THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Post Lot Text
This work is catalogued in the Arshile Gorky Foundation Archives as #P301.
On April 29th, 1945, Child’s Companions was shown at the eponymous avant-garde gallery run by Julien Levy. Levy, friend of the poet and writer André Breton and Gorky’s dealer, had introduced surrealist art to New York. Breton, the driving force of Surrealism in France during the 1920s and then in America during the 1940s exile of many of the great artists and poets of the period, wrote the essay that appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition. Breton praised Gorky for releasing the eye and hand from mimesis: “The eye is not open so long as it limits itself to the passive role of the mirror…. Arshile Gorky is, for me, the first painter to whom this secret has been fully revealed… [He is an artist who can] seize, in the shortest possible time, the relations which link the innumerable physical and mental structures, even if there is no possibility of an uninterrupted passage through this labyrinth” (A. Breton, Surrealism and Painting, Boston, repr. 2002, p. 199).
An intimate landscape of elegant and graceful calligraphic renderings, the gossamer maze slightly touched by color, is both personal and emotional, an abstract network of markings that also call to mind with uncanny singularity the vision of forms that Gorky explored with sustained intensity after meeting Roberto Matta and Andre Breton in the 1940s. With exquisite delicacy Gorky arrays his line and color in discrete areas across the canvas. Biomorphic forms and pools of color wend their way over a shallow space, the wisps of primary color, lightly touched or soaked into the canvas, creating an ethereal mélange of hybrid forms. This suggests at once the Surrealist practice of detaching shape from function as well as the visual world of his early childhood such as the disposition of characters in ancient Armenian relief work that Gorky had seen as a child around Lake Van, Armenia, as well as the schematized forms in early Islamic calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art he assiduously studied. Yet even more, the natural world informs Gorky’s imagery. As senior curator Ann Temkin said of Gorky’s Diary of a Seducer of the same year – 1945 – “There is a certain amount of mystery in all of Gorky’s paintings as if it’s a rebus or a code waiting to be deciphered” (A. Temkin, Remarks on Gorky’s Diary of a Seducer, “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture,” audio program, October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011, New York, Museum of Modern Art).
Gorky’s involvement with Surrealism – a movement that exalted the irrational and the spontaneous association of thoughts, daytime musings, and nighttime dreams – came fully into play after meeting the surrealist painter, Roberto Matta in 1941. Matta introduced Gorky to the technique of automatism and the role of chance in creating powerful images through which seemingly irrational or free associations might be brought to vision. This would be done in such a way as to free the mind and the hand to create imagery uncontrolled by forethought and learned technique, what Breton described as “dictation by thought in absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond an aesthetic or moral preoccupation” (A. Breton, “Manifesto du Surréalisme,” Paris, 1924). Through Matta, Gorky was able to move beyond earlier influences to investigate his private interior vision by adopting certain unconscious processes and using his astonishing powers of close observation of the natural world to create indefinable, yet compelling figural shapes and moody palettes. Yet Gorky never fully gave up technical control. Indeed, as late at the mid-1940s, Gorky used the grid to transfer his drawing studies to the painted surface. While his mind wandered freely, his hand exercised control.
Working out of doors was for Gorky a particularly productive activity, augmenting his sources while inspiring his forms. He sketched natural shapes conflating them with motifs derived from body parts. Such forms and associations were foundational not only for Gorky, but for the artistic milieu of Surrealism that surrounded him. Both Gorky and Matta drew their imagery from Breton’s theory of “Great Transparents,” which, according to the poet, referred to invisible entities in the world that could not be divined by the five senses: “[There] exist above him, on the animal level, beings… [which] through a type of camouflage… escape the … sensory frame of reference…” (A. Breton, quoted in Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Philadelphia, 2009, p. 103). Gorky’s own hovering phantastical beings rendered in the present work follows Matta’s illustrations of Breton’s mythologizing, for example, in the invisible forces that float freely around the burning saint in Matta’s Joan Of Art, 1942.
Diaphanous, transparent, and mythical, Gorky’s own calligraphic rhomboids and scalloped rectangles align in freer pictorial structures that move beyond Cubist compositional organization. While colors are suspended in ovoid or columnar formations, released from their contours or loosely filling them by scumbling, rubbing, or staining – here a “target,” another an “eye” – they become eradicable substances of the total atmosphere. Evidence of his recent engagement with a natural environment that held Gorky more and more in its thrall, the figures in Child’s Companions are polymorphous images, in part drawn from details of foliage and insects, schematized, combined, and scaled up along the lines of Gorky’s early master, Joan Miró.
Child’s Companion can be seen as part of a series of drawings and paintings executed between 1944 and 1945 in which color becomes detached from its formal contours, creating wisps of chroma that escape the bounding edge, as if the work was execute in a single campaign. The interaction of thin black lines and serous pigment create a loose sensuous surface. The title cannot be linked to any specific text or idea, although because a companion work, Diary of a Seducer, takes its title from a novel by Søren Kierkegaard, perhaps Child’s Companion can be usefully understood as referencing this author’s own spiritual symbolism, which uses childhood as a proxy for religious faith and salvation. Certainly, Gorky knew Kierkegaard’s Three Discourses in which the Danish philosopher uses childhood as a conduit to metaphysical salvation: “People see God in great things, in the raging of the elements and in the course of world history; they entirely forget what the child understood, that when it shut its eyes it sees God. When the child shuts its eyes and smiles, it becomes an angel” (S. Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, trans. H. and E. Hong, New Haven and London, 1993, pp. 31-32). Influential with the New York School painters during the 1940s after fleeing the Armenian Genocide in 1915, Gorky had moved to New York by the early 1920s and joined the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s along side Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, and Mark Rothko. He prefigured the monumental scale and lyrical style of many Abstract Expressionists of the following generation. It was just after this period that Gorky met Matta and Breton, who characterized Gorky’s work as “hybrid,” images that were derived from natural phenomena, but at the same time suggestive of multiple readings. Gorky’s associative imagery – as we see in Child’s Companions – transforms natural phenomena into shape-shifting surface events that might evoke natural, or even spiritual, associations.
An imagist of analogy, such myriad relationships are not beyond what Breton characterizes as the “free and limitless play of anoalogies” (A. Breton, op. cit., p. 200). Breton further opens up his understanding of Gorky’s “hybrid” forms by writing that for Gorky, “the end result [is] produced by the contemplation of a natural spectacle blended with the flux of childhood and other memories provoked by intense concentration up this spectacle by an observer endowed with quite exceptional emotional gifts.” Breton elaborates: Gorky’s observations of nature go beyond nature itself by “extracting from it [nature] sensations capable of acting as springboards toward the deepening, in terms of consciousness as much of enjoyment, of certain spiritual states” (Ibid., p. 200).
A work of deep emotional sensitivity, Child’s Companions combines the emotional and spiritual; it is a “cryptogram upon which the artist’s previous tangible imprints have just left their stencil, in the quest for the rhythm of life itself” (Ibid., p. 200).