Out of the Shadows: Arshile Gorky

The influential Armenian artist has a new moment in the spotlight

Learn more about works featured in Freeman's November 17 auction.

11/12/2021     News and Film, Modern and Contemporary Art

Freeman’s November 17 Modern and Contemporary Art auction features a number of towering figures of 20th-century artistic production, but perhaps none so simultaneously influential and enigmatic as Arshile Gorky. Born in Armenia at the beginning of the 20th century (both his birth and death dates are contested), Gorky fled the Armenian genocide for New England, where he changed his name—claiming familial connection with Maxim Gorky.

Landscape (Lot 17; estimate: $15,000-25,000) is the earliest of Gorky’s works featured in Modern and Contemporary Art, executed circa 1926-28, less than a decade after Gorky landed on American shores and began studying, then teaching, art at Boston’s New England School of Art. An early watercolor and pencil on paper, Landscape offers a glimpse into Gorky’s processes before the later Expressionist and Surrealist work for which he became best known; his exuberant brushstrokes and use of color collide to form a work that is neither abstract nor figurative, but something all his own.


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Lot 17 | Arshile Gorky, Landscape | $15,000-25,000


Another work, Portrait of David Burliuk (Lot 19; estimate: $2,500-4,000), features the subject, a Russian Futurist painter and poet, rendered sparsely and elegantly in ink. Gorky’s lines are clearly masterful: he manages to conjure intimate detail with astonishing economy. Though a fairly straightforward portrait on its face, it was completed on a paper menu from 1931 offering everything from “Fresh lobster salad” to “Roquefort cheese crackers”—a playful, casual use of material that reveals the colleagiality and affection between artist and subject, both immigrants who drew and painted each other many times, in part because they couldn’t afford to hire models.


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Lot 19 | Arshile Gorky, Portrait of David Burliuk | $2,500-4,000


Portrait of a Woman (Lot 18; estimate: $8,000-12,000), the final Gorky work featured in Freeman’s November 17 sale, was executed in 1939 and offers a different version of a Gorky portrait—this time rendered in pencil with carefully detailed line work. All three works were acquired directly from the artist by David Burliuk and have remained in the Burliuk family by descent, and a New York-based private collection, ever since.


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Lot 18 | Arshile Gorky, Portrait of a Woman | $8,000-12,000


Though he never quite reached the same household-name status as some of his peers, Gorky’s influence on 20th-century art was monumental. He changed the course of Willem de Kooning’s artwork entirely; de Kooning once said, “If the bookkeepers think it necessary continuously to make sure of where things and people come from, well, then, I come from 35 Union Square”—citing Gorky’s studio address.

Gorky was deeply inspired by the work of Paul Cézanne, whose influence lent a post-Impressionist flair to Gorky's work. This influence was at times directly named, as in the case of the artist's 1927 Landscape in the Manner of CézanneHe was a teacher of Mark Rothko’s in Boston, a peer and friend of Isamu Noguchi, and a noted rival of Jackson Pollock. Gorky has been called the last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist, defining and shaping the very movements in which he worked.

Mysterious as he may have been during his lifetime, it appears that Gorky continues to raise questions and invite surprises even posthumously. Last month, Artnet reported that a previously unknown painting was discovered hidden behind his work The Limit during routine maintenance, writing that “it’s quite possible that this isn’t the only painting the artist obscured this way.” The rediscovered painting—on view at Hauser & Wirth until late December—marks a moment of rediscovery more generally of this prolific and prescient artist’s output, on offer at Freeman’s November 17.



View the rest of our November 17 Modern and Contemporary Art auction.



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