Arshile Gorky

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Arshile Gorky. Summation. 1947. Pencil, pastel, and charcoal on buff paper mounted on composition board, 6' 7 5/8" x 8' 5 3/4" (202.1 x 258.2 cm). Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Fund. © 2014 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Audio Program excerpt

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture

October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011

Curator, Ann Temkin: Gorky's paintings look as if they were done really rapidly—almost as if he just dreamt them up and improvised right on the canvas or the paper. The truth of the matter is that they were incredibly rehearsed and planned in studies and more studies.

Summation is actually on paper. This was not a study for a painting. He chose to make this work on paper as an end in itself. If you look at the gray color that suffuses the entire paper, there was this surface of charcoal that Gorky rubbed over the entire page almost as if it were soot or ash, to give it this kind of dreamy background from which all of these very, very intricate complicated linear forms emerge and disappear.

Gorky titled this drawing Summation. And there's no question that it does, in its great size and scope, represent a summary of all of the forms that had inhabited his art over the last five years.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 188

The sheer grandness of Summation, its alloy of precision and imposing scale, associates it with the classical masters of the past. Quite unclassical, though, is the drawing's nervous, extraordinarily sensuous bonding of sexual or visceral images and references to animals and plants. "This is a world," Gorky said of Summation, but it is a world ambiguously placed—a nature felt in the flesh. Some of its creatures have orifices, joints, and limbs, while others seem to be such body parts, or else internal organs. They blossom or flop, poke or rub or tickle each other, pile up or scurry off in a flock, defying identification even while their forms are definite and clear.

Surrealist automatism had freed Gorky's line, reinforcing its mobility. It is this mobility that allows the line to form what the Surrealist leader André Breton called "hybrids"—units with multiple metaphoric meanings. Separate yet related, clusters of incident form a structure both episodic and unified: the work is conceived not as a whole made up of parts but of parts that together make up a whole. We easily read (if not quite decipher) the various motifs, and by recognizing the formal and familial analogies among them, and the soft continuity of the shading around them, we also read them as one single, richly detailed image.

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