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Arshile Gorky’s New Painting Was Hiding in Plain Sight

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.


Among the works of great, exhaustively studied artists who have been dead for more than 70 years, true discoveries tend to be scarce.

That is why a gallery exhibition opening next month in Manhattan provides a seismic surprise for fans and scholars of the Armenian American artist Arshile Gorky (1904-48): An entirely new Gorky painting has been found hidden under a famous painting he did at the very end of his life, during an extraordinary period of artistic productivity.

The new work, which the Gorky estate is calling “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” (1946-47), is a brand-new addition to his oeuvre. Nobody knew it existed — though his two daughters, one of his biographers and a couple of conservators had long known that something was there. His daughter Maro Spender called it “a truly remarkable happening.”

Michaela Ritter, one of the two Swiss conservators who did the uncovering, said: “It’s not that we have something like this every year. It’s really special.”

The new work, a painting on canvas, was tucked just beneath “The Limit,” (1947), a well-known painting on paper that had been on loans to the National Gallery of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for years, hanging on the walls with no one the wiser about the treasure underneath it.

“‘The Limit’ is one of the most important late works of Gorky, and unique in many ways,” said Carlos Basualdo, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s a distillation of everything he was working on at the time.”

The two paintings will be shown by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, which represents the Gorky estate, from Nov. 16 to Dec. 23 at its Chelsea branch, along with related drawings and works on paper. (None of the pieces are for sale). A new catalogue raisonné that comprehensively lists Mr. Gorky’s output, including “Untitled (Virginia Summer),” is being published by the Arshile Gorky Foundation this month.

Both paintings are abstract, with biomorphic forms against a colored background, but the colors of “Untitled (Virginia Summer)” are brighter, set on a sea of aqua.

“It’s the freshness of a painting that has not seen the light of day, so it hasn’t gotten old like everything else,” said the painter’s daughter Natasha Gorky.

Mr. Gorky killed himself in July 1948 in his studio in Sherman, Conn. But Ms. Gorky said that the composition struck her because “it’s so cheerful, and so full of joy.”

Her father, who fled the Armenian genocide in the country of his birth and immigrated to the United States in 1920, was inspired by landscapes, and his work was a bridge between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Unlike “action painters” who made decisions on the fly, he was often speedy but tended to paint from drawings he had already made, and he carefully planned his compositions.

“There were nine or 10 of these drawings in preparation for the painting,” said Matthew Spender, the author of “From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky” and the husband of Maro Spender. “So when the painting was revealed, it had a backing instantly. There was no question of how it fit into Gorky’s oeuvre.” He added, “It was the missing painting.”

For years, the painter’s daughters were aware that some kind of artwork was under “The Limit.”

“There was a corner that had come unstuck, and I could see perfectly well there was a painting underneath it,” Ms. Spender said. “They kept on saying that it’s too risky and it’s too dangerous to find out for sure.”

Oddly enough, the pandemic contributed to the discovery. The conservators, Ms. Ritter and Olivier Masson, had time on their hands last year during lockdown to investigate the matter after “The Limit” came to them for routine maintenance.

They knew that Mr. Gorky had adhered “The Limit” to the canvas with glue along the edges as well as kraft paper tape, an adhesive meant to be easily removable. The conservators were not sure if the middle of the work was adhered, too; it was not.

“Slowly we were able to see the edges of ‘Virginia Summer,’” Mr. Masson said. “After numerous discussions with the owners, we started to go further and we realized that there was oil paint covering the whole canvas. It’s the first time we realized it’s not a sketch, it’s more.”

The tricky part came not so much in separating the two works but in protecting “The Limit,” a work on paper that was being partially supported by the canvas of “Untitled (Virginia Summer).” The conservators created a copy of the original wooden stretcher to hold “The Limit” going forward.

Mr. Masson said that when they got a look at the hidden work, the color “was like an explosion compared to ‘The Limit.’ It was so well protected. I would say it’s in mint condition.”

A natural question arises: Why did Mr. Gorky arrange two works this way, with one tucked under another?

The summer of 1947 was more than just busy for the painter, who was working furiously in Connecticut.

“He was producing more or less one painting a day,” said Mr. Masson, who has been working with the Gorky estate since 1985. “Most likely he did not have enough primed and stretched canvases available. He ran out of materials. It’s that simple.”

Mr. Basualdo noted, “The practice of using and reusing a canvas is not rare.”

Parker Field, the managing director of the artist’s foundation, wrote in his essay for a book being published by Hauser & Wirth, “Arshile Gorky: Beyond The Limit,” that he did not believe that the painter was somehow unhappy with the hidden work. Mr. Field wrote, “Gorky had previously rejected other works by destroying them.”

Ms. Spender, a painter herself, recalled the atmosphere of the studio at the end of her father’s life.

“He taught me how to paint when I was 3,” she said, noting that he allowed her to doodle on the back of a canvas. “But then I’d try to go in front and he’d get very angry with me and throw me out. I’d land screaming on my bottom on the grass.”

She added: “I knew that he was a magician. I really felt that when Gorky painted, he was in another world. And I wanted to follow him there.”

Her younger sister, Ms. Gorky, said that painting was all-consuming for her father. “Like so many artists, he didn’t have much time for his family,” she said. “We got in the way.”

Taking the global view, Mr. Spender noted that it was highly likely that Mr. Gorky might have layered other works in the same way during his last few years of painting and that there may yet be other discoveries to be made.

“Curators of museums, it’s not a bad idea to take it out of the basement or off the wall, look behind, and see if you’ve got two paintings instead of one,” Mr. Spender said, possibly setting off a scramble at institutions around the world.

He added, “Doesn’t cost much to have a look, you know?”

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