This work is recorded in the Arshile Gorky Foundation Archives under number D1331.
Distinguished by a kaleidoscopic array of forms, Arshile Gorky’s Composition I is one of his finest works on paper, having featured in nearly every major retrospective devoted to his oeuvre. Delicate clouds of color are suspended within biomorphic forms, while gossamer graphite lines move gracefully in and out of the composition with a balletic lyricism so typical of Gorky’s greatest drawings. Areas of hatched black ink are interlocked within this puzzle-like mosaic, demonstrating the artist’s innate sense of pictorial organization. Taking its cues from the natural world, Composition I illustrates the indefinable yet compelling imagery that he developed during the summer of 1943 while living in rural Virginia with his wife and daughter. As Museum of Modern Art curator William C. Seitz described: “After years of poverty, frustration and loneliness in the dust of downtown New York, Gorky experienced the triple awakening of love, the promise of a family, and a return to the bucolic environment he looked back to so nostalgically” (W. Seitz, Arshile Gorky: Paintings, Drawings, Studies, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962, p. 28). This watershed moment witnessed a flourishing of breakthrough works— such as the present example—in which Gorky unfurled a new pictorial language of abstracted forms infused with childhood memories of his home in Armenia. Composition I remains one of his most significant drawings from this period, having featured in the premier retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962, in 1981 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and more recently, in his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In Composition I, the private inner world of the artist unfolds in a display of undulating forms that allude to the natural world though ultimately resist identification. Birds, flowers, rocks, and other bucolic shapes derived from the pastoral Virginia landscape overlap and commingle. Colored areas are buttressed by roughly hatched segments of black ink while elsewhere, the forms dissolve and coalesce, resulting in an impenetrable network where color and shadow exist side-by-side. Gorky allows the vivacity of the blank paper to breathe life into the composition, so that the tension between the drawn areas and the natural sheet is finely balanced. This technique relates to the time Gorky spent outdoors, where he routinely sketched for several hours each morning. Art historian Kim Theriault explains: “The interaction of shapes was terribly important to Gorky...Space for Gorky was very active. It came forward or went back. The shape of a space wasn’t just a static shape” (K. Theriault, Rethinking Arshile Gorky, University Park, 2009, p. 36).
Gorky devoted the early morning hours to making sketches en plein air, scrutinizing everything before him with a meticulous zeal particular to his own personality, often going “into the grass” for hours at a time. Immersed within this world of nature, Gorky created what André Breton described as “hybrid” images—abstract shapes derived from natural phenomena but suggestive of universal analogies. In Composition I, the landscape of his beloved rural Virginia had been passed through the filter of Gorky’s unique experience. Forms break free from the slavish activity of mimetic representation and are transported into a wholly new realm. Dreams and the painful memories Gorky’s childhood in Lake Van, Armenia are reborn, in new associations tinged with melancholy and the sweetness of lost youth.
Returning to New York later that November, Gorky took a portfolio filled with his drawings to the curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Dorothy Miller, who responded enthusiastically: “He came back with this huge portfolio full of those wonderful crayon-and-pencil drawings. And I was crazy about them. ‘Now you must have one,’ he offered. And I said, ‘Oh no, Gorky. I’m sorry. I buy what I can but never accept a gift from an artist.’ And it was a principle that we had here at the museum, unfortunately. So I said, ‘No, I won’t take one but I’ll take three of them for an exhibition that we are going to send out on the road.’ So that we did” (D. Miller, as quoted in H. Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, New York, 2003, p. 428).
Gorky’s drawings were the product of a felt response, in which the artist adopted the technique of automatic drawing after meeting Surrealist painter Roberto Matta in 1941. Matta suggested the technique of automatism to Gorky, in which seemingly irrational or freely associative thoughts allowed forms to emerge spontaneously without prioritizing one over the next. In Composition I, color and form emerge as autonomous entities. Color, particularly, begins to detach and float away from the forms that it inhabits. Areas of finely-rubbed yellow along the upper passage exist as independent units of atmospheric color, suggestive of sunshine but by no means representational of it. In other areas, patches of pale blue sneak away from the forms that contain them, becoming a mere suggestion. This innovative treatment of color substantially impacted the development of Abstract Expressionism later that decade, with Gorky being credited as a major precursor. Gorky’s biographer, Hayden Herrera, explained: “When he drew, the circuits between his eye, his hand, the shapes and lines appearing on the paper, and the complex interplay between feeling, memory and knowledge, seemed to have functioned perfectly. The connections happened so quickly that Gorky himself was surprised at what emerged…” (H. Herrera, Ibid., p. 422). Gorky produced some of his most groundbreaking works on paper during the summer of 1943, of which Composition I is a seminal example. Demonstrating the newly synthesized pictorial language inspired by the Surrealists, Composition I illustrates Gorky’s profound contributions to the field of postwar art.