Arshile Gorky, “Untitled” (1944–1945), pencil and crayon on paper, 17 1/2 x 23 1/4 inches, photo: Christopher Burke Studio (all images courtesy Hauser & Wirth)

Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943–47 at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown outpost begins with a dare, if not an affront. In the first room, as you walk in off the street, there are two artworks before you, “Scent of Apricots on the Fields” (1944) and, on the adjacent wall, “Study for Scent of Apricots on the Fields” (1943-44). The first is an oil painting on canvas, while the other was done in pencil and crayon on paper. The imagery is the same in each, but the  drawing has been overlaid with a pencil grid as an aid to transferring its composition to the canvas.

To plan a painting ahead of time, let alone square off a drawing as if it were an Old Master study for a Baroque battle scene, could not be further from the attitude of the Abstract Expressionists, who had adopted Gorky as a posthumous member. Debilitated by rectal cancer, depression, and a broken neck, he had died by his own hand in 1948, the year that Jackson Pollock, in Willem de Kooning’s famous phrase, “broke the ice.”

Gorky’s careful preparation for his painting was in direct contradiction to the equally famous phrase from the critic Harold Rosenberg, declaring that the artist’s canvas in postwar America had been transformed into “an arena in which to act.” As he wrote in “The American Action Painters” in the December 1952 issue of Art News:

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

Arshile Gorky, “Pastoral” (1947), oil on canvas, 44 x 56 3/4 inches, photographer unknown

What is Gorky doing other than using his canvas “as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined”? But to look deeply into his work, as this exhibition affords you the freedom to do, is to grasp the visceral creative intensity of his moment of personal flowering after years at the altar of Cézanne and Picasso. If his work feels as intuited as it is planned, it then bears compelling correspondences to our own time and to the redefinition of painting that has taken place in the decades since the Postmodernist revolt.

Over the past year and a half, there have been major museum exhibitions devoted to Stuart Davis (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 10 – September 25, 2016) and John Graham (Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, Long Island, May 7, 2017 – July 30, 2017). Davis, Graham, and Gorky were such inseparable friends that de Kooning dubbed them the “Three Musketeers.”

And yet, these three artists were very different from each other in ways too numerous to go into here. Gorky was the youngest of the three, though Davis and Graham outlived him by more than a dozen years. (Graham had gone through his own apprenticeship of sorts with Picasso and other School of Paris artists before he came into his own in the mid-1940s, concurrent with Gorky’s artistic epiphany.)

While Davis’s legacy remains that of a classic Early American Modernist, Graham and Gorky can be seen as precursors of two branches of Postmodernism: the figurative (Graham), which opened the door to the mythic and the literary in artists as different as Anselm Kiefer, Enzo Cucchi, and Jörg Immendorff, and the formal (Gorky), in which orthodox precepts are bent and subverted, as in the work of David Reed, Philip Taaffe, and Jonathan Lasker. For these painters, the canvas is not so much an arena in which to act, but a stage upon which recurring motifs enter and exit.

Arshile Gorky, “Untitled” (1944–1945), pencil and crayon on paper,
19 3/4 x 26 1/8 inches, photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

In “Repossessing Nature,” her essay for the show’s catalogue, Edith Devaney casts Gorky’s breakthrough paintings of 1943 to 1947 as a direct response to his personal immersion in nature — in Virginia, where he worked in a farmhouse belonging to the family of his wife, Agnes Magruder, whom he called Mougouch, and in Sherman, Connecticut, where he had settled with  Mougouch and their young daughters, Maro and Natasha.

Devaney, the curator of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, writes that these experiences brought him back to his childhood in the Armenian province of Van in Ottoman Anatolia — deeply held memories that propelled his imagination into the free-floating biomorphic forms that were allegedly based on landscape but resemble, more often than not,  bones, hair, balls of flesh, erect penises, and red vaginal slits.

The drawings in this show are breathtaking in their variety and intensity. Motifs glide in and out; graphite lines trace the contours of unknown plants and body parts, accented by strokes of green, yellow, orange, and red crayon drifting like blossom petals across the surface. While “Study for Scent of Apricots on the Fields” is clearly, as the title states, a study, which is affirmed by the superimposed grid and the nearly identical composition on its related painting, the other drawings in the show are less discrete studies than they are apprehensions of surging motifs, entities that appear, mutate, and reappear from work to work.

In other words, the drawings in this show suggest that Gorky’s aesthetic is invested in the cultivation of visual ideas that transcend the individual artwork, a process that is occasionally frozen in paint. As Saskia Spender, the curator of the exhibition and Gorky’s granddaughter, writes in her catalogue essay, “Ardent Nature”:

[Gorky] seemed to “dismember and re-member” the elements of his compositions, indeed often recurrent and related elements, in a constant compositional dialogue between the rectangle of his frame, the structure of whatever he happened to be looking at while he painted, and the “long echoes that mingle from afar” — as in Baudelaire’s poem [“Correspondences,” from Les Fleurs du mal, 1857].

Arshile Gorky, “The Opaque” (1947), oil on canvas, 34 x 41 inches, photo: Genevieve Hanson

Gorky has been called the last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist. He had close personal ties to both the Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, and one of the premier AbExers, Willem de Kooning. And yet his faithful translations of drawing into painting could be seen as heretical to both camps. In theory, his painted versions should seem inauthentic because they did not arise directly from the subconscious or the gut — but they don’t: they feel just as sensitive and spontaneous as the drawings.

Gorky’s unique contribution to postwar American art continues to fascinate and beguile; as Spender writes in her essay, he felt a “kinship with history’s great outsiders: El Greco rather than Titian, Hals rather than Holbein, Ingres rather than Delacroix, Cézanne rather than Monet, the avant-garde rather than vanguardism. This always made his work discomfiting to the politics of empire.”

As this exhibition attests, whichever way the decidedly “not […] literate” Gorky (in his granddaughter’s words) comprehended the conceptual or philosophical assumptions underlying his work, when he was out immersed in nature — and captivated by childhood memories — he was clearly flying without a net.

Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943–47 continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 23.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.