Abstract Expressionism

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Arshile Gorky's Newark Airport Murals

by Gary Comenas

to November 1936: The WPA requests a report from Gorky in regard to his airport mural

The FAP/WPA requested the following from Arshile Gorky:

"We are preparing a national illustrated report that will include articles by project workers in all fields. We would like you do do a five hundred word piece on the work you have done for the Newark Airport Project interpreting the relationship of the forms in your mural to their aerodynamic sources. I think that it is also important that you explain the experimental significance of the abstract work that is being done on the project and the efforts that have been made to allocate the work.

We will allow you three days of project time in which to write the article and hope that you can send it to Washington by Thursday of next week...

Will you also send me a short autobiographical note and photograph of yourself for inclusion in our Who's Who Among the Contributors."

Gorky responded by submitting an image of the house he was born in in Armenia (without identifying it's location) with the following text:

My Murals for the Newark Airport:
An Interpretation

The walls of the house were made of clay blocks, deprived of all details, with a roof of rude timber.

It was here, in my childhood, that I witnessed, for the first time, that most poetic image for a calendar.

In this culture, the seasons manifested themselves, therefore there was no need, with the exception of the Lental period, for a formal calendar. The people, with the imagery of their extravagantly tender, almost innocently direct concept of Space and Time conceived of the following:

In the ceiling was a round aperture to permit the emission of smoke. Over it was placed a wooden cross from which was suspended by a string an onion into which seven feathers had been plunged. As each Sunday elapsed, a feather was removed, thus denoting passage of Time.

As I have mentioned above, though these elevated objects, floating feather and onion, was revealed to me, for the first time, the marvel of making from the common the uncommon!

This accidental disorder became the modern miracle. Through the denial of reality, by the removal of the object from its habitual surrounding, a new reality was pronounced.

The same sense of poetic operations manifested itself in the handiwork of the ancient Egyptian undertaker. Knowing that the living could not live forever, with the spiritual support of the priest, he operated upon the dead, so that the dead might live forever - never to die! To ensure the perpetuation of Life, portraits of the beings, glassy-eyed, enigmatic, were painted upon the mummies.

The operation has transferred itself to the clinical image of our Time. To operate upon the object! To oppose the photographic image, which was the weakness of the Old Masters. Their painting was complete when the outline of the object was correct. The realism of Modern Painting is diametrically opposed to this concept, since the painter of today operates on the given space of the canvas, breaking up the surface until he arrives at the realization of the entirety.

I am definitely opposed to the interior decorator's taste in mural painting, which seems to be that everything must 'match.' Mural painting should not become part of the wall, as the moment this occurs the wall is lost an the painting loses its identity.

In these times, it is of sociological importance that everything should stand on its own merit, always keeping its individuality. I much prefer that the mural fall out of the wall than harmonize with it.

Mural painting should not become architecture. Naturally, it has its own architecture and limits of space but it should never be confused with walls, windows, doors, or any other anatomical blueprints.

A plastic operation is imperative, and that is why, in the first panel of 'Activities on the Field' I dissected an airplane into its constituent parts. An airplane is composed of a variety of shapes and forms and I have used such elemental forms as a rudder, a wing, a wheel and a searchlight to create not only numerical interest but also to invent within a given wall space plastic symbols of aviation.

These symbols are the permanent elements of airplanes that will not change with the change of design. These symbols, these forms, I have used in paralyzing disproportions in order to impress upon the spectator the miraculous new vision of our time. To add to the aggressiveness of these shapes, I have used such local colors as are to be seen on the aviation field - red, blue, yellow, black, gray, brown - because these colors were used originally to sharpen the objects so that they could be seen clearly and quickly.

The second panel of the same wall contains objects commonly used around a hangar, such as a ladder, a fire extinguisher, a gasoline truck, and scales. These objects I have dissected and reorganized in a homogeneous organization comparable to the previous panel.

In the panel 'Early Aviation' I sought to bring into elemental terms the sensation of the passengers in the first balloon to the wonder of the sky around them and the earth beneath.

This sense of wonder I also attempted to create in the second panel. From the first balloon of Montgolfier, aviation developed until the wings of the modern airplane, figuratively speaking, stretch across the United States. The sky is still green, and the map of the United States takes on a new geographical outline because o the illusion of change brought about by the change in speed.

The first three panels of 'Modern Aviation' containing the anatomical parts of autogyros in the process of soaring into space, and yet with the immobility of suspension. The fourth panel is a modern airplane simplified to its essential shape and so spaced as to give a sense of flight.

In the other three panels I have used arbitrary colors and shapes; the wing is black, the rudder yellow, so as to convey the sense that these modern gigantic implements of man are decorated with the same fanciful yet utilitarian sense of play that children use in coloring their kites. In the same spirit the engine becomes in one place like the wings of a dragon, and in another, the wheels, propeller, and motor take on the demonic speed of a meteor cleaving the atmosphere.

In 'Mechanics of Flying' I have used morphic shapes. The objects portrayed, a thermometer, hygrometer, anemometer, an airline map of the United States, all have definitely important usage in aviation, and to emphasize this I have given them importance by detaching them from their environment.

Mural painting does not serve only in a decorative capacity, but an intellectual one as well. By education I do not mean in a descriptive sense, portraying cinema-like the suffering or progress of humanity, but as to the plastic forms and treatments in the art of painting. since many workers, school children, or patients in hospitals (as the case may be, depending on the type of institution) have little or no opportunity to visit museums, mural painting could and would open up new visas to their neglected knowledge of a far too-little popularized Art.

Rimbaud has epitomized for me the true function of the Artist when he wrote: 'The poet should define the quantity of the unknown which awakes in his time, in the universal soul. He should give more than the formula of his thought, than the annotation of his march toward progress. The enormous becoming normal, when absorbed by everyone, he would really be a multiplication of progress." (HH274)

[Note: Rimbaud actually used the term 'multiplicator.']

to November 1936: The WPA requests a report from Gorky in regard to his airport mural

Abstract Expressionism

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