Arshile Gorky, an Armenian refugee, remade himself in America, synthesizing an art practice that brought him to the brink of Abstract Expressionism.
Arshile Gorky was born Vostanik Manoug Adoian in 1904 or thereabouts (the exact year is uncertain) in the village of Khorgom near Lake Van in Armenia on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. His childhood coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the genocide of the Armenian people by Turkish troops. In 1915, Gorky’s family was driven from Lake Van and in 1919 his mother died of starvation. The following year, Vostanik, a teenager, a refugee, and soon to be an artist by another name, fled to New England.
“When Gorky arrived in America his family felt he should be put to work in a factory—that was considered presumably manly work,” says Saskia Spender, president of the Arshile Gorky Foundation and granddaughter of the artist. “His milieu wasn’t supportive of artistic life.” He wasn’t long for this vocation. “He was sacked for drawing on factory property,” says Spender. For so many young people, failure to acclimate to small-town life, even if it’s the direct result of their own misbehaviors, is interpreted as a prodigious omen beseeching them to relocate to New York City. Gorky arrived there in 1924.
Like the newly minted stars of the silver screen, he adopted assumed appellation. With no quick-talking studio exec to christen him, he looked to literature, taking the name of acclaimed Russian writer Maxim Gorky as his own. “He thought it gave him a cultural currency,” says Edith Devaney, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “but it turns out, funnily enough, Maxim Gorky wasn’t even [the writer’s] real name.”
The new Gorky enrolled at the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art (where he would eventually instruct), but was ultimately self-taught. He haunted the halls of museums and pored over pages of art books and magazines. He studied El Greco, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Paolo Uccello and filled his sketchbooks with examples of Fayum mummy portraits, Pompeii wall paintings, and Japanese works he discovered at the Met. “He was inhabiting the point of view, techniques, and skills of other artists throughout space and time,” says Spender. But this mode of self-pedagogy was so effective, notes Devaney, not simply because it employed studying the masters but because of “how well Gorky chose,” adding that Betty Parsons, one of the last century’s most noted arbiters of taste, said she had met no one with a more elevated aesthetic sensibility.
Gorky also chose to examine and emulate artists in or closer to his own generation, namely Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró. Though now of course he is recognized as one of the most important artistic voices of the last century and a lead soloist in the early days of Abstract Expressionism, this practice has led critics to label Gorky unoriginal. Devaney cites a 1950 catalogue essay by the venerable Alfred H. Barr that discusses Gorky’s work of the 1940s: “He writes that until then, Gorky had been a derivative artist.”
But outside of this oversimplification, who was Gorky the artist? On the surface, not a refugee or an Armenian. According to Spender, he never spoke of Armenia and declined to say where he was from. “My grandmother didn’t know he was an ethnic Armenian until well after he died,” she says. He wasn’t political or a staunch affiliate of any one circle. “He rejected nationalism, and even though the 1930s were a very political time, he resisted joining political or artistic groups,” says Spender. “He didn’t believe that sort of dogma should interfere with an artist’s self-expression.” As such, scholars have called him both the last Surrealist and also the first Abstract Expressionist—both presumably lonely positions.
Gorky had wiped the slate of his own identity clean, adding only the details and influences of his choosing. And in so doing, he was, perhaps, the artist who most represented the period between the two wars; a time when leading members of the avant-garde came to America, their own worlds crumbling or having crumbled. It was necessary for these artists to remake society—and themselves. “This is part of the myth of the ’20s, when so many people who went through conflict radically reinvented themselves and, even if superficially, allowed themselves to be vast unknown hinterlands,” says Spender. But Gorky was unlike many artists, who were based in Paris or elsewhere but came to America in exile during this time, says Devaney, “Gorky had nothing to return to.”
“Arshile Gorky: 1904–1948”, an exhibition on view at Ca’ Pesaro – The International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, through Sept. 22—his first retrospective in Italy—delves deeply into who Gorky was. It explores the full breadth of his oeuvre, incorporating more than 80 major works, from his early portraiture and his ongoing practice on paper to his lyrical abstractions and late masterpieces. Important loans from institutions all over the Western world—like Tate Modern, London; Center Pompidou, Paris; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington. D.C.; and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon—mingle in the galleries.
Devaney, who co-curates the exhibition with Gabriella Belli, an art historian and director of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, devoted a whole gallery to Gorky in the 2016 show “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. “Out of all the artists I covered in that show, Gorky was the one I most wanted to do more on,” says the curator. “With this show, I was allowed to take the lead on what the focus should be, and I decided I wanted to make sense of the early part and the latter part of his career.”
The early part of his career is represented in part by his portraiture, a practice that coincided with his entrée into New York’s art world. Among others, he painted his friends Stuart Davis, David Smith, and John Graham (a Russian Empire-born artist who also came to America in 1920 and changed his name. Writing in the New York Times in 1986, Vivien Raynor wrote of Graham: “He was…the kind of European scoundrel that transplants so well in American soil, being as pragmatic as he was magnetic and all but omniscient on the subjects of art and culture.”). In the ’30s, Graham, Davis, and Gorky forged a sort of spiritual triumvirate, even dubbing themselves the Three Musketeers. Willem de Kooning joined the fray later, and the group became the Four Musketeers. By the early ’40s, the union had all but dissolved, their camaraderie waning.
In his portraits, Gorky paints enlarged, yet simplified eyes, inspired by those he encountered in Russian icons and Sumerian and Hittite art. In his studio he kept a Hellenistic female head, its eyes inset and almond-shaped, and a photocopy of a self-portrait by Ingres, who painted himself several times throughout his career, always with big brown eyes that seem to be holding back a secret. In Self-Portrait (circa 1937, oil on canvas), which comes to the show from a private collection, Gorky paints himself much like Ingres, his eyes looking deeply at the viewer, but trading a secret for sorrow. The pose and muted palette of that work closely resemble those of Picasso’s 1906 Self-Portrait, though it diverges greatly in attitude. In the Portrait of Master Bill (circa 1937, oil on canvas), which was painted around the same time, the eyes are slanted downward and almost crossed—again bringing Picasso to mind. Some have conjectured that the portrait depicts de Kooning, while others claim the sitter is a Swedish housepainter with whom Gorky traded labor for painting lessons. In the work, Gorky arranges bulbous, abstract forms that loosely add up to a human body. The arms, sleeves, and hands hang from the torso, like they’re doll parts being pulled asunder by a curious child.
Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia (circa 1931–32, pen and ink on board), a linchpin of Gorky’s career, comes to the exhibition from The Whitney Museum of American Art. Gorky created more than 80 drawings—many of them unfinished—and two paintings under this title. Drawing from a Cubist vocabulary, Gorky establishes an architectural setting as a stage for a complex system of curved shapes punctuated by passages of dense crosshatching. Around this time Gorky encountered The Fatal Temple, a 1914 painting by the Surrealists’ patron saint, Giorgio de Chirico, at the Gallery of Living Art at New York University. In de Chirico’s painting, a portrait of his mother and a self-portrait with a dissected brain are layered atop an architectural backdrop. Gorky, who was working on his double portrait of himself and his mother at the time, felt an affinity with the de Chirico’s piece and initially modeled his composition on it closely. Over time—and his many drafts—Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia drifted deeper into abstraction, ripping itself from a reference point. This version, despite its architectural schematics and the grotesque anatomical jumble pictured in its right panel, careens towards the union of Surrealism and abstraction Gorky would perfect in the years to come.
By the 1940s, Gorky’s engagement with the Surrealists grew. Through his associations with André Breton, Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, and Roberto Matta, Gorky began to bring automatism and the subconscious into his work. Here, the liminal threads of memory waft through his compositions like the sweet, aromatic lines that rise from cartoon pies cooling on windowsills. In Apple Orchard (circa 1943–46, pastel on paper) organic bursts of shape and line bloom like spring blossoms. It’s romantic to imagine these flowering forms as the ones that dotted his father’s apple trees on the shores of Lake Van—an Arcadian memory the artist did discuss as an adult.
In 1941, Gorky had his first museum retrospective, held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He and Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he would marry that year, hitched a ride to SFMOMA in Isamu Noguchi’s car. This trip marked his first time outside of New York since 1925. A few years later, with his young family in tow, he began to visit artist Saul Schary’s house in Connecticut and his in-laws’ farm in Virginia. This newly established proximity to nature had a radical influence on Gorky, and he entered into an explosion of creativity. “He loved the countryside and it helped him reconnect with memories of childhood and his experiences of plants, weeds, flowers, trees, and the water,” says Spender. “The American countryside is so vast compared to that of the Old World—so for him it was almost a reoccurrence of childhood with the landscape and plants being bigger, wilder and more epic.”
Even though he was moving ever further from representation, Gorky began a practice of painting en plein air, which feels palpable in his works of the late 1940s. The Limit (1947, oil on paper mounted on canvas), with its mossy green background, suggests a meadow dotted with abstract forms. Its lithe black lines and bursts of primary colors bring Miró to mind. Matta, too, was a looming influence during this time, and it is thought that the Chilean painter inspired Gorky to thin his oils with turpentine, giving them almost a watercolor-like softness.
The show emphasizes Gorky’s late works—The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944), One Year the Milkweed (1944), and Dark Green Painting (circa 1948), in particular—as masterful achievements. In 1947, Clement Greenberg declared the works from this period “some of the best modern paintings ever turned out by an American.” Having developed a personal lexicon of both gestural and fantastical forms, Gorky created paintings that melded the competing styles of his generation, forging something entirely new. “Gorky really set the trend for Abstract Expressionism—he was synthesizing a new way of depicting the world that was a fusion of the ideas of Cubism and Surrealism,” says Devaney. “This was very in line with the European tradition and some argued that he developed as a European artist on American soil.”
What The Liver is the Cock’s Comb puts forward, however, is entirely personal to Gorky, a man who became an artist in America but lived with the painful tattoo of a lost homeland. Hulking in scale (six feet tall by eight feet wide), the painting vibrates with Gorky’s lingering memories of home and fresh impressions of rural America. Though its forms are indefinable, they feel energetic and organic, punctuated by the appearance of paint being rubbed into the canvas. The work was titled by Breton, and may allude to the ancient understanding of the liver as a symbol of the artist’s soul. The cock’s comb may refer to the coxcomb, a flowering plant or jester’s cap, or the male genitalia.
Green Painting is one of the latest works in the show, and here his pigments—most notably the rich green—are heavy and densely packed. Though his forms may hint at automatism, Gorky used a gridded preparatory drawing as its basis. Still, he had arrived at a synthesis of ideas that would perhaps best be described as “abstract surrealism” though it was heavily laden with the promise of Ab-Ex. One certainly wonders where his work might have gone as the 1950s drew near.
The years of Gorky’s artistic flowering coincided with a time of ongoing personal tragedy. He underwent a painful operation for rectal cancer and suffered substantial injuries after a car crash that debilitated his painting arm. Soon after, his wife left him, having had a rumored affair with Matta. In July of 1948, Gorky took his own life, leaving other artists to run headlong down the road he had so brilliantly paved.
By Sarah E. Fensom