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It’s been over 30 years since Rosina Rubin saw a beloved portrait of her aunt, Anna Walinska, painted by her friend, modernist artist Arshile Gorky. “The portrait hung in the entrance hall of the family apartment at 875 West End Avenue for as long as I can remember,” says Rubin, who is also the founder of Atelier Anna Walinska, of the artwork whose whereabouts are unknown. “I would love to see this painting again.”
Rubin and the Arshile Gorky Foundation are eager to find it since it represents more than just a modernist homage to a raven-haired Walinska pensively reading a book, as painted by a friend who helped pioneer Abstract Expressionism. The portrait is also proof of Walinska’s keen eye — which she exercised both in her own painterly practice and in her (short) career as an art gallerist — and a testament to her and Gorky’s mutual affection. (It is also one of around 50 Gorky oil paintings whose locations are unknown, and which the artist’s foundation hopes to track down for his forthcoming catalogue raisonné.)
Walinska and Gorky met in the 1920s as part of a circle of artists, and she often claimed to be the first to discover and promote the importance of his work. “My friendship with Gorky is one of the reasons I started a gallery myself,” Walinska later told Gorky’s son-in-law and biographer, Matthew Spender. “I recognized in him one of the foremost artists in America.”
By the time Walinska met Gorky, she’d been exposed to avant-garde art on two continents and painted for over a decade. Born in London, she later immigrated with her family to New York where she enrolled in the Art Students League as a precocious 12-year-old in 1918. By age 20 she moved to Paris, alone, to study art at the Académie de Grande Chaumière with Cubist painter Andre L’Hote, and stayed for a few years painting colorful still-lifes, portraits, and café scenes with sinewy lines.
When Walinska returned to New York in the early 1930s, she wanted to import some of the avant-garde sensibility she experienced in Paris to New York. She cofounded the Guild Art Gallery at 37 West 57th Street with a monied acquaintance, Margaret Lefranc, and their lofty mission was “to show artists of genuine merit, whether known or unknown, totally independent of commercial consideration.”
Among the gallery’s first shows was a 1935 Gorky solo exhibition (his first in New York). But given the Guild’s lack of commercial success and the fact that it was still the heyday of the Great Depression, the venture was short-lived. The gallery closed by 1937 — the same year Gorky painted Walinska’s portrait.
Walinska’s art career persevered, though, and she continued painting and exhibiting her work. She also worked for the Federal Arts Program, and the Contemporary Art Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Perpetually adventurous, Walinska traveled around the world by herself between 1954 and ’55, visiting places like Burma, Japan, Pakistan, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain, and collecting visual inspiration.
Meanwhile, Gorky’s portrait of her hung in her family’s apartment on the Upper West Side. “The work’s provenance and, as far as we are aware, the fact that it has never been publicly exhibited, makes it particularly unique,” said Parker Field, managing director of the Arshile Gorky Foundation.
Walinska decided to sell the portrait under duress, when her rent-stabilized apartment was being converted into a co-op in the late 1970s and she needed to raise funds. She consigned the portrait to the Bodley Gallery, where she’d exhibited a few times herself (alongside Louise Nevelson and Andy Warhol, among others), but it didn’t sell. Then she consigned it to a Sotheby’s auction but it still didn’t sell.
Ultimately, Sotheby’s helped broker a private sale and, according to Rubin, Walinska sold the painting for “next to nothing.” This was nearly 50 years after Walinska gave Gorky his first solo exhibition in New York “and still, there’s no market for his work,” Rubin said of her aunt’s failure to garner commercial recognition for her friend’s work during her lifetime.
Walinska didn’t live to see much interest in her own seven-decade-plus career, either, although her work is now included in public collections including the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Jewish Museum in New York. She had a solo exhibition a few months ago at the Master Gallery, in an uptown building where she was an artist in residence from 1955 to ’71.
As Walinska’s work gets a second look, maybe it will help track down this Gorky portrait. Or, maybe finding this Gorky painting will spur more interest in Walinska.
“My dream is that we find it and that the owner is willing to gift it to a museum, or that we can raise the money to buy it and gift it to a museum,” Rubin said. “It would be meaningful, both personally and for art history, if this painting can find a home in a significant public collection.”