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"...You can infer from the Newark pictured that Gorky never went up in an airplane..."

up, becomes but a geographical map, a two-dimensional surface plane."
"To add to the intensity of the shapes," he wrote, "I have used such local colors as are to be seen on an aviation field-red, blue, yellow, black, gray, brown-because these colors were used originally to sharpen the objects against neutral backgrounds so they could be seen clearly and quickly."
Gorky's choice of colors (note the absence of green) as well as his aeronautic iconology is, like so much of his autobiographical testimony, mostly romantic fantasy-the loving embroidery of a secretive, vulnerable poet.
He claims shapes derived from aircraft, from the apparatus and the sensations of flight. In fact, one thing you can infer with some degree of certainty from the Newark pictures is the Gorky never went up in an airplane, at least not in one of the small prop-driven craft referred to in many elements of the murals. The primary experience in flight isn't of a landscape unrolling beneath you like a carpet. It's of disorientation, of a dislocated horizon. The airplane appears to stand still; the wings look motionless. Beyond them, the horizon dips and tilts, earth and sky wheel in arcs of vertigo. Gorky suggests nothing of this. Nor do his colors have much of an airfield to them-the reds and greens for stop and go, port and starboard; the blues for caution; the beams of yellow. Rather, Gorky's spectrum comes straight from Synthetic Cubism. The burnt sienna and off-white passages recall Juan Gris and, behind him, Zurbarán. A cadmium red with cerulean blue combination is, I believe, typically his and de Kooning's-they probably got a hint to it in the Boscoreale frescoes at the Metropolitan. Gorky's flat yellow was made famous in Mondrian and Léger and given its New York accent by Stuart Davis.
Red, sienna, blue, yellow-there are only four colors. He added black, white, and two grays. It's a Lenten palette. The yellow background unites the panels. The one with a map of America was on the right. There was a double door in between. A common background bridged the architectural intervention. Yellow acted as a flattening element, a pictorial transition-not as a sign of beacons or runway lights.
Pictorial necessity obtains in most of the other shapes too. Some are based on photographs by Stuart Davis's brother, Wyatt Davis, of airplane details (engine cowlings, instrument calibrations). Gorky cut the photos apart and rearranged them for collages that look a good deal more technological than they are. In the final versions, even these rudiments of the "aerodynamic" are treated high-handedly--as all great artists deal with subject matter. Gorky's art is all art and mostly Gorky, even if there is a considerable residue of Miró and Léger.
Consider the mildly distorted map of the United States in the panel that, Gorky explained, is concerned with "the wonders of the sky." Some cities and air lanes are indicated. One seems to be Newark (and New York, where Gorky lived). Another major center is indicated to the north. Could it be Boston or Providence, where Gorky lived when he first came to America, an Armenian refugee from the Turkish terror? And what about the third underlined city, in the Midwest; is the Chicago, where some of Gorky's family settled? At any event, I suggest that the artist wasn't interested in aeronautical charts; he invented what the French cavaliers called a "carte du tendre," a personal map of loving sentiments. America becomes a diary framed by reverberating contours (profiles?) that project a state of mind rather than latitudes and longitudes.
The other panel, with its evident cross section of cylinders, probably is based on some handbook on radial engines. But there are forms like masks (the Lone Ranger's, the brigand-lover's) which, in his later work, symbolized the artist's own presence-an ideographic self-portrait.
More interesting than any machineage simile is Gorky's evident poise with the large-scale format. The panels indicate once more how important the WPA mural projects were to the beginning of Abstract-Expressionism, to the ideals of a public art in the grand manner that were held in common by such different artists as Gorky and Pollock, de Kooning and Newman, Still, Kline, Rothko, Gottlieb, Guston, and the rest.
Publication and exhibition of the recovered panels surely will elicit further studies and related drawings in public and private collections. Soon, no doubt, a complete iconology of his "aerodynamic limitation" will be edited. I would guess it will be a simple, unified concept. Gorky never was a narrative artist (recent attempts to "read in" anecdotes seem unconvincing). He believes in clarification, in essences-the bones of truth.


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