ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)
ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)
ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)
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ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)
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Property from the Collection of David Geffen
ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)

Charred Beloved I

ARSHILE GORKY (1904-1948)
Charred Beloved I
inscribed by Agnes Gorky Phillips, the artist's widow, 'a. gorky' (upper left)
oil on canvas
53 ½ x 39 ¾ in. (135.9 x 101 cm.)
Painted in 1946.
Estate of the artist
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1952
Marie and Walter M. Zivi, Chicago, 1956
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, 1976
Gerald S. Elliott, Chicago, 1976
Victoria and S. I. Newhouse, Jr., New York, circa 1989
Adriana and Robert Mnuchin, New York, circa 1993
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993
R. Rosenblum, "Gorky, Matta, de Kooning, Pollock," Arts Digest, New York, vol. 29, no. 17, 1 June 1955, p. 24.
"Special issue on Gorky in Italian and English with text by Toti Scialoja and excerpts from Schwabacher 1957," Arti Visive, Summer 1957, n.p., no. 2 (illustrated).
E. Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1957, pp. 115 and 126.
33 Paintings by Arshile Gorky, exh. cat., New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, 1957, n.p., fig. 38 (illustrated).
H. Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky: The Man, The Time, The Idea, New York, 1962, p. 104 (titled Charred Beloved).
J. Levy, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1966, p. 161, pl. 137 (illustrated).
B. Rose, "Arshile Gorky and John Graham: Eastern Exiles in a Western World," Arts Magazine, vol. 50, no. 7, March 1976, p. 67 (illustrated).
H. Herrera, "The Sculptures of Arshile Gorky," Arts Magazine, vol. 50, no. 7, March 1976, p. 89.
H. Rand, Arshile Gorky: The Implication of Symbols, London and Montclair, 1980, p. 238, fig.14-1 (illustrated).
M. Fitzgerald, "Arshile Gorky," Arts Magazine, vol. 55, no. 10, June 1981, p. 23 (illustrated).
J. M. Jordan, "Gorky at the Guggenheim," Art Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, Fall 1981, p. 263.
J. M. Jordan and R. Goldwater, The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue, New York, 1982, pp. 88 and 468-470, no. 305 (illustrated).
M. P. Lader, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1985, pp. 90-91, fig. 89 (illustrated).
C. Frankel, "Gorky: Tragic Lyricism," International Herald Tribune, 10-11 March 1990, p. 7.
Arshile Gorky: Oeuvres sur Papier, 1929–1947, exh. cat., Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, 1990, p. 36, fig. 19 (illustrated).
H. Rand, Arshile Gorky: The Implication of Symbols, Berkeley, 1991, p. 238, pl. XIV, fig. 14-1 (illustrated).
Arshile Gorky: Works on Paper, exh. cat., Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1992, p. 108 (titled Charred Beloved).
P. Balakian, "Arshile Gorky and the Armenian Genocide," Art in America, vol. 84, February 1996, p. 109 (titled Charred Beloved).
D. Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Institute of Chicago, Chicago and New York, 1997, p. 212.
N. Matossian, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky, London, 1998, n.p., pl. 12 (illustrated).
M. Spender, From A High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, New York, 1999, pp. 304, 308 and 309.
H. Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, New York, 2003, pp. 482, 507-508, 518, 520, 557 and 566, fig. 166 (illustrated).
P. Schjeldahl, "Self-Made Man," The New Yorker, Issue 79, 8 September 2003, p. 95 (illustrated).
New York, New York: Fifty Years of Art, Architecture, Cinema, Performance, Photography and Video, Monaco, Grimaldi Forum, 2006, pp. 79 and 521, no. 13 (illustrated).
A. Beredjiklian, Arshile Gorky: sept thèmes majeurs, Suresnes, 2007, pp. 55 and 62.
R. S. Mattison, Arshile Gorky: Works and Writings, Barcelona, 2009, p. 109 (illustrated).
I. Sandler, "Arshile Gorky: 'An Artist of the Earth,'" Brooklyn Rail, July-August 2013, p. 34.
Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, exh. cat., Venice, Ca' Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna, 2019, pp. 226-227 (illustrated; titled Charred Beloved).
E. Costello, ed., Arshile Gorky Catalogue Raisonné, New York, digital, 2022-ongoing, no. P305 (illustrated).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Arshile Gorky In The Final Years, February-March 1953, n.p., no. 11.
New York, Museum of Modern Art and Washington, D.C., Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Arshile Gorky, 1904-1948, December 1962-April 1963, p. 38.
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Collectors, September-October 1963, p. 5.
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Modern Masters from Chicago Collections, September-October 1972, n.p.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Acquisition Priorities: Aspects of Postwar Painting in America; Including Arshile Gorky: Works 1944-1948, October 1976-January 1977, p. 35, no. 2 (illustrated).
University of Chicago, David and Alfred Smart Gallery, Abstract Expressionism: A Tribute to Harold Rosenberg: Paintings and Drawings from Chicago Collections, October-November 1979, pp. 24 and 47, no. 12.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective, April 1981-February 1982, pp. 57-59 and 178, no. 195 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The New York School: Four Decades, Guggenheim Museum Collection and Major Loans, July-August 1982, n.p., no. 16.
Madrid, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundación Caja de Pensiones and London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Arshile Gorky 1904-1948, October 1989-March 1990, pp. 115 and 179, no. 40 (illustrated).
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau; London, Royal Academy of Arts and London, Saatchi Gallery, American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, May-December 1993, n.p., no. 83 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Arshile Gorky: Late Paintings, January-March 1994, pp. 34-35 and 43 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., The National Gallery of Art; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Fort Worth, Museum of Modern Art, Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years, May 1995-March 1996, pp. 22, 75 and 114-115, no. 13 (illustrated).
Philadelphia Museum of Art; London, Tate Modern and Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, October 2009-September 2010, pp. 329 and 391, pl. 166 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

In The Shock of the New (1980), Robert Hughes suggested that Arshile Gorky’s life “as a mature artist formed a kind of Bridge of Sighs between Surrealism and America; he was the last major painter whom Breton claimed for Surrealism and the first of the Abstract Expressionists as well.” Hughes’s analogy is not, of course, particularly sound. Surrealism led to Abstract Expressionism; whatever one thinks of post-war art, the Bridge of Sighs carried Venetians from the Doge’s Palace to prison. But insofar as Gorky was the period’s singular hinge figure, and the view from the bridge was beautiful in itself and in its sublime possibility, there are affinities with his maturity and with Charred Beloved I and its three related works.

Gorky was born Vostanik Manug Adoian in ca. 1904 in Khorkom, on the shore of Lake Van in Ottoman Turkey. Stuart Davis would question the posthumous caricature of Gorky as “handmaiden of Misery” in the late fifties: “He had many unique qualities, but poverty was not one of them.” Gorky’s past, however, was distinct from his peers. Davis’s father was an editor of The Philadelphia Press; Gorky’s father left his family for America when his son was four. Davis’s mother sculpted; Gorky’s maternal grandfather was killed in one of the Hammidian massacres of the 1890s—Gorky would say that he had been crucified on the door of his own church—and his mother Shushan’s first husband was executed for revolutionary activity. Shushan was forced to abandon her daughter, Sima, on the occasion of her arranged, and unhappy, second marriage (Sima died in an orphanage shortly after); she fled with her remaining children on foot for eight days from the subsequent genocide; she died after being refused entry to the hospital on the outskirts of the city of Van; and she was buried in an unmarked communal grave. As Gorky’s younger sister, Vartoosh recalled, the hospital’s rejection was vicious. Gorky, who tried to have her admitted, was thrown down the stairs.

He emigrated to Watertown, Massachusetts with Vartoosh—and limited English—in 1920. How an artist resolves to become an artist is very rarely clear, and Gorky is no exception. He was soon to be found drawing on the black tarpaper tiles on the roof of Hood Rubber, where he and his sisters worked in the early twenties. Gorky was fired within several months and thereafter enrolled at Providence’s Technical High School.

Contemporary photographs show Gorky channeling his inner Whistler—sitting outside before an easel, wearing jacket and tie, or striking his most studiously romantic pose, devil-may-care chain draped pointlessly around his neck. On seeing “Gorky walking down the street clad in a long, flapping cloak,” his cousin Lucia “laughed and laughed, and thereafter whenever she saw him again, she laughed,” Matthew Spender recounted in his biography of the painter. “‘Well,’ she said, as if it explained everything, ‘he looked like Jesus Christ.’” As part of his self-fashioning he adopted the name Arshile (“Arshel”, at first) Gorky. He was possibly unaware that Maxim Gorky, who some took to be his uncle, was born Alexei Peshkov.

By the time he moved to New York in 1924, Gorky was already an accomplished draftsman—he claimed to have studied in Paris—and an eloquent, often contrarian exponent of the techniques of the past. His admiration for William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “licked” paint surface was likely as unpopular in the halls of the Art Students League as it would have been among the Impressionists.

It was in these years that the myth of what might be styled “method painting” attached itself to Gorky. “[John] Graham told a friend that Gorky even emulated the lives, as well as the styles, of his heroes. He’d even had a Modigliani moment, complete with Modiglianiesque girlfriend and Modiglianiesque beard,” wrote Spender. “Once, Gorky sat down in front of Graham in a café and drew a Picasso, complete with signature, without a moment’s hesitation. Graham told the story with awe in his voice. Graham saw that for someone like Gorky, coming from so far away, the need to acquire the culture of the West was much stronger than for those who were born there. It was more than a question of ‘influences.’”

Spender revisited this theme in his introduction to Gorky’s letters: “He never felt the urge to push towards ‘originality’. He never wanted, to put it in Freudian terms, to ‘kill the father’ in order to break free from some imponderable weight. When Levy accused him of being too much under the influence of Cezanne and Picasso, he replied: ‘I was “with” Cezanne for a long time. And then naturally I was “with” Picasso.’ It is an excellent choice of words, but it is much more in keeping with the early twenty-first century than with the language of postwar New York.” One need only look at or juxtapose what Pollock or Rothko was up to in the mid-forties to take the measure of Gorky’s originality—which John Elderfield explores memorably through the prism of hybridity and metamorphosis—but it was not its own end. This “rejection of originality as a goal,” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan noted in their biography of de Kooning, “deeply affected de Kooning. ‘Aha, so you have ideas of your own,’ Gorky told de Kooning when he first looked at his work. ‘Somehow,’ said de Kooning, ‘that didn’t seem so good.’”

Whatever Gorky’s conception of originality, his genius flowered in roughly the last five years of his life, with the nurturing of Agnes Magruder (“Mougouch”, to Gorky), whom he married in 1941, and the instrumental financial and emotional support of Jeanne Reynal. A trip to San Francisco with Noguchi at Reynal’s instigation enabled him to move beyond his prior, pathologically thick application of paint. (“At this period,” Gorky remarked, “I measured by weight.”) And he exulted in the landscape of Lincoln, Virginia, where he stayed on the Magruder family farm. In September 1945, the Gorkys relocated to the house of Jean and Henry Hebbeln in Sherman, Connecticut. The following January, while Mougouch and their daughters were away, Gorky’s studio in the Hebbelns’ barn was consumed by fire. He lost some twenty paintings, along with his drawings and books. For an artist with fewer than 400 recorded oils and meticulous habits, the experience could have been debilitating—or worse.

More than three decades earlier, in 1913, Alfred Stieglitz received an alarming call in the middle of the night. A fire had broken out in the apartment below his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. He assumed that nothing inside would survive and therefore saw no point in rushing to the scene. An account of his agony was featured in The New York Globe: “He knew that the loss of [the work of his artists] would to them mean tragedy and might change the course of their lives. That these tangible manifestations of his own idealistic spirit and of that of the artists should be destroyed meant that for several hours Alfred Stieglitz went through perhaps the most intense experience of his life. When he went to the gallery and found that nothing had been touched he had no feeling of relief or pleasure. His capacity for emotion had been exhausted… [But] he said… if those pictures, plates, photographs, and drawings had been destroyed, he would have gone to some pseudo art collection, to some gallery of respectable paintings, to some museum in which academical compromise in the way of art was stored, and would have burnt it up.” Stieglitz’s tragedy was imagined. Gorky’s was not. But instead of visiting the torch on others, he began again.

Of the fouri paintings Gorky completed in the ballroom he borrowed in the wake of the fire on the 17th floor of 1200 Fifth Avenue, three were Charred Beloveds: I and Nos. 1 and 2. Although the sizes and formats are uniform, their tonality is not: Nos. 1 and 2 are sooty, grisaille. (Nude, which is the fourth canvas, is nearer in palette to I.) A rigidly literal interpretation would place I in the midst of the blaze, and the further pair in its dimming embers. The numbering, in any event, does not correspond to an established chronology. No. 1 is so called because that is how it appeared in the checklist for the first and only time it was shown during Gorky’s lifetime in 1946. The irresolvable question of Gorky’s order becomes rhythmical. From light to dark? Dark to light? Light to dark to light? Dark to light to dark?

From this devastating episode unfurled the nightmarish series of events that preceded his death in 1948: his operation for rectal cancer (at Mount Sinai, three blocks south from his ballroom perch at 1200 Fifth Avenue); the storm-induced car accident with his dealer, Julien Levy, in which he broke his neck and briefly lost the use of his painting arm (“You want me to be brave,” he told the attending nurses, “but I am like an onion which has been peeled of its skin and of its layers, until I feel everything. I feel even the trembling of a leaf”); and his strange, poignant confrontation with Matta in Central Park over the latter’s weekend dalliance with Mougouch. (Gorky’s studio in Lincoln was, in his absence, also struck down by fire.) In the burst in which he painted the four great Ballroom canvases, Gorky was suspended 17 floors in the air, between the vestiges of his past and an uncertain but still hopeful future.

If, as has been said, Gorky was not good at small talk, then neither are his paintings. There is no throat clearing, trivia, or form or flourish to no purpose. Jed Perl cites Gorky’s distinction between “sun” and “moon” painters with reference to Charred Beloved I. The painting evokes, too, his onetime friend John Graham’s feelings of “enigma” (in Spender’s words, “meaning the quality of emotion which a work of art could carry—the far side of its physical appearance, as it were”) and “nostalgia” (“in the sense of endowing a work with the accumulated weight of the past, not necessarily in its figurative references but in its mood”). Charred Beloved I is, in Graham’s terms, deeply enigmatic and nostalgic. (These were not alien notions to Gorky: see his more than 100 versions of Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia.)

Much has been written about the particulars and aftermath of the Sherman studio fire. But it is worth considering what Spender calls “a moral problem”ii as the guest of the Hebbelns: “If he saved his works while the barn burned, wouldn’t that make the situation even worse? He allowed a certain number of paintings to be destroyed so that his loss and the owner’s would somehow be equalized.” There is an element of selfless concern—and another of propitiation.
For the turn-of-the-century Adoians, fire represented more than simply another calamity. “In the Zoroastrian religion,” Spender related, “which underlies the faith of so many Armenians of Van, fire is not a symbol for God, but God itself, and to extinguish fire without permitting it to run its course is a form of sacrilege.” Gorky never left his native identity behind. He corresponded in his local Armenian dialect throughout his life and his bank book in America was under Manug Adoian.
Elderfield refers to Gorky’s “atavistic anxiety”. Hayden Herrera observes his identification as “a man of fate”, and the leitmotif of fire. His grandmother burned down the village church, and he was himself to know fire’s inextricable powers of creation and destruction. Graham likened the artist’s struggle to the primitive man attempting to make fire, rubbing two sticks together over and over again before giving up in despair: “Perhaps if you had kept on trying only one minute and a half more a blue flame would have risen up!” A fire destroyed the dozen or so paintings he had given his half-sister, Akabi. Upset—was it carelessness?—he denied her more. “And the world is ruthless, ruthless, has always consumed / [everything] with fire and sword,” Gorky lamented in an undated poem of the thirties, “[inflicted] such pain before this understanding. And the / melancholy fire came under cover of darkness.”

One can easily imagine the studio of Pollock or, later, de Kooning engulfed in flames after an all-night binge. Yet it was Gorky’s lot. He whose habit of polishing his floor at home until it shone impressed Noguchi; who, according to Spender, “worked as methodically as an artist of the Quattrocento”; who had Rothko, one of his first students at the New School of Design, carry out the trash; who always took care. “Do you seek fire?” asks an ancient verse. “Here is a man of fire.”
i Some put the number at five, additionally locating the creation of Child’s Companion to the ballroom.
ii This and the quote that follows are drawn from text Matthew Spender excised from his essay, The Ballroom Series.

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