World Arts / Art News

The Unknown Gorky

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Hauser & Wirth New York unveils an unpublished work discovered during research for the catalogue raisonné of this key figure in Abstract Expressionism.

Is it really possible that there are works by renowned artists which were never known to have existed? It seems impossible and is certainly very unlikely, but it can happen. Such an unlikelihood is proven in Arshile Gorky. Beyond The Limit, which opens the exhibition season at Hauser & Wirth New York. The exhibition, which can be visited until 23 December, presents a work whose existence had not been known of, and which appeared during the research for the Catalogue Raisonné of Gorky, an essential figure in the Abstract Expressionism movement and who would transform 20th-century American art.

Arshile Gorky: The Limit., 1947. Photograph: Jon Etter.

Untitled (Virginia Summer) was discovered last year right beneath one of his best-known works The Limit. The two paintings were bound together in the same original frame that Gorky used when they first emerged from his studio in 1947. Concealed for over 70 years, the work has not lost any of its brilliance or textures and is as vibrant as ever, as if time had never passed by.

The exhibition, entitled simply Beyond The Limit, presents the public with both paintings displayed together for the first time, accompanied by works on paper directly related to the newly discovered composition.

Gorky arrived in the United States in 1920 as one of hundreds of refugees. He was born in 1904 in Turkey, in the Armenian community, a persecuted minority and the victim of a genocide that also claimed the life of his mother. At the age of 21 he moved to New York, and he changed his name in homage to the famous Russian poet, rejecting all categories—ethnic, political or artistic—believing them to be inevitably reductive. Celebrating his individuality and developing his own language, he became a key cultural figure in a city that was imposing itself on the world.

Arshile Gorky. Photograph: Von Urban (Archives of American Art).

The artist, now a naturalised American, experienced a particularly explosive phase of creativity in the 1940s, when he began experimenting with new techniques. Mixing oil with turpentine he managed to paint more fluid lines, achieving greater freedom of expression and increasingly lively compositions. These advances are evident in The Limit, where dense pigment surfaces dissolve into transparent veils, generating colour fields that converge and disappear. The work strikes a balanced combination of surrealism and abstraction, just as Gorky combines intellectual introspection and sensory pleasures in his personal and professional life.

As regards Untitled (Virginia Summer), he blends movement and fluidity with intimate memories of his holidays at Crooked Run Farm, the Virginia farm owned by his wife’s parents. Enamoured with his bucolic setting, Gorky produced dozens of works in plein air, experimenting with automatic drawing and free association. The vibrant landscape, full of green foliage enveloped by a blue sea, suggests peace and serenity, although, in fact the artist was going through the worst period of his life. His studio had caught on fire, he was operated on for colon cancer, and he had a car accident that left his painting arm temporarily paralysed. As if that wasn’t enough, his wife then left him after seven years of marriage and took their children with her. This was the last straw for the artist, and in 1948, at just 44 years of age, Gorky hung himself in Sherman, Connecticut, surrounded by the nature and colours he loved so much.

Image of the exhibition room at the Hauser & Wirth in New York.

The exhibition is completed with six drawings directly related to the unpublished work, as Gorky would use works on paper as studies, changing settings and colours before making the final composition on canvas. In fact, these drawings were the only set that had not been connected to a specific painting until the recent discovery. This is all described in full detail in a new film made by the painter’s award-winning granddaughter, Cosima Spender, and the Italian film-maker, Valerio Bonelli.

Image of the exhibition room at the Hauser & Wirth in New York.

This discovery and the exhibition have led to the publication of a new book edited by Hauser & Wirth Publishers with clarifying essays by Parker Field, Director of the Arshile Gorky Foundation, and Pepe Karmel, Associate Professor of Art History at New York University, which captures a new vision of the development of Gorky’s artwork in the last few years of his life, when his style and abstract images reached full maturity. Moreover, the Arshile Gorky Catalogue Raisonné will be freely available online. The publication, which was started by the Gorky Foundation in December 2006, is not yet exhaustive, but it does provide the most complete, up-to-date and authoritative documentation on the nearly two thousand known works created by Gorky between 1924, the year he moved to New York, and 1948, the year he died. The publication, conceived as a work in progress, is available at

Roberta Bosco
Periodista d'origen italià especialitzada en art contemporani i cultura digital, comissària d'exposicions i docent.

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