untitled, c. 1944–45, unstrings the topography and scatters it like beads. Patches of pastel emerald float amid bright organic shapes of speckled orange and ash. Skeletal, unadorned pencil lines evoke a tree shedding its leaves.

Whitten’s King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, is a chromatic explosion, all distorted human faces emerging from a swirl of deep pinks and swollen purples. In Birth of An Enigma, 1964, forms pulse and vibrate as if seen through a microscope: strange, swimming globules, though one can make out prison bars on the burlap, too. This echoes Gorky’s Pastoral, 1947, a Surrealist mass of fleshy humanlike parts, all the queasier in our new, screenbound life.

Finally, Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love in Painting), 2017, is Whitten’s valentine to the elder abstractionist. Created a year before Whitten’s death at seventy-eight, the vibrant acrylic tessellation joins two artists who embraced the canvas as a route toward spiritual freedom; another diaspora through which they tried to find a home.