Arshile Gorky (American, Khorkom, Armenia 1904 - 1948 Sherman, Connecticut)
The Plough and the Song, 1947
Signed lower right: A Gorky 47
Oil on canvas
50 1/2 x 62 5/8 in. (128.3 x 159.1 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1952
A landscape of fecundity and mysterious connection emerges from the sinuous lines, organic forms, and oscillating ground of The Plough and the Song. Although the work appears to have been spontaneously created, it belongs to an ensemble of works that exemplify Gorky's systematic procedures of drawing and painting.
The Oberlin painting is one of three surviving versions of The Plough and the Song, one of the most important themes of Gorky's later years.1 These three versions demonstrate the strikingly different paintings that Gorky was able to generate from a line composition by subjecting it to variations in hue, tonality, and mode of paint application: gliding the brush, dripping, staining, and rubbing down the canvas to reveal or obscure previous passages.
The Oberlin canvas creates a visual field of great transparency, light, and apparent flux, while the other two works of the same title (The Art Institute of Chicago; and New York, collection Milton A. Gordon) project a relatively dense, textural environment filled with decisive contrasts. The most thinly painted of the three, the Oberlin work clearly shows Gorky's practice of staining the canvas with pigment thinned with turpentine, a technique which gave Gorky's brushwork and color modulations an airy, improvisational character.2
At least three drawings exist for The Plough and the Song: a graphite and wax crayon study of 1944 (the Oberlin study),3 a graphite and crayon study of approximately the same size, squared for enlargement,4 and a full-sized cartoon in graphite, charcoal, wax crayon, pastel, and oil.5 The drawings are remarkably consistent in their forms and compositional organization, while the quality of line--thin, pointed, fluid--is nearly identical, and is carried over into the paintings.
The drawings' four main clusters of incident are repeated in the painting: the tall, perhaps skeletal structure planted on the left; the bulbous "slipper" that sprouts floral and genital shapes and terminates at the top in a long, funnel-like form or appendage; the cluster of oval shapes just to the right of center; and, finally, the form that suggests a seated female torso at the upper right. Gorky's systematic development of the Plough and the Song drawings into the paintings has been closely analyzed by William Seitz.6
During the 1940s the fertility of nature and humanity became a constant theme in Gorky's work. Since at least the '30s, Gorky's letters to his sister were filled with references to their father's garden in Khorkom and a deep longing for the Armenian countryside.7 Frequent stays in the Connecticut and Virginia countryside from 1942 until his death in 1948 intensified Gorky's memories of Armenia. In a letter to his sister dated 22 April 1944, for example, shortly before an extended visit to the Virginia farm owned by his wife's family, Gorky's anticipation merges with memories of Khorkom: "I dream of it always and it is as if some ancient Armenian spirit within me moves my hand to create so far from our homeland the shapes of nature we loved in the gardens, wheat fields, and orchards of our Adoian family in Khorkom."8
According to Ethel Schwabacher, the painter's former pupil and close friend, Gorky began the theme of The Plough and the Song during that nine-month stay in Virginia in 1944, and executed the Oberlin study and many other drawings out of doors.9 A letter of December 1944 to his sister contains what seems to be Gorky's earliest written (published) reference to the figure of the plow. He writes that he had been drawing Armenian plows, and that he had carved one from wood as a gift to his nephew: "You cannot imagine the fertility of forms that leap from our Armenian plows, the plow our ancestors used for thousands of years of toil and gaiety and hardship and poetry."10
Work (C) 1998 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanik Manook Adoian in Khorkom Vari Haiyotz Dzor, a village in the province of Van, a center of ancient Armenian culture. From 1914, the Turks' systematic persecution of the Armenians drove the Adoian family and thousands of others out of Van, and eventually on an eight-day march to the frontier of Causasian Armenia. Gorky's mother died of malnutrition in December 1918, during a winter of severe deprivation for the Armenian refugees. In 1920, Gorky and his sister arrived at Ellis Island, and eventually moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where his father had emigrated earlier. Gorky moved to New York around 1925, and changed his name.
Until the early 1940s, Gorky thoroughly committed himself to the study (and imitation) of the great modernist masters, particularly Cézanne, Picasso, and Miró. In 1930 he exhibited three still lifes in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 46 Painters and Sculptors under 35 Years of Age. In 1933 he began a lifelong friendship with Willem de Kooning. His first solo show was held at Mellon Galleries, Philadelphia, in 1934. Gorky joined the WPA in 1935, and worked on various aviation murals (present locations unknown) until 1940. The Whitney Museum of American Art purchased Painting in 1936-37. Gorky's best known and final phase of work began shortly after his marriage to Agnes Magruder in September 1941, and a visit to the Connecticut countryside in the summer of 1942. Gorky's "breakthrough" painting (or paintings) were the later canvases of the Garden of Sochi series (1940-43), one of which was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art in 1942.11 The summer of 1943 began a series of visits to Crooked Run Farm, Hamilton, Virginia, where Gorky drew out of doors. Gorky met André Breton and the Surrealists in 1944, and first exhibited at Julian Levy Gallery, New York, in 1945, where he would have annual solo shows through 1948. In January 1945, a fire in his studio in Sherman, Connecticut, destroyed approximately twenty-seven works. Gorky had an operation for cancer the following month, and went to Virginia that summer and fall, where he produced about three hundred drawings. Eight paintings and two drawings were shown in the exhibition Fourteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1946. An automobile accident in June, 1948, broke Gorky's neck and immobilized his painting arm. On July 21 he hanged himself in his Sherman studio.
Schwabacher, Ethel K. Arshile Gorky. New York, 1957.
Levy, Julian. Arshile Gorky. New York, 1966.
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols. Montclair, N.J., 1980.
Gorky, Jordan, and Robert Goldwater. The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue. New York, 1982.
Waldman, Diane. Arshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective. Exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1983.
With Julian Levy, New York, from whom purchased in April 1952
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 77.
Kansas City, Mo., William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1957. Some Points of View in Modern Painting. 10 February - 17 March. Cat. no. 22.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1958. Some Contemporary Works of Art. 12 - 30 November. Cat. no. 21.
St. Louis, City Art Museum, and Unites States Information Agency, 1959-60. Twenty-Five Years of American Painting 1933-1958. Traveled to Naples, Palazzo Reale; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Art Moderna; Milan, Permanente Gallery; Berlin, Amerika Haus; Darmstadt, Landesmuseum; Sweden, Göteborg Konstmuseum; York, City Art Gallery. Cat. no. 22.
Venice, XXXI Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte, 1962. 17 June - 7 October. Cat. no. 25.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1962-63. Arshile Gorky: Paintings, Drawings, Studies. 17 December - 12 February (also shown at Washington, D.C., Gallery of Modern Art). Cat. no. 112.
Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Art Museum, 1964. Art since 1889. 20 October - 15 November. Cat. no. 39.
London, The Tate Gallery, 1965. Arshile Gorky. 1 April - 2 May (also shown at Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen). Cat. no. 92.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966. Treasures from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 21 July - 11 September. No cat.
Trenton, New Jersey State Museum, 1967. Focus on Light. 20 May - 10 September. Cat. no. 32.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969-70. New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970. 18 October - 1 February. Cat. no. 94.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1976. The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950. Cat. no. 40.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1978-79. The Subjects of the Artist. 1 June - 14 January. Cat. no. 6.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1979. The Spirit of Surrealism. 3 October - 25 November. Cat. no. 86.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1983. Arshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective. 24 April - 19 July. Cat. ill. 204.
Seitz, William C. "Arshile Gorky's The Plough and the Song." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1954), pp. 4-15.
Schwabacher, Ethel K. Arshile Gorky. New York, 1957, pp. 114, 128.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Captivating a Captive Audience." The Palette (Spring 1958), pp. 12-15.
Twenty-Five Years of American Painting 1933-1958. Exh. cat., City Art Museum of St. Louis, USIA Traveling Exhibition, 1959-60, p. 15, cat. no. 22.
XXXI Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte. Exh. cat., Venice, 1962, cat. no. 22.
Arshile Gorky. Exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962-62, p. 46, no. 112.
Art Since 1889. Exh. cat., University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque,p. 10, cat. no. 39.
Arshile Gorky. Exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1965, cat. no. 92.
Arshile Gorky. Exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1965, cat. no.127.Levy, Julian. Arshile Gorky. New York, 1966, p. 21.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 66, fig. 206.
Focus on Light. Exh. cat., New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 1967, cat. no. 32.
Geldzahler, Henry. New York Painting and Sculpture:1940-1970. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1969, p. 160, cat. no. 94.
Johnson, Ellen H. "American Art of the Twentieth Century." Apollo Magazine 103, no. 168 (February 1976), p. 129.
Bourdon, David. "Gorky Translated through Tragedy." The Village Voice (1 March 1976), p. 99.
Henning, Edward B. The Spirit of Surrealism. Exh. cat., The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1979, pp. 144-45, 150, 173, cat. no. 86.
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols. Montclair, N.J., 1980, pp. 197-200.
Seitz, William C. Abstract Expressionist Painting in America. Cambridge, Mass., 1983, pp. 17, 62, 125.
The work was painted on canvas commercially primed with a smooth, thin ground. The design was drawn in a loose pencil sketch, visible mostly at the right. The oil paint was then broadly applied in thin washes, which sagged and ran freely. While still flowing, accents of bright color were added. Shapes were delineated with black ink, probably applied with a quill pen. In some areas, the washes were allowed to flow freely over the ink lines, blurring or covering the line indications.
The painting was originally unvarnished. A light coating of poly(vinyl) acetate was applied in 1962 after surface cleaning.
The support and paint structure appear sound and stable. Linen tape has been adhered (date unknown) along the stretcher bead, overlapping the front by approximately one-quarter inch. Stretcher creases are visible at the top and bottom edges, and there are minor abrasions scattered throughout the surface.
1. The extant works are: 131.8 x 155.9 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago; and 132.4 x 163.2 cm, New York, collection Milton A. Gordon; reproduced in Diane Waldman, Arshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective (exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1981), pls. 203 and 205 respectively. Two others were among the twenty-seven canvases that perished in a fire in Gorky's studio in Connecticut on 26 January 1946.
2. "The Oberlin canvas shows Gorky's method of beginning--and often finishing--in line and turpentine wash. At first it may have been only a way of starting, but friends--especially the Chilean painter Matta, who also worked in line and thin paint--encouraged Gorky to stop, to preserve the first liquid freshness and continue on another canvas rather than bury successive revisions as he had earlier." William Seitz, Arshile Gorky: Paintings, Drawings, Studies (exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962), p. 46. Gorky began working in this technique, which he had learned from Matta, in 1942, the year which inaugurates the period of his best-known work.
3. Study for "The Plough and the Song" , 48.2 x 64.3 cm, AMAM inv. 56.1.
4. Connecticut, privated collection; reproduced in William C. Seitz, "Arshile Gorky's The Plough and the Song," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1954), fig. 2.
5. Approximately 124.5 x 155 cm, Washington, D.C., private collection; reproduced in William C. Seitz, "Arshile Gorky's The Plough and the Song," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1954), fig. 3.
6. William C. Seitz, "Arshile Gorky's The Plough and the Song," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1954), pp. 4-15.
7. For a brief survey of Gorky's letters to his family, see Karlen Mooradian, "A Special Issue on Arshile Gorky," Arat: A Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Fall 1971), pp. 19-43.
8. Karlen Mooradian, "A Special Issue on Arshile Gorky," Arat: A Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Fall 1971), p. 32.
9. "Sitting before nature, Gorky dissected root, stem, insect, leaf and flower, studying genesis and process; out of these studies he created an alphabet of forms." Ethel Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky (New York, 1957), p. 97.
10. Karlen Mooradian, "A Special Issue on Arshile Gorky," Arat: A Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Fall 1971), p. 32. Gorky carved at least three Armenian plows between 1944 and 1946; these are illustrated in Diane Waldman, Arshile Gorky 1904-1948: A Retrospective (exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1981), fig. 250.
11. Garden in Sochi, 1941, oil on canvas, 112.4 x 158.1 cm; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, inv. 335.42. Compare with the later (ca. 1943) Garden in Sochi, oil on canvas, 78.7 x 99.1 cm; New York, Museum of Modern Art, inv. 492.69.