American painter Ron Gorchov, whose saddle-shaped canvases challenged formalist notions of opticality, has died at age ninety in New York City, where he lived and worked for nearly seven decades. As a part of the generation of New York artists that includes Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Frank Stella, and Richard Tuttle, Gorchov helped redirect painting away from Greenbergian “flatness” and toward a more liminal, sculptural condition.
Gorchov was born in Chicago in 1930 and began taking weekend classes at the city’s Art Institute when he was only fourteen years old. After a year at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, he returned to his hometown to complete his studies at the Art Institute, Roosevelt College, and the University of Illinois, Urbana. Gorchov moved to New York with his wife and son in 1953 and soon gained employment as an evening swim instructor, a job that allowed him to paint during the day. Around 1960, the artist began showing what he called “abstract surrealist” paintings at Tibor de Nagy and participated in the Whitney Museum’s group show “Young America 1960: Thirty American Painters Under Thirty-Six.”
Inspired by a curvilinear Richard Smith painting he saw at the Jewish Museum following a brief intermission in his practice, Gorchov found his signature support: a linen or canvas-covered curved armature that springs from a rectangular base, resulting in slightly sloping, three-dimensional surfaces both concave and convex. By 1967, he had developed the idiom with which he would become most closely associated: a mottled, saddle-shaped canvas adorned in oil paint and two eye-like, quasi-symmetrical marks. Gorchov sometimes used his left hand for the left side of pieces and then switched to his right hand for the other.
In 1975, a solo exhibition at Fischbach Gallery and the inclusion of Gorchov’s work in that year’s Whitney Biennial significantly raised his profile; two years later, he was again included in the biyearly survey. Also notable is his 1976 participation in “Rooms,” Alana Heiss’s first P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) exhibition. Writing of Gorchov’s paintings in a 1977 Artforum feature, Morris Kearse wrote, “They fluctuate between advance and retreat, emerging from and withdrawing behind the diffuse, atmospheric color field.”
Though he stayed out of the public eye during the ’80s and ’90s, Gorchov continued to paint and show his work. He returned prominence in 2005, when Vito Schnabel hosted a small survey of his paintings at his eponymous gallery for the first Gorchov show in over a decade. A PS1 survey followed the next year. In a 2006 interview with his long-time champion Robert Storr and Brooklyn Rail editor Phong Bui, Gorchov said: “I think painting, per se, is an ideal way to criticize the work you already admire because that way you can take the best things in it and try to make your work to be the next consequential step. I mean, to me, that’s a given tradition in creative thought: to build on what you’re seeing that you love and try to bring it to new and unknown terrain.”