This Arshile Gorky Painting Spent 70 Years Hidden in Plain Sight

Experts discovered a sea-blue canvas by the Armenian American artist concealed beneath another one of his works on paper

A sea of light blue filled with biomorphic pink, red, green and yellow shapes
Conservators discovered this painting, Untitled (Virginia Summer), beneath another work by Gorky, The Limit (1947). The artist's relatives had previously noticed sections of The Limit peeling up at the corners, revealing bright blue paint below. Photo by Jon Etter /  © The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society / Courtesy of the Arshile Gorky Foundation and Hauser & Wirth

Caretakers of The Limit (1947), a greyish-green abstract painting by Armenian American artist Arshile Gorky, had been pointing out the telltale signs for years: small drops of paint—brighter than any shade visible on The Limit’s surface—that appeared to have oozed from the canvas’ front to its reverse.

Gorky’s daughter Maro Spender, meanwhile, had noticed that a corner of The Limit was peeling up to reveal vibrant colors below. The evidence was clear. Another composition was hiding beneath The Limit’s surface. But was it just a sketch or something more?

“I could see perfectly well there was a painting underneath it,” Spender tells the New York Times’ Ted Loos, but experts “kept on saying that it’s too risky and it’s too dangerous to find out for sure.”

Swiss conservators Michaela Ritter and Olivier Masson finally decided to investigate the case further during Covid-19 lockdown, when the Arshile Gorky Foundation sent The Limit to their studio as part of a routine checkup.

A green and white sea of color with constrained black shapes, splotches of color and lines that intersect all over
Gorky affixed this work on paper, The Limit (1947), to the canvas of an oil painting with glue and tape. Photo by Jon Etter /  © The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society / Courtesy of the Arshile Gorky Foundation and Hauser & Wirth

As they began to carefully separate the work on paper from its canvas, Ritter and Masson met with a surprise, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet News. A missing Gorky painting had been lying beneath The Limit for nearly 70 years, hidden in plain sight.

Now known as Untitled (Virginia Summer), the once-obscured oil-on-canvas painting depicts “biomorphic forms and figures that float in and out of a vibrant landscape, filled with green foliage swathed and buried within a sea of cloudy blue,” notes Hauser & Wirth Gallery, which is set to exhibit the find next month, in a statement. Gorky likely painted the work in the summer of 1947, during a prolific period when he often painted en plen air near his Connecticut studio.

Art enthusiasts will soon be able to see both Untitled (Virginia Summer) and The Limit at an exhibition organized by the New York City gallery. Opening November 16 and running through December 23, “Arshile Gorky: Beyond The Limit” will coincide with the debut of a documentary about the painting’s discovery, directed by Cosima Spender, the artist’s granddaughter. (None of the works on view will be up for sale.)

Hauser & Wirth will also display a selection of preparatory sketches for Untitled (Virginia Summer). These drawings helped art historians quickly establish the oil painting’s authenticity. As Spender’s husband, Matthew, who has written a biography of Gorky, tells the Times, “[W]hen [the work] was revealed, it had a backing instantly. There was no question of how it fit into Gorky’s oeuvre.”

He adds, “It was the missing painting.”

A black and white photograph of a mustachioed man with dark hair, in suit and tie, looking into the distance with a serious expression
Arshile Gorky, photographed for the Works Progress Administration in 1936 by Von Urban Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The artist likely affixed The Limit atop of his earlier painting himself, lining its edges with glue and a special type of removable tape. Like many other painters, he would have regularly used and reused canvases as a cost-cutting measure.

Gorky might have once planned to remove The Limit and display both paintings side by side. But after a series of personal tragedies, he died by suicide in 1948, leaving Untitled (Virginia Summer) hidden and other works of art unrealized.

Born in 1904, Gorky’s early life was marked by the horrors of the Armenian genocide. With his mother and three sisters, he was forced to flee his homeland in modern-day Turkey, immigrating to the United States in 1920. He settled on the East Coast and found work as an artist in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project.

The unique, colorful abstract canvases that Gorky painted near the end of his life toed the line between Surrealism and the emerging field of Abstract Expressionism, per the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He was often inspired by memories of visits to vacations at Crooked Run Farm, the Virginia homestead owned by his wife’s family, as well as recurring visions of monstrous figures with red and yellow eyes, according to the statement.

Rife with bright colors and references to nature, Untitled (Virginia Summer) will be featured in the first installment of the foundation’s updated catalogue raisonné when it launches later this month. The resource will be freely accessible to anyone on the internet here.

Hauser & Wirth describes the painting as “a prime and well-preserved example of Gorky’s powerful originality and inventiveness.”

The gallery adds, “Untitled (Virginia Summer) takes its place among the most moving works of the artist’s career.”

Arshile Gorky: Beyond The Limit” will be on view at Hauser & Wirth Gallery’s New York location from November 16 to December 23.

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