In the spring of 1944 Gorky and his family moved to the home of his parents-in-law at Crooked Run Farm, Hamilton, Virginia. He worked there for nine months producing a large body of drawings which inspired the paintings of the winter months. It is likely that Untitled was painted in November or December of that year and based on one of these drawings. The painting shows traces of a pencil grid, indicating that the composition was directly transferred from a drawing.
Gorky first met André Breton (1896-1966), the spokesman for the Surrealist movement, in the winter of 1944 at much the same time as he was working on Untitled. The painting was given to Breton as a gift, probably on the occasion of Gorky's first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in March 1945, to which Breton contributed the catalogue introduction. Breton used this introduction as a concluding chapter in the second edition of his book Surrealism and Painting which also appeared in 1945. In each painting colour is played around the common linear structure to allow individual emphasis and interpretation. The oil paint has been thinned to the consistency of watercolour to produce washes of pure and transparent colour, preserving the firm black lines of the drawing and maximising the soft organic fluidity of each colour accent. Gorky's titles are usually poetic and evocative rather than descriptive, and the title Plumage landscape would seem to be a typical creation, suggestively conflating the iridescence of birds' feathers with landscape. Ethel Schwabacher, a student of Gorky's in the mid-1940s, referred to the accents of colour as 'plumes' when writing about his work in 1951, and William C. Seitz in a publication of 1962 claimed the term was Gorky's own.1 if this is the case, then it may offer some insight into the title of the Gallery's painting as literally a landscape made with aureoles of paint.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.214.
- See Ethel Schwabacher's introduction to Arshile Gorky Memorial Exhibition, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1951, William C. Seitz first claimed that Plumes 'is what Gorky called them' in the catalogue Arshile Gorky: Paintings Drawings Studies, New York: Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, 1962. This claim reappeared in the text reprinted for the catalogue for the exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London (Arshile Gorky: Paintings and Drawings, Arts Council 1965). Interestingly, in Seitz's dissertation of 1955, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America first published in 1983 by Harvard University Press, Seitz attributes the term to Schwabacher.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010