With a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum that is moving to London and LA, Art + Auction looks at why the market for Arshile Gorky’s work is somewhat stalled. The issue is more volume than demand with not nearly enough works trading hands to generate real upward leaps in the public prices, though privately the artist’s numbers have broken through into the eight digits:
Scent of Apricots on the Fields (1944), an erotically charged canvas of voluptuous organic forms in liquid pools of reds and oranges, is typical of Gorky’s works from the 1940s in merging studies of plows, flowers and insects drawn plein air into abstracted compositions that plumb the artist’s memories and fantasies. In 1995 the picture brought $3.96 million at Sotheby’s New York, Gorky’s second-highest auction price. It was the last of his important later paintings to sell at auction. “The Scent of Apricots is of the quality that the new record price should be established by, but not many great Gorkys are left in private hands,” says Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, who notes that the artist’s works have sold privately for more than $12 million.
Gorky’s record at auction is $4.2 million, earned at Christie’s New York in 2007 by the circa 1938 painting Khorkom, whose bold abstracted shapes suspended in white pigment allude to the artist’s childhood home. “That was a great painting from the 1930s and shows you the potential for a mature Gorky,” says Robert Manley, the head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s New York. “If a great Gorky from the late 1940s came up today, it would sell for well in excess of $10 million. Given his importance in art history and compared with peers like Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning, Gorky is indeed undervalued.”
The Philadelphia show may change that, according to Robert Mnuchin, the cofounder of L&M Arts, in New York. “I believe the retrospective will be an awakening,” says Mnuchin, who has sold several later paintings by the artist over the past decade and regularly trades his drawings and earlier works. “The major postwar artists certainly looked at him, even studied him. It’s surprising to me that he hasn’t gotten the recognition and market position, but there just hasn’t been much opportunity to see Gorky or buy and sell Gorky.” This is in part because his paintings are scarce — numbering less than 400. A fire destroyed the artist’s Connecticut studio in 1946, and many of the surviving 1940s pictures, which are now most in demand, are in museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo. When Dark Green Painting (circa 1948) came up at Sotheby’s in 1994, it was bought for $3.52 million by several Philadelphia Museum patrons who donated it to the institution.
Artist Dossier: Arshile Gorky (Art + Auction)