Reflecting a life marked by exile and tragedy, Arshile Gorky's work stands out for its explosive energy and decisive influence on post-war American art.
Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Untitled, graphite and pencil on paper, 1943, 43.2 cm x 55.9 cm/17 x 22 in.
With barely a dozen lots hitting the auction rooms, Arshile Gorky (c 1904-1948) is certainly rare in the market, and even more so in Paris. A key 20th-century figure and a UFO in art history, the painter is often considered a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism: a movement upon which he had a profound impact. But Gorky's work is above all an inner experience imbued with remembered images from his childhood: the shapes and colors of his native village, poppies, the moon, apricots and golden wheat fields. His palette, in this drawing, evokes Armenian summers in red, pink, deep blue and yellow, and also the ruby and ochre surroundings of Mount Ararat, where he fled with his mother. Everything falls into place in a sort of puzzle where the shapes fit together as best they can, like so many enigmatic outlines that resonate with his troubled personal history.
Born Vosdanik Manoog Adoian around 1904 in the village of Khorkom, in what was then Ottoman Turkey, as a child he survived the Armenian genocide at its height. In 1908, his father left the country; in 1919, his mother starved to death, a lasting trauma that inspired a moving tribute in an oil painting, The Artist and His Mother (1936), now in the Whitney Museum in New York. The following year, the teenager joined his father in the United States, where he changed his name to Arshile Gorky, in honor of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
Influenced by Joan Miró’s biomorphic iconography and the role of the unconscious in the work of the Surrealists, Gorky began developing a style that made him a central figure in the New York scene in the 1940s, with a profound influence on the artists of that school. Using fragmentary, idealized elements from his early youth, the artist combined his distant memories, as well as his adult fears and desires, with the reality of his new environment. In New York, he was particularly fascinated by street signs and fire hydrants—"veritable little cathedrals," as he called them. Gorky loved the texture of street furniture crudely painted by workers, and the light catching on the rough asphalt. While avidly studying the great masters (he would regularly set up his easel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), notably Uccello, Grünewald and Cézanne, Gorky developed his own style, synthesizing Surrealism and Expressionism in a lyrical approach to color and form. Close to Willem de Kooning and much admired by Cy Twombly, Arshile Gorky was a tragic, brilliant artist immersed in the realm of dreams and memories—as unclassifiable as he is essential.