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European & American Art
Abstract Expressionism gallery

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Arshile GORKY

Turkey (Armenia) 1904 – United States of America 1948

Untitled 1944 paintings, oil and pencil on canvas
Technique: oil and pencil on canvas
Primary Insc: signed u.l., oil, "A. Gorky", not dated
Tertiary Insc: inscribed reverse stretcher, u.c., pencil, vertically "3045 illeg. / (illeg.) orky / (illeg.) shile / (illeg.) at 4" [Gorky, Ashile cat 4] inscribed reverse stretcher, c.l., chalk, vertically "1013" label reverse stretcher, u.c., Fourcade, Droll, Inc. N.Y. typed "Arshile Gorky - "Untitled" / 1945, oil on canvas / FDA P Gorky 101 19 ¾ x 29 7/8 50 x 76 cm
49.8 h x 75.8 w cm
Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.458
Subject: Art style: Surrealism
© Arshile Gorky/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy

  • the artist;
  • by whom given to André Breton, New York/Paris, in 1944-45;
  • by inheritance to his widow, Elisa Breton, in 1966;
  • with Fourcade, Droll Inc., New York, May 1972;
  • from whom bought by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, September 1972
  • In this lyrical abstract painting, strong and vigorously worked elements unite with swathes of luminous transparent colour in an interplay of light and dark, warm and cool, and sharp and rounded forms. Despite recurring ambiguities about what are figures and what is ground, the painting strongly hints at a landscape of organic objects in three-dimensional space.

    Arshile Gorky based Untitled on a drawing he made while staying on a farm in Virginia, having arrived in America in 1920 after fleeing his homeland of Turkish Armenia. Inspired by Cubism and by the Surrealists he met in New York, he applied thinned paint to the basic structure of the drawing, the lines of which are still visible in places, and encouraged it into fluidities and animated accents, like things in nature. He identified some of his paintings at this time as landscapes—such as his Plumage landscape 1947, also owned by the National Gallery of Australia—and in 1942 wrote to his sister that ‘loving memories of our garden in Armenia’s Khorkom haunt me frequently … in my art I often draw our garden and recreate its precious greenery and life’.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • 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.

    1. 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