Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)
Study for Agony
inscribed 'signed for Arshile Gorky by Agnes Gorky Phillipa March 9 1955' (lower right)
wax crayon and graphite on paper
18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61 cm.)
Executed in 1946.
B.C. Holland, Chicago
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Property from the Estate of David Pincus
P. Schimmel et al., The Interpretive Link, Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism, works on paper, exh. cat., Newport Harbor Museum, 1986, p. 68.
L. Finkelstein, "Becoming is Meaning," Art News, wol. 68, December 1969, p. 44.
Purchase, Neuberger Museum, The Private Eye, April-June 1984.
Philadelphia Museum of Art; London, Tate Modern; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, October 2009-September 2010, pp. 325 and 392, no. 154 (illustrated in color).
"Drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But one who draws well can always paint. Drawing gives the artist the ability to control his line and hand. It develops in him the precision of line and touch. This is the path towards a masterwork" -Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky's Study for Agony dates from a period when the artist began to develop a distinguished repertoire of hybrid forms that morphed from his earlier renditions of plant life, human and animal anatomy into a series of sensual forms. The highly evocative figures displayed in the present lot are a direct precursor to one of Gorky's undisputed masterpieces, Agony, 1947, contained in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The mid-1940s were conflicted times for Gorky and some have seen his works from this period as increasingly reflecting a more introspective and melancholic mood. In January 1946, a fire in his studio destroyed hundreds of his drawings, sketches and books and a month later he was diagnosed with, and underwent an operation for, cancer. Despite the trauma of the devastating fire and his increasing amounts of pain, this period saw him produce, what many regard as, some of the best drawings and paintings of his career.
The complex range of intertwined forms are the physical traces of Gorky's hand as it traverses across the surface of the paper, leaving an intricate trail of pencil and wax crayon marks. Out of this mlange, quasi-figurative forms begin to emerge-from what appears to be a crouching form perched on top of a low-chair in the right hand portion of the work, to an outline recalling the brown roof of a church spire Gorky melds together elements of abstraction and figuration into one enigmatic scene. The diversity of Gorky's line ranges from gossamer thin trails of almost translucent graphite to thicker, more forcefully applied areas of dark scribbling. Interspersed amongst these are segments of yellow, moss green, brown and dusky pink areas of wax crayon adding a sense of dynamism and depth to the work.
Although distinctly contemporary in appearance, Study for Agony bears the hallmarks of a more traditional sense of compositional structure. Just a few years before executing this work, Gorky closely studied Poussin's masterpiece The Triumph of Baccus which was on display at the Durlacher Gallery in New York. Gorky was impressed by the strong 'structural scaffolding' that Poussin used to organize his composition. In Baccus, just as in Study for Agony, the eye enters the left and moves along the composition as it meets a succession of vertical lines and triggers. Because of the implied arrangement of smaller diagonal lines, the eye is encouraged to delve further into the composition, embarking on a journey into, and across the composition. This arrangement so pleased Gorky that some of his most important mature drawings from this period, including Study for Agony and its related painting Agony, update this customary compositional device with enchanting effect.