Painted in 1928-29, Composition of Forms on Table dates from an exciting period in Gorky's life and artistic career. At this time, he had been recognized by an increasingly large number of his contemporaries as a force to observe. He was teaching classes attended by more and more pupils such as the young Mark Rothko. Many of his pictures were the result of the artist's quest to carefully recreate his past, capturing in oils the lost members of his family, the lost world of Van in his native Armenia, his lost childhood. Taking his cues from a variety of artists and influences, he created paintings that conjured into existence shards and fragments of his memories, and in so doing, he channelled a novel universality. This is also clear in Composition of Forms on Table, where the forms of the title are strange and fluid abstractions rather than any specific, identifiable object. In this, Gorky was paving the way towards the full abstraction that he would later pioneer and which would become such a crucial influence on the so-called Action Painters of the Post-War period.
Gorky was enchanted by the past, but was also crucially open to the present in terms of art. It was crucial to his development that, during the period just before he painted Composition of Forms on Table, he met several artists from whose influence he would benefit, something that he more than reciprocated. In particular, it was during this time that he came into contact with Willem de Kooning and John Graham, both European-born painters, both represented so well in Allan Stone's collection. Some concerns in Graham's painting at the time are shared by Gorky in Composition of Forms on Table, not least the impetus to create Modern still life. However, it is not so much what was in Graham's paintings as what was on his wall that influenced Gorky. For Graham was a discerning collector, and had spent time in Europe, where he had met such luminaries as Picasso, André Breton and Paul Eluard. He was therefore instrumental in introducing Gorky to much of the Modern Art that was being created in Europe at that time, and especially to Surrealism. Gorky's own interest in Surrealism and automatism would eventually be one of the most significant stepping stones in the development of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, and its influence is already seen in the fluidity of Composition of Forms on Table.
De Kooning, become a great friend of the Armenian artist, and benefited from this friendship in many ways while also significantly helping Gorky, not least by encouraging his interest in Cubism. Gorky's love of the movement is clear both in Composition of Forms on Table, and in his ecstatic proclamation, "Has there been in six centuries better art than Cubism?" (A. Gorky, quoted in D. Waldman, Arhshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1981, p. 24). Looking at Composition of Forms on Table, the influence of Cubism, and of Picasso in particular, is clear. Indeed, Gorky appears to have based this work's composition on that of a still life, Studio with Plaster Head, painted by Picasso only a few years earlier in 1925 and now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. "I was with Cézanne for a long time and now naturally I am with Picasso," Gorky declared, signalling a significant change in his painting (A. Gorky, quoted in ibid., p. 24). As can be seen in Composition of Forms on Table, there is a new vitality, a new dynamism that is owed to Cubism's vortex-like appearance rather than the monumental, static planarity of "papa Cézanne."
The influence is not entirely direct, though: Gorky has used Picasso as a prompt, as a springboard toward discovering his own personal idiom. The forms of Picasso's still life paintings appear to have melted and dissolved, becoming fluid abstractions, pre-empting his full-blown abstractions of the 1940s. Meanwhile, Gorky has filled his painting with bold swathes of livid color absent in the still life pictures at which he was looking. While some of the lines and composition of this painting clearly recall Picasso and Braque, the overall effect is alien to their rootedness in the world of objects. Instead, Gorky has used the art of another painter as a bridge toward a deeper understanding of the universal. "Your Twachtman painted a waterfall in any country, as Whistler's mother was anyone's mother," Gorky claimed, explaining this notion. "He caught the universal idea of art. Art is always universal. Art is not in New York; art is in you. Atmosphere is not something New York has, it is also in you" (A. Gorky in 1926, quoted in N. Matossian, Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky, London, 1998, p. 150). Gorky, then, was not painting a still life, he was not painting specific objects on a table -- he was causing something universal to become more palpable, more apparent. Gorky achieved this in Composition of Forms on Table partly through the amazingly tactile variegated paint surface. Gorky manipulated the oils so that they have depth, some areas sticking out from the surface like ridges of levelled impasto. This heightens the sense of the painting's fluidity, of its being a living object, a searing facet of a strange, tantalisingly close yet ever elusive dimension of universal memory and universal signification.