“Most notable of his drawing series ... was his Fireplace in Virginia series of 1946. In these very intimate drawings Gorky narrates the action while we, as privileged spectators, observe a host of characters and objects, rendered in painstaking detail... The fireplace interiors contain a fantastic theater of abbreviated human and non-human anatomies, which mix in a dream space and become actors on a stage of visual parody."
Vigorously worked and enigmatically abstracted, Arshile Gorky’s Untitled (from the Fireplace in Virginia series) is a quintessential example of the artist’s unique pictorial idiom at its greatest expression. Executed in the summer of 1946, at the mature peak of Gorky’s career, the present work emerges from the posthumously titled “Fireplace in Virginia” series, referring to the fact that most of the drawings from the series were created around the fireplace in the living room of Crooked Run Farm, Gorky's in-law's country property in Virginia. Here, the intensely scribbled lines and colliding jagged forms bespeak the pronounced focus and emotional turmoil he was experiencing during those months; mere weeks previously, a fire had destroyed his studio and an operation for cancer left him profoundly conscious of his own mortality. As scholar Melvin Lader has explained, “Gorky many times expressed his belief that suffering resulted in the ability to feel more deeply and to perceive more keenly, and, in fact, his own creativity seemed to flourish after the unhappy events of 1946” (Melvin P. Lader, Arshile Gorky, New York 1985, p. 91). Driven by this inner crisis, Gorky created many of his best drawings during this time, including the present example, as well as similar works in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Befitting its significance, Untitled (from the Fireplace in Virginia series) bears an illustrious exhibition history, having been included in virtually every major retrospective of the artist’s work since the 1960s and widely exhibited around the world for decades. Never before appearing at auction and having remained in the distinguished Gumberg Collection for over thirty years, the present work is a rare and important paradigm of Gorky’s singular position within the canon of Modern art.
Gorky’s Untitled (From the Fireplace in Virginia Series) Exhibited Through the Years
All Art © 2022 Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
1969The present work installed in the exhibition Gorky: Drawings at M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, in 1969.
1995The present work installed in the exhibition Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years, at National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1995
2003The present work installed in the exhibition Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings, at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2003
2009The present work installed in the exhibition Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, at Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Jason Wierzbicki
Typical of the works from 1946, the syncopated combinations of lines and colors epitomize Gorky’s psychologically fraught visual language, moving beyond the boundaries of Cubism and Surrealism to fuse European modernism and New American painting. Gorky’s style would catapult him to the top of the New York art world in the 1940s and deeply influence Willem de Kooning and other members of the New York School. Describing Gorky’s work during this time, Surrealist leader André Breton exclaimed: “Here is an art entirely new, a leap beyond the ordinary and the known to indicate, with an impeccable arrow of light, a real feeling of liberty” (André Breton quoted in Hayden Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, New York, 2003, p. 478). In the present work, dynamic biomorphic forms expand and collide across the surface; they are active, aggressive, and the lines run through them like voices in a chorus, complete with solos, harmonies and dissonance.
Comparable Works in Prominent Museum Collections
Several of the artist’s most frequent signs and symbols appear in this work as well. To the lower left, the schematized figure of a child with her arms spread, standing beside a triangle topped by a disk. This figure appears in several paintings, including The Calendars (1946-47), Housatonic Falls (circa 1943-44), and Golden Brown Painting (circa 1943-44), among others; here, a scribbled and smudged passage of red crayon covers her body like an aura. Near the center of the right edge, a rocking chair, Gorky’s seat by the fire–this figure appears in many works in the series. Toward the middle, a long, horizontal bone-like or insect-like figure with a red spine, which later appears in The Orators (1947). Other ambiguous, anthropomorphic metaphors slide in and out of focus, becoming furniture, flora and fauna, a pair of eyes, or other interpretations. Some areas of the sheet are retraced in crayon, others are left bare, while still others Gorky has purposely smudged over with graphite, giving the composition a smoky, hazy atmosphere. The colors—fiery red and cerulean blue offset by earthy bronze and verdant green—are not limited by the lines, but rather support and expand them, the energetic forms and colors evoking Kandinsky’s groundbreaking work in the decades prior.
Gorky moved to America in 1920, in part to escape a past marked by the horrors of the Armenian Genocide and his mother’s subsequent death by starvation. Despite this move, the artist remained a dedicated disciple to the titans of European Modernism, such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joan Miró, learning the language of their artistry and assimilating them. His own style emerged in 1942, when he began to incorporate his studies of nature into abstract, automatist compositions. A 1943 trip to his wife’s family farm in Virginia, Crooked Run Farm, was revolutionary: Gorky had not been surrounded by fields and forests since his childhood, and found in nature the mysteries of soul, body, and mind, inspiring him to draw them all as he experienced them. At first light, Gorky would depart for the fields armed with pencils, crayons, and paper; drawing until dusk, oblivious to calls from his family or the farm animals moving curiously around him, he found himself mesmerized by and wholly connected to the surrounding landscape. Returning home in the evening, he would sit by the fire and draw, furiously scrawling out the natural inspiration he had absorbed during the day. Following the tragic events that befell him in the beginning of 1946, the fertile, sensuous forms of his earlier drawings gave way to the sharp-clawed, angst-ridden shapes seen in the present work. Yet, as his wife Mougouch insisted, “He did not set out to draw or paint agony. When he looked at trees he saw battles and conflict. Menace was a word he used a lot, and battle. He was interested in the opposition of one shape to another” (Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder quoted in ibid., p. 530).
A superb and psychically charged exemplar from the veritable apex of the artist’s career, Untitled (from the Fireplace in Virginia series) demonstrates the mastery of color and line that would provide the bridge between European Modernism and American Abstract Expressionism, fundamentally changing the course of art history and cementing Gorky’s place in the canon.