Arshile Gorky - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Allan Stone Galleries Inc., New York
    Donald Morris Gallery, Detroit
    Steingrim Laursen, Copenhagen, by 1981
    Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek
    Private collection (by descent from the above)

  • Exhibited

    Los Angeles, Everett Ellin Gallery, Arshile Gorky: Forty Drawings from the Period 1929 through 1947, April 9 - May 5, 1962
    New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Arshile Gorky, 1904-1948: A Retrospective, April 24 – July 19, 1981; Dallas, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, September
    11 – November 8, 1981; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 3, 1981 – February 28, 1982
    Marseille, Centre de la Vieille Charité, La Planète Affolée: Surréalisme: Dispersion et Influences: 1938 – 1947, April 12 – June 30, 1986
    Gran Canaria, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, El Surrealismo entre Viejo y Nuevo Mundo, December 4, 1989 – February 4, 1990

  • Literature

    Arshile Gorky: Forty Drawings from the Period 1929 through 1947, Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1962, cat. no. 31 (illustrated)
    D. Waldman, Arshile Gorky 1904 - 1948: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1981, cat. no. 216 (illustrated)
    B. Noël, La Planète Affolée: Surréalisme: Dispersion et Influences: 1938 – 1947, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseille, France, 1986, cat, no. 106 (illustrated)
    J. M. Bonet, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, El Surrealismo entre el Viejo y Nuevo Mundo, 1989, n.p. (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Arshile Gorky’s personal life had been marred by unspeakable confrontations with hardship, however, punctuated with a remarkable series of re-inventions that ultimately came to shape his artistic practice. Gorky witnessed the atrocities of the Armenian genocide firsthand, escaping to nearby Russia before making a long passage to America; shedding his birth name and intentionally casting an air of mystery over his life and training as an artist. The next twenty-five years saw his effortless grasp of a variety of artistic styles before arriving at a point of maturity in the early 1940s. In the decade that followed, tragedy would once again mar his personal life in the form of infidelity, fire, and paralysis and Gorky ended his life in 1948. While the title of the present lot encompasses the period in Gorky’s life in which it was created, aesthetic content challenges title. Study for Agony, 1946-1947, exemplifies Gorky’s supremely confident hand in the twilight of his artistic command, and reigns as an indelible stamp of Abstract Expressionist mastery.

    Upon his arrival in America, Gorky almost immediately began to fabricate his history with a flair for the theatrical, claiming he was a cousin of Soviet writer Maxim Gorky(regardless of the fact that his cousin’s name itself was a pseudonym). In addition, his wild claims extended to his training as an artist. Supposedly, Kandinsky himself had taught the young artist to paint, and Gorky had already made a name for himself in the salons of Paris. These creative assertions were perhaps a result of his American reinvention, and he wasted no time in reforming his identity. Few had reason to doubt Gorky’s claims, as his self-taught style began to appear as advanced as a professional’s own. He spent his twenties developing his talents through mimicry, adopting the forms and arrangements of a series of established artists. In the way that a devoted apprentice learns to duplicate the work of his master, so Gorky was apprenticed to the masters of Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism: “He was Cézanne, Picasso, Léger, Miró, André Masson and Roberto Matta, more or less in that order, as he assiduously and almost selflessly emulated a succession of existing personal styles to teach himself how to be a painter.” (H. Cotter, “From Mimic to Master of Invention,” The New York Times, October 22, 2009).

    The institutions of the New Deal had profoundly positive effects on Gorky’s art, as he began to keep company with and learn from other major artists who also benefited from the consignments of the Works Progress Administration. He befriended Willem de Kooning, who praised Gorky’s far-reaching talents as a painter. For a few years in the late 1930s, the two painters’ works bear a striking resemblance to each other’s, almost bathed in each man’s influence. Finally, after flirting with Surrealism as his concluding apprenticeship, his work took on a life of its own. Still filled with the sexually suggestive nature of Surrealism, the Fauvism of Cezanne, and Picasso’s Cubist plays on representation, Gorky’s works came alive with vibrant and unprecedented movement in line, figure, and color; in Study for Agony, 1946-1947, his light yet violent shapes echo with a subtle fusion of many disparate movements in art.

    The present lot, Study for Agony, 1946-1947, comes at a critical turning point in Gorky’s life: he was still in full possession of his artistic mastery but his life had already begun its series of tragic events. Agony, 1947, in its fully realized version, presents us with a nightmarish vision of slaughter, as a multitude of shapes resembling slices of meat dance upon a hellish landscape. The present lot is more sensitive in its testimony to Gorky’s life, withholding years of calamity not yet thrust unto its canvas. Gorky’s work on paper creates the ultimate surface for a highly detailed and thoughtful, nuanced, and introspective study of gesture. Gorky’s delicate traces of pencil form a wealth of figurative life, ranging from the polygonal hints of Cubism at the far right to the central phallic remnant of Gorky’s forays into Surrealism.

    Adding subtle gestures of soft coloring, Gorky presents us not with a cruel, violent universe, but with what is perhaps a last vision of a promising future. Gentle yellows fill the geometric figure at the right, evoking a three-dimensional depth to Gorky’s surface. The centrally located cylindrical figure houses a royal blue, contrasting the darker
    grays and black graphite that surround it. Among other hues—orange, red, pink—these colors convey an innocence that Gorky would soon find lacking in his work, devoted instead to such colors that demonstrated his psychological weight.

    The artist from whom Gorky drew the greatest influence for the present lot is clearly Joan Miró, his own interconnected figures and shapes dancing upon the expanse of his canvases. Indeed, many critics focus on Gorky’s debt to Miró for bringing his work out of the realm of Surrealism and into the new territory of pre-Abstract Expressionism: “by the early 1940s he had relinquished this style for a softer, biomorphic abstraction, probably inspired by Miro, and evident in his Garden in Socchi series (1940-1943).” (A. Moszynska, Abstract Art, London, 1990, p. 146).

    Despite the heaviness of his final two years of life, Gorky still managed to create many of the most memorable works of his career. In addition, his influence upon later generations of artists, including the continuing career of his friend Willem de Kooning, makes him one of the most important forefathers of American Abstract Expressionism. The present lot exhibits a side of Gorky that we do not often see; in light of his own personal tragedy, it is a glimpse into the mind of a completely self-made artist who coalesced a series of movements into a single inimitable style– one who always strove to find the light, even amidst insurmountable circumstances.


Study for Agony

circa 1946-1947
pencil and crayon on Strathmore wove paper
12 1/2 x 19 in. (33 x 48.3 cm)
Signed “A. Gorky” by Agnes Gorky Fielding, the artist’s wife, lower right.
This work is recorded in the Arshile Gorky Foundation Archives under number D1477.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

15 November 2012
New York