Arshile Gorky Catalogue Raisonné
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Catalogue Entry

P222
Man's Conquest of the Air
1939
Oil on canvas (2 panels)
Dimensions unknown
Provenance
Literature
Reiff, Robert F. "A Stylistic Analysis of Arshile Gorky's Art from 1943–1948." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, New York, 1961, fig. 89, ill. in b/w, p. 367, as "1940 World's Fair Murals."
Bowman, Ruth. "Arshile Gorky's 'Aviation' Murals Rediscovered." In Murals Without Walls: Arshile Gorky's Aviation Murals Rediscovered, Ruth Bowman. Newark, NJ: The Newark Museum, 1978, ill. in b/w, p. 37, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implication of Symbols. London and Montclair, N.J.: George Prior and Allanheld & Schram, 1980, 1981. Monograph, fig. 3–10, ill. in b/w, p. 40, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Jordan, Jim M. "The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: New Discoveries, New Sources, and Chronology." In The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue, by Jim M. Jordan and Robert Goldwater. New York and London: New York University Press, 1982, discussed pp. 75–76, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Jordan, Jim M. "Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings." In The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue, by Jim M. Jordan and Robert Goldwater. New York and London: New York University Press, 1982, no. 222, ill. in b/w, pp. 368–70, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Lader, Melvin P. Arshile Gorky. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. Monograph, fig. 49, ill. in b/w, p. 55, as "Conquest of the Air, New York World's Fair Mural, Aviation Building."
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implication of Symbols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991. Monograph, fig. 3–10, ill. in b/w, p. 45, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Herrera, Hayden. Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003, fig. 108, ill. in b/w, as "Conquest of the Air, New York World's Fair Mural, Aviation Building."
Patterson, Jody. "'Flight from Reality'? A Reconsideration of Gorky's Politics and Approach to Public Murals in the 1930s." In Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Kathleen Krattenmaker, ed. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009. Exhibition catalogue, fig. 64, ill. in b/w, p. 87, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Theriault, Kim S. Rethinking Arshile Gorky. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. Monograph, fig. 34, ill. in b/w, p. 98, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Patterson, Jody. "Modernism and Murals at the 1939 New York World's Fair." American Art (New York) 24, no. 2 (Summer 2010), fig. 9, ill. in b/w, p. 60, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Spender, Matthew, ed. Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song: A Life in Letters and Documents. Zurich: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2018, ill., p. 172, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Patterson, Jody. Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020, fig. 100, ill. in b/w, p. 190, as Man's Conquest of the Air.
Notes

Commentary

This black-and-white photographic postcard is the only known surviving visual documentation of a mural that Gorky completed for the Aviation Building located within the Transportation Zone of the 1939 New York World's Fair, held at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.1 The fair's theme was "The World of Tomorrow," and the Transportation Zone featured exhibits of futuristic modes of travel by air, sea, rail, and automobile. The Aviation Building was designed to simulate a modern airport with full-size airplanes suspended from the ceiling.

The building's lead architect, William Lescaze (1896–1969), who had met Gorky in the mid-1930s through the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), recommended him for the mural commission, for which Gorky received $3,000.2 Lescaze's endorsement was, in part, informed by his knowledge of Gorky's murals for Newark Airport in New Jersey, which he surveyed as a member of the FAP's Design Studio (see P141).

Gorky's preliminary proposal was approved by the Fair's Board of Design on November 4, 1938, and, his final design, on December 23rd. He commenced work on the project in mid-January 1939.3 The two completed oil-on-canvas panels were installed at the top of a staircase leading to a balcony. The mural received its final approval on March 25, 1939, and the fair opened to the public on April 30th.4 

Writing to his sister Vartoosh Mooradian (née Adoian; 1906–1991) in early April 1939, on his choice of support, Gorky explained: "throughout the winter's cold I painted my painting in the World's Fair and finished it about a week ago. It's fine and everyone is pleased with it. My sample design pleased them so much that I was obliged to paint it on canvas and I have used oil paints. . . . When the World's Fair finishes in 2 or 3 years they'll take my painting off the wall and hang it in a new airport."5

According to the description in a 1939 publicity announcement, the "gaily colored mural by Arshele [sic] Gorky includes many symbols of man's conquest of the air. At the lower center may be seen the artist's conception of a gyroscope; above it is one of the earliest bat-winged contrivances with which mankind first jumped from a cliff and prayed he would not break his neck. To allay the fears of literal-minded aviators visiting the building, the artist wishes to explain that his conceptions of aviation devices are not technically sound."6 

After the World's Fair closed on October 27, 1940, the Aviation Building was demolished. Gorky's mural is presumed destroyed.

1. A copy of the postcard, printed by Meriden Gravure Company, can be found in the Arshile Gorky Research Collection (1936–1993), Francis Mulhall Achilles Library, Archives, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and online: "'Man's Conquest of the Air' by Arshele Gorky," Museum of the City of New York, accessed October 1, 2021, https://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/1939-World's-Fair/Page43#/DamView&VBID=24UP1GRZF3DWV&PN=1&WS=SearchResults.

2. Initially, Gorky was to receive a fixed fee of $1,000. The final sum he received is confirmed in a memo: S.F. Voorhees to Irvin L. Scott (Chairman, World's Fair Board of Design), "Murals for Aviation Building (#Z-2)," November 29, 1938, AGF Archives. Lescaze's role in securing the commission is confirmed by Gorky: Letter from Arshile Gorky to Vartoosh Mooradian, October 12, 1938, Arshile Gorky/Mooradian Archive, Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, New York; Arshile Gorky to Vartoosh Mooradian, October 12, 1938, in Matthew Spender, ed., Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song: A Life in Letters and Documents (Zurich: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2018), 165.

3. Dates of completion are confirmed by the FAP's employment records, which establish that Gorky's contract was suspended between January 16 and June 9, 1939, while he was employed on the World's Fair project. A memo from J.L. Hautman (Office of the Vice President & Chief Architect, N.Y. World's Fair), dated June 6, 1939, certifies that Gorky was "no longer maintained" on the Fair's employment roll as of then; J.L. Hautman, "Memo," June 6, 1939, AGF Archives. Gorky's fee is confirmed in his contract: New York World's Fair 1939 Inc., "Agreement [with the Mural Artist, Arshile Gorky]," November 4, 1938, 2, AGF Archives. The date his designs received final approval is confirmed in: Letter from J.L. Hautman (N.Y. World's Fair Board of Design Department) to Arshile Gorky, December 29, 1938, AGF Archives.

4. Memo from Irvin L. Scott (Chairman, World's Fair Board of Design) to Board of Design, March 21, 1939, AGF Archives. Memo from J.L. Hautman to Irvin L. Scott, March 25, 1939, AGF Archives.

5. Spender, ed., The Plow and the Song, 174.

6. New York World's Fair 1939: Department of Feature Publicity, "Aviation Building Mural by Gorky," AGF Archives.

Related Work

Theme: Mural

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