Exceptional Works: Arshille Gorky | David Zwirner
Title card for Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944.
A detail of a drawing by Arshile Gorky, called Untitled, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago

“Gorky decided to put out of his mind the galleries of Fifty-seventh Street … and ‘look into the grass,’ as he put it.… The result of this free response to nature was a freshness and personalization of idiom which Gorky had never previously approached, and a new vocabulary of forms.”

—James Johnson Sweeney, Harper’s Bazaar

An untitled graphite and crayon on paper artwork by Arshile Gorky, dated 1944.

Arshile Gorky

Untitled, 1944
Graphite and crayon on paper
Sheet: 20 x 26 1/4 inches (50.8 x 66.7 cm)
Framed: 32 1/4 x 38 inches (81.9 x 96.5 cm)

Untitled (1944) is a prime example of Arshile Gorky’s mature work. In these drawings, abstract, biomorphic forms are greatly reduced, becoming flatter, dynamically looser, and more delicately rendered than the artist’s surrealist- and cubist-inflected compositions of the previous decade. As the influential art dealer Julien Levy—the original owner of this drawing—observed, these late works reveal a key shift in Gorky’s style, in which his compositions began to “show spots of color, not as indications of tone, but as signals of space.”

Born in Armenia, Arshile Gorky (1904–1948) forged a crucial link between European modernist painting and the American abstract expressionist movement. Beginning in the early 1920s, he developed an enigmatic style of lyrical abstraction that recalled European surrealism while putting forth a revolutionary emphasis on formal and psychological expressiveness.

A photograph of Julien Levy, circa 1932

Julien Levy, c.1932

Julien Levy, c.1932

Untitled (1944) hails from the personal collection of Julien Levy, a close friend of Gorky’s and a supporter of his work, whose eponymous Manhattan gallery was a major destination throughout the 1930s and 1940s for surrealist and experimental art. In addition to prominent solo exhibitions by Gorky, Levy presented the work of artists including Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, and Joseph Cornell.

A Photo by F. M. Demarest of A view of Julien Levy Gallery at 15 East 57th Street in 1937–1942.

A view of Julien Levy Gallery at 15 East 57th Street in 1937–1942. Photo by F. M. Demarest

A view of Julien Levy Gallery at 15 East 57th Street in 1937–1942. Photo by F. M. Demarest

Untitled (1944) is among the first selection of works Levy received from the artist on December 21, 1944, prior to Gorky’s debut exhibition at the gallery in March 1945.

The present work features a tableau of flowing outlines and enigmatic forms that seem to slip just past the realm of figuration. This drawing is the result of a vitally important period in which Gorky rediscovered the natural world, creating a group of works that represent a transformation of his life and art.

An image of a poster advertising Gorky’s first solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery, 1945. The artist features prominetly in Levy’s Memoir of an Art Gallery, first published in 1977.

A poster advertising Gorky’s first solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery, 1945. The artist features prominetly in Levy’s Memoir of an Art Gallery, first published in 1977.

A poster advertising Gorky’s first solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery, 1945. The artist features prominetly in Levy’s Memoir of an Art Gallery, first published in 1977.

In July 1943, Gorky and his wife, Agnes, whom he affectionately called “Mougouch,” left New York to spend the summer at a farm her parents had recently acquired in Lincoln, Virginia. Mougouch later recalled what a revelation the countryside was to Gorky, both vividly in the present and in connection with his earliest memories.

“He was again a small child … and his vision was clear and untrammeled by habit. He made only drawings.… This summer was the real release of Gorky. He was able to discover himself and what he has done is to create a world of his own but a world equal to nature, with the infinite complexities of nature and yet sweet, secretive and playful as nature is.”

 

 

—Agnes “Mougouch” Gorky

 
A Photo by Valerio Bonelli of the view from Gorky’s childhood home; he was born in the village of Khorgom (now called Dilkaya), on the southeastern shore of Lake Van in modern-day Turkey.

The view from Gorky’s childhood home; he was born in the village of Khorgom (now called Dilkaya), on the southeastern shore of Lake Van in modern-day Turkey. Photo by Valerio Bonelli

The view from Gorky’s childhood home; he was born in the village of Khorgom (now called Dilkaya), on the southeastern shore of Lake Van in modern-day Turkey. Photo by Valerio Bonelli

“By 1943, form and content were in sync in his art. And in his life, he was as close to a return to Eden as he would ever get.… In certain drawings from 1944, he literally seems to be down at grass level, nosing around, pencil and crayon in hand. He finds a fantastical, earthbound world of abstract forms resembling slugs, fungi, pods and bulbs, glommed together parasitically and erotically. It’s a mesmerizing vision.”

—Holland Cotter, The New York Times

Untitled (1944) was made on lavender-edged paper, the same unique type that Gorky used for several other drawings from this period. The work is accented with hazy graphite smudges and vibrant passages of color—attributes this drawing also shares with others from the time, many of which are part of major museum collections worldwide.

A drawing by Arshile Gorky, called Untitled, dated 1944. Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Bowdoin College Museum of Art

A drawing by Arshile Gorky, called Untitled, 1944. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

A drawing by Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago

A drawing by Arshile Gorky, titled (Virginia Landscape), dated 1943. National Gallery, Washington

Arshile Gorky, (Virginia Landscape), 1943. National Gallery, Washington

Arshile Gorky, (Virginia Landscape), 1943. National Gallery, Washington

A drawing by Arshile Gorky, called Untitled, dated 1944. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1944. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, Washington, D.C.

“Of all the Surrealist artists, [Gorky is] the only one who maintains direct contact with nature…to reveal the very rhythm of life.”


—André Breton, 1945

Arshile Gorky working at Crooked Run Farm

Arshile Gorky working at Crooked Run Farm, Virginia, c.1943

Arshile Gorky working at Crooked Run Farm, Virginia, c.1943

“I was taken away from my little village when I was five years old, yet all my vital memories are of these first years. There were the days when I smelt the bread, I saw my first red poppy, the moon… Since then these memories have become iconography.”

—Arshile Gorky

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