Arshile Gorky’s new painting was hiding in plain sight

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts and Exhibitions special report, on how arts institutions help the public discover new options for the future.


Among the works of great artists who have been exhaustively studied and who have been dead for more than 70 years, true finds tend to be rare.

That’s why the opening of a gallery exhibition next month in Manhattan holds a seismic surprise for fans and scholars of the Armenian American artist. Archie Gorky (1904-48): A brand new painting by Gorky was found hidden under a famous painting he made at the very end of his life, during an extraordinary period of artistic productivity.

The new work, which the Gorky estate calls “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” (1946-47), is a completely new addition to his oeuvre. No one knew he existed – although his two daughters, one of his biographers and a few curators had long known that Something was here. His daughter Maro Spender called it “a truly remarkable event”.

Michaela Ritter, one of two Swiss restaurateurs who made the discovery, said: “It’s not that we have something like this every year. It’s really special.

The new work, a painting on canvas, was placed just below “The Limit” (1947), a well-known painting on paper which had been loaned to the National Gallery of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for years, hanging on the walls without anyone being aware of the treasure beneath.

“‘The Limit’ is one of Gorky’s most important late works, and unique in many ways,” said Carlos Basualdo, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s a distillation of everything he was working on at the time.”

The two paintings will be exhibited by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, which depicts the Gorky Estate, from November 16 to December 23 at its Chelsea branch, as well as related drawings and works on paper. (None of the parts are for sale). A new catalog raisonné that comprehensively lists Mr. Gorky’s output, including “Untitled (Virginia Summer)”, is being published by the Arshile Gorky Foundation this month.

Both paintings are abstract, with biomorphic shapes against a colored background, but the colors of “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” are more vivid, set against a sea of ​​aqua.

“It’s the freshness of a painting that hasn’t seen the light of day, so it hasn’t aged like everything else,” said the painter’s daughter, Natasha Gorky.

Mr. Gorky committed suicide in July 1948 at his studio in Sherman, Connecticut. But Ms Gorky said the composition struck her because ‘it is so cheerful and so full of joy’.

His father, who fled the Armenian Genocide in his native country and immigrated to the United States in 1920, was inspired by landscapes, and his work was a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Unlike “action painters” who made decisions on the fly, he was often quick but tended to paint from drawings he had already made and he planned his compositions carefully.

“There were nine or 10 of these drawings being prepared for painting,” said Matthew Spender, author of “From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky” and husband of Maro Spender. “So when the painting was revealed, it had support instantly. There was no doubt about its place in Gorky’s work. He added: “That was the missing painting.”

For years, the painter’s daughters knew that some kind of artwork lay beneath “The Limit.”

“There was a corner that had peeled off, and I could definitely see there was paint underneath,” Ms Spender said. “They kept saying it was too risky and too dangerous to know for sure.”

Curiously, the pandemic contributed to the discovery. the conservatives, Ms. Ritter and Olivier Masson, had time off last year during lockdown to investigate the case after “The Limit” came to see them for a routine interview.

They knew that Mr. Gorky had glued “The Limit” to the canvas with glue along the edges as well as kraft paper tape, an adhesive that is supposed to be easily removable. Curators were unsure if the milieu of the work was equally respected; It was not.

“Slowly we were able to see the edges of ‘Virginia Summer’,” Mr Masson said. “After many discussions with the owners, we started to go further and realized that there was oil paint covering the whole canvas. This is the first time we have realized that this n is not a sketch, it’s more.

The tricky part wasn’t so much separating the two works as protecting “The Limit,” a work on paper that was partially supported by the canvas of “Untitled (Virginia Summer).” The restorers created a copy of the original wooden stretcher to hold “The Limit” in the future.

Mr. Masson said that when they took a look at the hidden artwork, the color “was like an explosion compared to ‘The Limit’. It was so well protected. I would say it is in perfect condition.

A natural question arises: Why Did M. Gorky arrange two works in this way, one slipped under the other?

The summer of 1947 was more than busy for the painter who worked tirelessly in Connecticut.

“He was producing more or less one painting a day,” said Mr. Masson, who has worked with the Gorky estate since 1985. “He probably didn’t have enough primed and stretched canvases available. He ran out of material. is so easy.”

Mr. Basualdo noted, “The practice of using and reusing a canvas is not uncommon.”

Parker Field, the managing director of the artist’s foundation, wrote in his essay for a book published by Hauser & Wirth, “Arshile Gorky: Beyond The Limit”, that he did not believe the painter was somehow dissatisfied with the hidden work. Mr. Field wrote: “Gorky had previously rejected other works by destroying them.

Mrs. Spender, herself a painter, recalled the atmosphere of the studio at the end of her father’s life.

“He taught me to paint when I was 3,” she said, noting that he allowed her to doodle on the back of a canvas. “But then I would try to go ahead and he would get really mad at me and throw me out. I would land screaming on my butt in the grass.

She added: “I knew he was a magician. I really felt that when Gorky was painting he was in another world. And I wanted to follow him there.

His younger sister, Ms. Gorky, said painting was an all-consuming activity for her father. “Like so many artists, he didn’t have much time for his family,” she said. “We got in the way.”

Taking an overall view, Mr. Spender noted that it was highly likely that Mr. Gorky had layered other works in the same way during his last years of painting and that there could still be more discoveries. to do.

“Museum curators, it’s not a bad idea to pull it out of the basement or the wall, look behind it and see if you have two paintings instead of one,” Spender said, triggering May – be a crush at establishments around the world.

He added, “It doesn’t cost much to take a look at it, you know?”

About Catharine C. Bean

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