DescriptionArshile Gorky (1904-1948)
Untitled (X on Brown Paper), circa 1933-34
Pencil on brown paper
19 x 25 inches (48.3 x 63.5 cm)
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK COLLECTION
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, September 14, 1959;
Mr. and Mrs. A. L. Berliner, New York;
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, February 2, 1974;
Michael and Suzanne Vanderwoude, New York, December 13, 1976;
Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York (label verso);
Menconi & Schoelkopf Fine Art, New York (label verso).
David Anderson Gallery, New York, "Arshile Gorky: Drawings: 1929-1934," February 3-March 1, 1962;
(Possibly) Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan, May 1963;
(Possibly) Galerie Anderson-Mayer, Paris, France, April 1964;
J. Millard Tawes Fine Arts Center, University of Maryland Art Department and Art Gallery, Maryland, "The Drawings of Arshile Gorky," March 20-April 27, 1969;
Hathorn Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, "The Drawings of Arshile Gorky," October 21-November 9, 1969;
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, "Arshile Gorky: Works of Paper," January 9-February 1, 1975, exhibition checklist no. 9, as X on Brown Paper;
(Possibly) M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, "Works on Paper: Collages and Drawings by Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell and David Smith," October 19-November 20, 1976, exhibition checklist.
David Anderson Gallery, New York, Arshile Gorky: Drawings: 1929-1934, February 3-March 1, 1962, exhibition catalogue, n.p., illustrated in black and white as X on Brown Paper;
J. Millard Tawes Fine Arts Center, University of Maryland Art Department and Art Gallery, The Drawings of Arshile Gorky, March 20-April 27, 1969, exhibition catalogue, no. 9, "Drawings, Sketches, and Gouaches" checklist, as X on Brown Paper;
Hathorn Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, The Drawings of Arshile Gorky, October 21-November 9, 1969, exhibition catalogue, no. 20, as X on Brown Paper.
[Gorky's] plunge into a private world of reverie, melancholy, and lyricism that produced the great works of his mature period is prefigured in this exquisite and uniquely coherent suite of drawings from the early thirties" (B. Rose, "Arshile Gorky: The Genesis of a Master," in M. Spender and B. Rose, ed., Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction: Drawings from the Early 1930s, New York, 1994, p. xviii).
During the early 1930s, Arshile Gorky, whose dreamlike modernist compositions laid the foundation for Abstract Expressionism, devoted himself almost exclusively to drawings. Some art historians explain this choice as purely economic: a poor immigrant from Armenia, Gorky for the past decade had cobbled together teaching jobs in New York City to sustain himself, and with the onset of the Great Depression, he could not afford paint and canvas. However, revisionist histories assert that Gorky was at heart a draftsman over a colorist. As a boy, he filled notebooks with nature sketches, and he obsessively copied Old Master drawings, preferring the medium because it was expressive and spontaneous. Gorky's drawings from 1931-35 are the strongest and most influential from his career. Rooted in Cubism, metaphysical Surrealism, and biomorphic Surrealism, they "served as the incubator for his evolving plastic language" and evidenced his progression from representation to abstraction (B. Rose, "Arshile Gorky: The Genesis of a Master, in M. Spender and B. Rose, ed., Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction: Drawings from the Early 1930s, New York, 1994, p. xiv).
Gorky's drawings from this period also coincided with his mural work for various New Deal agencies. In order to supplement his teaching income, he joined the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933. His 1934 Study for Mural (never realized because the PWAP disbanded that year) synthesized the imagery from his drawings, including Cubist standing figures, architectural elements and everyday objects assembled in otherworldly contexts, and interlocking organic abstractions born out of the unconscious. In 1935, the PWAP was replaced by the Federal Art Project (FAP), and under its director, his friend Holger Cahill, Gorky produced for the Newark Airport a ten-panel mural, whose machinist design borrowed from yet another group of drawings from the early 1930s. Indeed, the current lot, Untitled (X on Brown Paper), from 1933-34, is important as an amalgam of three major 1930s series that shaped his paintings and murals: Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia; Khorkom; and Organization.
In both its title and iconography, Gorky's Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series references Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical Surrealist paintings. Works like The Nostalgia of the Infinite (1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and The Enigma of Fatality (1914, Kunstmuseum, Basel) simulate dream worlds through eerie, theatrical landscapes with plunging perspectives, dark skies, and strange objects. The earliest works in the NEN series are more representational and appropriate motifs directly from de Chirico's The Fatal Temple (1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art), including a classical bust with profile shadow, a flayed fish, and a "blackboard" with biomorphic shapes resembling a palette, a heart, or a pelvis (all surrogates for the artist himself). In later NEN works, Gorky abstracts these objects into interlocking organic shapes, and he plays with background shadows, variously employing diaper-patterning, fine cross-hatching, and thin washes. Untitled (X on Brown Paper) borrows from the NEN drawings its primary images and compositional structure: the central palette-like bulbous form, the pelvis-heart shape in the lower left corner, the hint of a classical bust silhouette in the curved lines on the right, the use of vertical lines to divide the space into "panels," the hint of recessional space in the dark triangle along the lower edge, and the simulation of nighttime shadows through strong background passages of parallel and intersecting lines.
Gorky's early 1930s drawing series Khorkom, named after his native village in Armenia, also informs Untitled (X on Brown Paper). These works exemplify Gorky's shift to biomorphic Surrealism and his exploration of automatism in the seemingly unconscious application of line. His primary influence for the Khorkom drawings was André Masson, whose Surrealist paintings with flowing arabesques, hybrid avian creatures, and biomorphic forms Gorky studied obsessively in the magazine Cahiers d'art. Like the Khorkom works, Untitled (X on Brown Paper) transforms the palette shape into a bird with wings sprouting from its neck; accentuates the interplay of positive and negative space; and foregrounds whiplash curves, notably in the dark line emerging from a pod-like shape at the top of the composition, which sweeps beneath the palette-bird and culminates in a pigtail.
As early as 1933 and continuing until 1936, Gorky also experimented with relational geometric shapes, studies that culminated in both his masterful painting Organization (1933-36, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and his 1936 mural for Newark Airport, Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations (all but two of ten panels now destroyed). Paying tribute to Fernand Léger's machinist painting The City and Stuart Davis' Egg Beater series, Gorky's Organization studies abandon lyrical biomorphism in favor of crisply defined geometric "machine parts." Overlapping shapes resembling gears, propellers, electrical plugs, pulleys, and wheels occupy a shallow space, creating a collage effect. A unifying element in many of these drawings is the straight line intersected by, or ending in, a small ball or ring. This motif forms the dominant "X" on the left of Untitled (X on Brown Paper), and Gorky further plays with this ball-and-line in the line running through the "eye" of the bird-palette and in the pincer-like lines topped by a circle over the "head" of the bird.
Untitled (X on Brown Paper) is significant not merely because early Gorky drawings of this caliber infrequently come up for auction, but also because it combines signature elements of his concurrent Surrealist and geometric series. Equally sensual and structured, it balances rich tonalities and pure negative space and natural and mechanical forms, inviting the viewer to enter this mysterious world. Holger Cahill best summed up Gorky's brilliant drawings from this period: "Arshile Gorky has an extraordinary inventiveness and fertility in creating special arrangements both precise and harmonious, and he contributes to contemporary American Expression a note of intellectual fantasy which is very rare in the plastic art of this country" (H. Cahill in M. Spender, "Arshile Gorky: Themes for the Mural '1934,'" in M. Spender and B. Rose, ed., Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction: Drawings from the Early 1930s, New York, 1994, p. ix).
We wish to thank Melissa Kerr for her invaluable assistance in cataloguing this lot, which is numbered D0464 in the Arshile Gorky Foundation Archives.
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