Arshile Gorky ( American, 1904 - 1948 )

c. 1947–1948
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General Description

Arshile Gorky was the most influential of the American artists who translated European cubism and surrealism into an original artistic vocabulary that would become abstract expressionism. Born in Armenia, Gorky became a refugee during the Turkish invasions of the 1910s; his mother died of starvation in flight from advancing Turkish armies. This experience set the emotional tone for a series of nearly unbearable travails that the artist somehow managed, for a while, to master and even incorporate into his work. But finally overwhelmed, Gorky ended his own life just at the point that abstract expressionism was poised to achieve international renown.

In this untitled painting, we see traits of Gorky's art that younger artists, especially Willem de Kooning, found compelling. It suggests figures and forces slowly coming into being or expiring against a background of charged color, which recalled European traditions but broke forward into new psychological territory. Particularly impressive is the underpainting, a technique of layering areas of color so pigments show through in harmony and dissonance. Here Gorky sets up a traditional land, figure, and sky composition, but confounds this premise by using indeterminate shapes that are his private signs and symbols. The idea that such personal and abstract symbols could communicate universal emotions represents a crucial bridge between European art of old and the American art just emerging at the time of Gorky's tragic end. This untitled work, one of the last Gorky painted, demonstrates the transitional role Gorky played between surrealism and abstract expressionism.

The continual scraping and wiping the work has undergone in its creation from 1943 to 1948 further reveals Gorky's struggle involved in the creative process of painting. The overall effect is like that of a mural or a wall which is weathered or aged. Gorky's interest in creating a resemblance to murals may have been the result of a WPA project for which he painted murals for the Newark Airport in 1936.

Adapted from

  • Charles Wylie, "Untitled," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 269.

  • DMA unpublished material.