Arshile Gorky: A Summation Too Soon

Tom Birchenough

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More than 60 years after his early death, the work of Arshile Gorky continues to be reassessed: the last decade alone has seen the appearance of three new biographies of a figure who is now seen as one of the key forerunners of Abstract Expressionism in America, and a “bridge” between earlier European directions and the New World in the 1940s. A major retrospective exhibition of the artist opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in October 2009, before transferring to Tate Modern in London over the Spring, and will close this September at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles - by any standards, an impressive “tour” for such an artistic project.

The exhibition’s poster image, Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother” in the version dated from 1926 to 1936, rightly brings our attention squarely back to Gorky’s origins. He was born about 1904 — the exact date remains unknown — on the southern shore of Lake Van in Armenian Turkey; 16 years later he reached the United States, where he would quickly establish himself as an artist. His birth name was Vosdanig Adoian, but he began to sign his first pictures in 1924 by the name by which we now know him, Arshile Gorky. It was a gesture that would prove symbolic for an immigrant trying to assert a new identity in a new country: his own suggestions and claims that he was related to the well-known Russian writer Maxim Gorky, or that he had been partly educated in Russia and Georgia, had no grounding in historical fact.

His early years were troubled by the forces of history affecting him and his nation alike, and such a strategy — the concealment of an old identity, and the construction of a new one — has been seen as not untypical in figures for whom the past brought back vulnerable and painful memories (though it earned the disapproval of other members of the Armenian diaspora in the artist’s lifetime). Vosdanig was the middle child of three born into a family then living in the country, and rural motifs, such as orchards and flowers, recur in different forms throughout his work (as they do in his letters). Migration and separation would be part of his family life from an early age: his father Setrag went to work in America when Gorky was four, and the artist would not see him again until his own arrival in New York in 1920.

His mother Shushan thus played a crucial role in his upbringing, including his introduction to art and artistic traditions: among her relations were priests at the Church of the Holy Cross on the Island of Akhtamar on Lake Van, and he is certain to have seen the distinctive paintings and stone carvings there, among the many remains (by then, sadly, often neglected) of the once great Armenian culture. In 1910 the family moved to the provincial capital of Van, where two years later the eight-year-old Vosdanig would be photographed with his mother in a city photographic studio; the image was dispatched to his father, who had by then settled in Rhode Island, and had sent his own studio photograph back to his family from the United States. Both images (especially the father’s) make their sitters appear grander, and we assume more prosperous, than may well have been the case.

It is likely that Shushan had sent the photograph of herself with her son at least partly as a reminder of the family’s existence, and to encourage her husband to proceed with his plans eventually to reunite the family in America. It was only after his own arrival in America that Gorky rediscovered the photograph among his father’s possessions there — by which time it was already a remnant of a past life, one that had by then vanished completely. The impact of World War I and the following Armenian genocide would change forever the world in which the Adoians had lived; it sent a huge number into exile, taking with them their Armenian identities, both cultural and personal. In the summer of 1915 the Adoian family fled from Van to Yerevan, passing through the religious centre of Ejmiadzin along the way, where the artist saw more of his national history in its remarkable churches. Survival in Yerevan proved difficult but possible, and the young man continued his education, while his elder sister was sent on with relatives to America. However, the impact of the Bolshevik revolution, which triggered Armenia’s short-lived declaration of independence, and equally that of failed harvests and resulting famine, would be catastrophic for the family: the artist’s mother Shushan died of starvation in March 1919, and it was only a combination of providence, resilience and help from relatives that meant that Adoian-Gorky and his younger sister Vartoosh were able to escape as refugees through Georgia to Constantinople, where they spent four months before sailing to New York.

Symbolic tribute to his family, and a remembrance of these terrible times that were so crucial in Gorky’s development as an artist, could be seen in the exhibition gallery, half way through the course of the new show, collecting together both pictures of the artist and his mother; the second, much paler in its colours, but nevertheless very close to its prototype, is dated from the same year of commencement, 1926, but apparently completed as late as 1942 (if the word “completion” is indeed accurate for such a continual re-worker of his canvases). They are the culmination of his figurative work — “realistic” hardly seems an adequate description — characterized by their blocks of colour, frontal and hieratic perspectives, distinctively unfinished hands, and a smooth, flattened finish that resulted from Gorky’s laborious (and thus, time-consuming) scraping back of earlier paint layers. The two works were hung alongside others in the same style, among them two dating from 1937, Gorky’s own “Self-portrait” and “Portrait of Master Bill”, of his friend Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-born artist with whom Gorky would be connected for the rest of his life, not least in the school that would come to known as Abstract Expressionism.

Gorky’s path to becoming a practising artist was rapid. He enrolled at the New School of Design in Boston in 1922 at the age of 18, and soon moved on to working there as a teaching assistant. He visited Boston’s museums frequently, teaching himself from what he saw on his visits, as well becoming an avid reader of art periodicals; unlike many of his contemporaries, he never visited France, and his knowledge of artistic movements there was absorbed from publications as well as, later, from personal meetings. In 1924 Gorky transferred to New York, where he taught at the sister institution of the Boston school (among his pupils there was another future Abstract Expressionist, Mark Rothko). Moving on to the city’s Grand Central School of Art in 1925, he was appointed a member of staff there in the following year. Only six years after his arrival in the New World, he was confirmed as an artist, and his situation appeared reasonably stable. In 1927, already becoming acquainted with many of the better-known artists in the city, he moved to a sizable studio on Washington Square.

His assimilation of contemporary art was effectively auto-didactic, and he immersed himself in the work, first and most notably, of Cezanne. Gorky’s description of this process, dating from 1932 and confirmed by his subsequent gallerist Julien Levy, has become famous: “I was with Cezanne for a long time, and now naturally I am with Picasso.” His “Pears, Peaches, and Pitcher” is as perfect a tribute to Cezanne’s art as any — not, it should be noted, an attempt to copy the older artist, but rather to explore his practise, to immerse himself (something in the manner of a pupil to his teacher) deeply in the work.

New York itself was a city increasingly engaging with contemporary art — the Museum of Modern Art opened there in 1929 (Gorky would show three works in an exhibition of young artists there the following year). The collection of Albert E. Gallatin opened at the same time as part of New York University, close to Gorky’s studio, as the Gallery of Living Art (this collection was finally donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art — thus visitors to the first stopping-place of the Arshile Gorky retrospective had the chance to see the artist’s own work alongside pieces which he had first seen in the Gallery of Living Art). Later points of inspiration, as well of course as Picasso, included Miro, Leger, and de Chirico, with the last artist’s example particularly evident in the “Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia” series of drawings dating from 1931 onwards. By now Gorky was adding in elements that are more purely his own, as well as confirming his expertise as a master draughtsman.

Gorky’s reversion to drawing after his earlier work in oils was at least partly the result of economies forced on him by the consequences of the 1929 financial crash and subsequent Great Depression. Though not yet an American citizen (he would become one only in 1939), Gorky became part of various of the New Deal’s public works art projects from 1933 onwards, most notably the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project where he was engaged as a muralist. His most important mural project was for Newark Airport — the work there was hardly well received, and much did not survive the 1940s — but we can see the effect of these experiments with scale, as well as associated moves towards partial abstract forms, in paintings like “Organization”, dated 1933-1936.

Such public works aside, Gorky continued through the later 1930s with two notable series, known as the “Khorkom” and “Garden in Sochi” paintings, which he would continue through until around 1943. The first refers to the name of the place of the artist’s birth around Lake Van, the second to the Black Sea town (which Gorky had never visited), but both became more generalised “poetic” locations for his artistic imagination anchored in rural settings. They draw, to different degrees, on visual associations from his childhood, which Gorky was ready to put into words. At the request of a curator, he described the imagery that runs behind the “Garden in Sochi” images: “My father had a little garden with a few apple trees which had retired from giving fruit. There was a ground constantly in shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nests. There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches of moss placed here and there like fallen clouds.”

The detail and sharpness of the memory is striking, yet it is association working here in a free manner that runs through these pictures, rather than anything more exact; witness the fact that critics have debated whether one of the central images in the pictures is a pair of shoes, or (of all things) an Armenian instrument for churning butter. The growing influence of Surrealism in America, and in particular its associated branch of Automatism, is evident increasingly in Gorky’s work, too; following the precepts of Automatism, images grew as much out of the unconscious, rather than conscious mind or memory; images that we assume may be recognisable shapes could equally be manifestations of something more abstract. The balance between these two directions, Surrealism and abstraction, would determine the art of the final decade of Gorky’s life.

The retrospective exhibition gave special prominence to the artist’s 1943 painting “Waterfall” — it becomes the crucial work of the last decade of Gorky’s life (in the Tate Modern show it was the only painting, except for “The Artist and His Mother”, that hung with enfilade views from other galleries). It becomes symbolic of his return to nature that would bring a new level of inspiration and energy; the sexual images, connected to both human and natural fertility, are as strong as anything in his earlier work. In 1941, Gorky set out to drive across America to San Francisco with paintings for an exhibition to be held there, accompanied by an 18-year-old journalist Agnes Magruder, whom he would marry in Nevada in September of that year (from then on, she would be known by the pet name “Mougouch”).

In the summer of 1942 the couple made the first of their summer journeys from New York to the New England countryside that would so inspire Gorky’s work in the years before his death. That first trip was for only two weeks, to stay with the artist Saul Schary in Connecticut, but the following year they returned to the Virginia house of Mougouch’s father to spend six months — she nursed their newly-born daughter, while he worked intensely, initially with drawings. As Mougouch remembered at the end of the year: “This summer was the real release of Gorky. He was able to discover himself and what he has done is to create a world of his own but a world equal to nature, with the infinite complexities of nature and yet sweet, secretive and playful as nature is.”

“Waterfall” was a case in point, with a sense of flow of movement of water running from the upper right hand corner to the centre, from which we can imagine its fall to the bottom of the canvas. And yet, do we also find two standing, embracing figures — a woman to the left, a male form holding her from the right — at the very centre of the canvas? Gorky was also working here with the painterly technique of “dripping”, where he wiped off dried paint on the canvas with turpentine with a cloth (it can be seen in the bottom right hand quarter of the picture), leaving the drips visible, a notable departure from his previous practise of building up layers of paint with great care.

For Gorky the years immediately following America’s entering World War II in 1941 appear almost pastoral within the context of wider world events, but these too would directly affect his own small working milieu. The Nazi invasion of France was the final point in a process evident from the years that had immediately preceded it, namely the relocation of significant figures from the European artistic community to the New World, in particular New York (the American critic Harold Rosenberg, an early advocate of Gorky’s work, caught the phenomenon in his 1940 essay “The Fall of Paris”).

The growth of Surrealism in North America was one such factor, with its associated influence on American artists; the movement had clearly been growing in prominence before the war, with the first exhibition by Salvador Dali held in 1934 by Gorky’s future gallerist Julien Levy — Dali and his wife Gala moved to America for eight years from 1940 — as well as the Museum of Modern Art 1936 show of “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism”. In Gorky’s immediate life the most significant new figure was Andre Breton, whom the artist first met in 1944; they became close, and Breton would suggest the sometimes mysterious titles of some of the artist’s remarkable works of this period, like his “The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb” from 1943-1944.

The first of Gorky’s four exhibitions at the Levy gallery took place in early 1945, and despite severe problems with his health over the years, the fourth (and final) show there in March 1948, would earn him the praise from critic Clement Greenberg that has so coloured his posthumous reception. “Gorky at last arrives at himself and takes his place — awaiting him now for almost 20 years — among the very few contemporary American painters whose work is of more than national importance,” Greenberg wrote. “Gorky, in my opinion, has still to paint his greatest pictures. Meanwhile he is already the equal of any painter of his own generation anywhere.”

It proved an all too tantalising qualification: within four months, Arshile Gorky was dead. The final years of his life had brought one disaster after another: a fire in January 1946 at the Connecticut studio he had been working in destroyed almost a year’s work; diagnosed with cancer of the intestine around the same time, the artist came through an emergency operation, and returned to the country to recuperate and work, in some cases recreating works that had been burnt with new and different resonances. He worked on new material too, initially, given his reduced strength, in drawings; subsequently he returned to canvases, with remarkable energy. However, in June 1948 he was injured in a car accident — his gallerist Levy was driving — and fractures in his neck left him unable to work with his painting arm. His marriage had already become strained, and his wife Mougouch left him, taking their two children. Finally, after repeated warnings to friends and acquaintances, he hanged himself on July 21 1948.

Suddenly works that had been acclaimed as his most significant to date became his “last” paintings, with all the associations of hindsight implied by that term. The temptation to follow such an inherently Romantic line is only confirmed by the fact that the titles of some of his very final works included “Agony” and “Summation”. “Gorky: Painter of his Own Legend” was the title of a posthumous tribute by Elaine de Kooning, wife of his old friend the artist Willem. Alongside the legend of the emigre working with the material of his faraway Armenian childhood in the New World, there was now the legend of the artist who died by his own hand while still in his prime. Gorky was only 44 at his death: had this “summation” been not final, but that of a “to date”, mid-career reassessment, the future of American art in the decades that followed would have likely been notably different.





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