Arshile Gorky’s new painting was hiding in plain sight

This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.


Among the works of great artists extensively studied and deceased for more than 70 years, true finds tend to be rare.

That’s why the opening of a gallery exhibition next month in Manhattan offers a seismic surprise for fans and academics of the Armenian-American artist. Arshile Gorky (1904-48): A brand new painting by Gorky was found hidden under a famous painting he made at the very end of his life, during an extraordinary period of artistic productivity.

The new work, which the Gorky estate calls “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” (1946-47), is a brand new addition to his work. No one knew he existed – although his two daughters, one of his biographers, and a few restaurateurs had long known that Something was here. His daughter Maro Spender called it a “truly remarkable event”.

Michaela Ritter, one of the two Swiss restaurateurs who made the discovery, said: “It’s not that we have something like this every year. It really is special.

The new work, a painting on canvas, was placed just below “The Limit” (1947), a well-known painting on paper which had been on loan to the National Gallery of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for years, hung on the walls without anyone knowing the treasure below.

“The Limit is one of Gorky’s most important late works, and unique in many ways,” said Carlos Basualdo, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s a compendium of everything he was working on at the time.”

Both paintings will be exhibited by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, which represents the Gorky Estate, from November 16 to December 23 at its Chelsea branch, along with related drawings and works on paper. (None of the parts are for sale). A new catalog raisonné which exhaustively lists Mr. Gorky’s production, including “Untitled (Virginia Summer)”, is being published by the Arshile Gorky Foundation this month.

Both paintings are abstract, with biomorphic shapes on a colored background, but the colors of “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” are more vivid, set on a sea of ​​water.

“It’s the freshness of a painting that never saw the light of day, so it hasn’t aged like everything else,” said the painter’s daughter Natasha Gorky.

Mr. Gorky committed suicide in July 1948 at his studio in Sherman, Connecticut. But Ms Gorky said the composition struck her because “it is so joyful and so full of joy”.

His father, who fled the Armenian genocide in his country of birth and immigrated to the United States in 1920, was inspired by landscapes, and his work was a bridge between surrealism and abstract expressionism.

Unlike “action painters” who made decisions on the fly, he was often quick but tended to paint from drawings he had already made, and he planned his compositions carefully.

“There were nine or ten of these drawings in preparation for painting,” said Matthew Spender, author of “From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky” and husband of Maro Spender. “So when the painting was revealed it got support instantly. There was no question of how this fit into Gorky’s work. He added: “It was the missing paint.”

For years the painter’s daughters knew that some sort of work of art was under “The Limit”.

“There was a corner that had peeled off, and I could perfectly see that there was a painting underneath,” Ms. Spender said. “They kept saying it’s too risky and too dangerous to know for sure.”

Oddly enough, the pandemic contributed to the discovery. The preservatives, Ms Ritter and Olivier Masson, had some free time last year during the lockdown to investigate the case after ‘The Limit’ came to them for routine maintenance.

They knew that Mr. Gorky had glued “The Limit” to the canvas with glue along the edges as well as kraft paper tape, an adhesive that was supposed to be easily removable. The restorers did not know if the environment of the work was also respected; It was not.

“Slowly we were able to see the edges of ‘Virginia Summer’,” Mr. Masson said. “After many discussions with the owners, we started to dig deeper and realized that there was oil paint covering the whole canvas. This is the first time that we realize that this is not a sketch, it is more.

The tricky part is not so much in the separation of the two works as in the protection of “The Limit”, a work on paper partially supported by the canvas of “Untitled (Virginia Summer)”. The restorers created a copy of the original wooden stretcher to hold “The Limit” in the future.

Mr Masson said that when they took a look at the hidden artwork, the color “was like an explosion from ‘The Limit’. He was so well protected. I would say it is in perfect condition.

A natural question arises: Why Did Mr. Gorky arrange two works this way, one hidden under the other?

The summer of 1947 was more than busy for the painter, who worked tirelessly in Connecticut.

“He was producing more or less one painting a day,” said Mr. Masson, who has worked with the Gorky Estate since 1985. “He probably didn’t have enough primed and stretched canvases available. He ran out of materials. It’s that simple. “

Mr. Basualdo noted: “The practice of using and reusing a canvas is not uncommon.

Parker Field, the managing director of the artist’s foundation, wrote in his essay for a book published by Hauser & Wirth, “Arshile Gorky: Beyond The Limit”, that he did not believe the painter was somehow dissatisfied with the hidden work. Mr. Field wrote: “Gorky had previously rejected other works by destroying them.

Mrs. Spender, herself a painter, recalled the atmosphere of the studio at the end of her father’s life.

“He taught me to paint when I was 3,” she said, noting that he allowed her to doodle on the back of a canvas. “But then I would try to go in front and he would get very angry with me and kick me out.” I landed screaming on my butt on the grass.

She added, “I knew he was a magician. I really felt that when Gorky painted he was in another world. And I wanted to follow him there.

Her younger sister, Ms Gorky, said the painting was all-consuming for her father. “Like so many artists, he didn’t have a lot of time for his family,” she said. “We got in the way. “

From a global perspective, Mr Spender noted that it was highly likely that Mr Gorky was able to overlay other works in the same way during his later years of painting, and that there may still be more. discoveries to be made.

“Museum curators, it’s not a bad idea to pull it out of the basement or the wall, look behind and see if you have two paintings instead of one,” Mr Spender said, triggering May. -Be a scramble to establishments around the world.

He added, “It doesn’t cost much to take a look, you know?

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