Ron Gorchov: at the cusp of the 80s, paintings 1979–1983

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ron gorchov: at the cusp of the 80s, paintings 1979–1983

ron gorchov: at the cusp of the 80s, paintings 1979–1983

cheim & read

Painting on the Brink Thomas Micchelli


ver the course of a half-century, Ron Gorchov

has pursued a single-minded vision that few,

funky figuration that characterized Chicago

if any, artists can match. He developed his curved

Imagism, his independent streak and impulse

surfaces, which have been likened to saddles,

toward complexity and ambiguity mirror the

shields, and masks, in the mid-1960s as a reaction

painterly freedoms enjoyed by artists like Gladys

against the prevailing Formalist insistence on

Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and the rest of

painting’s self-reflexivity and flatness. In doing

the Hairy Who.

so, he turned Minimalism on its head, working

within tightly controlled parameters in order to

when he was in his mid-twenties, to seek out the

explore an inexhaustible range of shape, color,

maverick Russian-American painter John D.

texture, and touch.

Graham. As the conduit between the European

Although his work is a world apart from the

It was the same impulse that led Gorchov,

When he was a teenager, Gorchov, who was

and American avant-garde in the years preceding

born in Chicago in 1930, attended Saturday

World War II, Graham embodied a unique

art classes at the School of the Art Institute of

inflection point between past and present—

Chicago. After completing his freshman year

Cubism and Surrealism on one side, and Abstract

at the University of Mississippi, he returned to

Expressionism on the other—while practicing an

Chicago to study at Roosevelt College and take

eccentric form of figuration in his own studio.

night courses at the Art Institute. He later enrolled

at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and in 1953

a similar crossroads. Old forms were sapped of

he moved to New York City.

their vitality, along with the critical consensus

Twenty years later, Gorchov found himself at

Gorchov at the Whitney Museum in 1977 with the painting Airship

supporting them. It was up to adventurous young artists to reinvent painting as they saw fit.

“When in the 1960s the validity and future of

painting were called into question, Gorchov set out to resolve the uncertainty in his own way,”1

Almost as readily as the marks evoke associations to amoebae, eyes, kidneys or other organic shapes, Gorchov’s canvases themselves are often compared with primitive tribal art and artifacts, particularly shields and masks. Perhaps their forbidding, transcendent, ritualistic qualities inspire this comparison.4

wrote Morris Kearse in a 1977 Artforum profile

We recoil from the label “primitive” today,

about the artist and his work. Kearse describes the

wincing at its indiscriminate presumptions. But

paintings he saw in Gorchov’s studio as disengaged

we are free to read into Kearse’s description,

from the conventional figure/ground relationship;

which is attempting to grasp the regenerative

rather, his shapes “fluctuate between advance and

quality of Gorchov’s simple, assertive forms. They

retreat, emerging from and withdrawing behind

carry a sense of starting over, of remaking art

the diffuse, atmospheric color field,”2 creating a

in one’s own image, of imagining each painting

tension that the writer deemed “anti-modernist.”3

as the first of its kind. Yet, as an American artist

Today we recognize this quality not as anti-

trained in the Western tradition, Gorchov can go

modernist but as postmodernist, and we can more

only so far without entering a web of mediating

readily discern the cusp that Gorchov’s curved

formal and historical concerns.

stretchers represent between the thingness of

Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still’s troweled-

mind the painted reliefs and gilded freestanding

on impasto and the thingness of fellow Chicagoan

carvings—often incorporating a curved surface—

Elizabeth Murray’s shaped canvases, or the Neo-

of Paul Gauguin: liminal objects that unite painting

Expressionists’ object-encrusted surfaces, most

and sculpture in their fraught effort to adapt

notably in the work of Julian Schnabel, Anselm

indigenous forms to Western aesthetic values.

Kiefer, and Enzo Cucchi.

Gorchov’s work from the period covered in

trappings, Gauguin’s efforts to pare his subjects

this exhibition, from 1979 to 1983, is especially

down to the elemental conditions of line, color,

stark, with intensely colored grounds coupled

texture, and light cleansed the eye accustomed

with pairs of mirrored, crisply defined shapes

to flickering Impressionist brushwork and

evenly matched in their solidity. As Kearse notes:

established a Post-Impressionist immediacy that

In that regard, the work of this period calls to

Despite his inability to discard inborn cultural

edged up to the varieties of abstraction—formal,

The paintings that Gorchov made on the cusp

political, philosophical, and mystical—that would

of the ’80s, after a decade of exploring the potential

burst forth in the emergent 20th century.

of the curved surface, could be considered among

Gorchov’s shaped canvases, like Gauguin’s

his most significant, if only for the fire they lit

carvings, look forward and backward in time,

for a new generation of artists bustling with the

from the forces that compelled humanity to take

desire to infuse real-world upheavals into their

the illogical step of creating art in the first place,

work. Gorchov’s art had cleared a threshold, and

to a mutable future that demands strange new

they raced through it.

forms to illuminate the impossible twists of its unspooling narrative. His painted constructions,


their metal staples and wooden joints showing,

Painting,” Artforum, May 1977, 52.

evince the aggressive, rough-hewn materiality


Ibid., 53.

of Aboriginal Australian shields or Bamanan


Ibid., 53.

masks, while abruptly changing the subject of


Ibid., 54.

contemporary discourse from the coolly elegant


Ray Smith, Ron Gorchov, “As an (impossible) continuum”

shaped surfaces of Frank Stella and Ellsworth

in Ron Gorchov: Donde Se Oculta el Alma / Where the Soul

Kelly to something raw, hot, and stirring with

Hides (Las Palmas, Spain: Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno

intimations of extra-visual meaning.

/ Turner, 2011), 183.

The reason Gorchov embarked on the shaped canvas, as he told the artist Ray Smith in an interview published in the catalogue of a solo exhibition at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Spain, was “to change the context of painting because I opposed the adhoc acceptance of the rectangle, wanting a more intentional form that would create a new kind of visual space.”5 His actions, then, were motivated less by an interest in formal experiment than by a need for radical critique.

Morris Kearse, “Shape and Form in Ron Gorchov’s

Mosque, 1979, oil on linen, 77 1/4 x 50 x 6 in, 196.2 x 127 x 15.2 cm

Lens, 1981, oil on linen, 37 3/4 x 44 x 9 3/4 in, 95.9 x 111.8 x 24.8 cm

Overture, 1982, oil on linen, 37 x 28 1/4 x 7 in, 94 x 71.8 x 17.8 cm

Sangfroid, 1982, oil on linen, 71 1/4 x 49 1/2 x 10 5/8 in, 181 x 125.7 x 27 cm

Moulage, 1982, oil on linen, 27 3/4 x 19 1/2 x 5 1/4 in, 70.5 x 49.5 x 13.3 cm

Metalurgy, 1982, oil on linen, 66 x 49 5/8 x 10 1/2 in, 167.6 x 126 x 26.7 cm

Leopard, 1982, oil on linen, 46 3/4 x 72 1/2 x 10 in, 118.7 x 184.2 x 25.4 cm

Pendulum: Study, 1982, oil on linen, 25 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 6 in, 64.8 x 54.6 x 15.2 cm

Logic, 1982–83, oil on linen, 68 1/4 x 54 1/2 x 10 in, 173.4 x 138.4 x 25.4 cm

Vizioso, 1982, oil on linen, 38 1/4 x 43 7/8 x 9 3/4 in, 97.2 x 111.4 x 24.8 cm



on Gorchov was born on April 5, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother, a painter, encouraged his interest in art, and at the age of

14 he began to take Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1947, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi but left after his freshman year and returned to Chicago, where he enrolled at Roosevelt College and took night classes at the Art Institute. He concluded his formal education at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Moving to New York City in 1953, Gorchov supported himself as

a lifeguard and, in 1956, he met the Russian-American artist John D. Graham, who became an important mentor. He had his first solo exhibition in 1960, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and in 1967, the year following his third and final show there, he created his first “saddle� painting, a curved surface that he would pursue in countless variations throughout his career.

Although Gorchov exhibited regularly in galleries such as Barbara

Gladstone, Marlborough, and Jack Tilton, as well as two Whitney

Biennials (1975 and 1977) and the influential group show, Language, Drama, Source and Vision, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, his work became more widely known after a pair of noteworthy solo exhibitions, in 2005 at Vito Schnabel Gallery, and in 2006 at MoMA PS1. He has been represented by Cheim & Read since 2012.

Gorchov’s work is held in the permanent collections of the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum, all in New York; the Detroit Institute of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, among other institutions. The artist has also exhibited at MoMA PS1, the Queens Museum of Art, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, all in New York; the Centro Centro AtlĂĄntico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Spain; Galerie Jean-Luc & Takako Richard, Paris, France; and elsewhere. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

printed in an edition of 1,500 on the occasion of the 2019 exhibition

design john cheim text thomas micchelli editor ellen robinson photography chris burke printed in the united states by ghp media isbn 978–1–944316–16–7 cheim & read, new york

cheim & read