Village person: Arshile Gorky changed his name, but he couldn’t…

Houston Press, TX
March 18 2004

Village Person
Arshile Gorky changed his name, but he couldn’t change his painful

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Many artists have had difficult childhoods, but by any measure,
Arshile Gorky’s was particularly traumatic. He was born Vosdanik
Adoian in the village of Khorkom in Turkish Armenia in 1904. Two
years later, his father emigrated to America. Whether he left to find
work or to avoid arrest for being an Armenian nationalist has never
been clear, but it would be nearly 15 years before father and son met
again. By then, Gorky would have experienced the loss of his village,
witnessed the genocide of his people by the Turkish government,
endured the refugee poverty and famine that killed his mother when he
was 15, and, finally, with his younger sister Vartoosh, sailed to
America, leaving behind forever his mother’s grave, his homeland and
his beloved village. But not his past.
That past resonates through “Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of
Drawings,” on view at the Menil Collection. Curated by Janie C. Lee,
adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art,
the exhibition offers an intimate introduction to one of America’s
most influential artists.

After a few years in Providence and Boston, the young Armenian artist
moved to New York City in 1924. He had already rechristened himself
Arshile Gorky; the first name was a variant of an Armenian royal
name, and the surname means “bitter one” in Russian. (By all
accounts, Gorky was an inveterate raconteur and rarely let the facts
interfere with a good story. If you wanted to believe he was related
to the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky, he wouldn’t disillusion you
— despite the fact that the writer’s name was also an assumed one.
The writer of his New York Times obituary was one such mistaken
soul.) In New York, Gorky’s talent was recognized almost immediately,
and he managed to eke out a living teaching drawing, both
academically and privately; by the early 1930s, his work began
appearing in group shows.

An incessant drawer from early childhood, Gorky was essentially
self-taught — one of his sisters remembers him finding a dead fish
and drawing it over and over in the sand. (Later, he would be fired
from a Boston rubber factory for drawing on the molds.) His major
influences were the great 19th-century French classicist
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as contemporaries Pablo
Picasso and Henri Matisse. As installed in the Menil, the first three
galleries of the exhibit (which has been judiciously edited down from
the ungainly sprawl and visual overload of the Whitney’s version)
show how in his early work, Gorky worked to incorporate their
disparate approaches into a pictorial language of his own.

Of particular note are the drawings of his mother, especially the
portrait on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. Gorky faithfully
rendered his mother’s face from a formal 1912 photograph of the two
of them, taken to send to his father. It’s a beautiful, loving
portrait, intimate and yet reserved. The profound depths of her eyes
are matched only by the eyes of her young son in some other drawings
on display. One of the pleasures of seeing this retrospective at the
Menil are the echoes that occur not only within Gorky’s body of work
but between it and the rest of the museum’s collection. The portrait
of his mother resonates with some Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits in
the Menil’s classical galleries (Gorky kept a reproduction of one
from the Metropolitan Museum’s extensive Egyptian collection in his

The other series of note in these first rooms is the Nighttime,
Enigma, and Nostalgia series. Composed in 1931 and 1932, the group of
works demonstrates Gorky’s habit of repeating forms and motifs
through different mediums — here, principally graphite or ink — and
methods, such as crosshatching and shading, to create numerous
variations on a theme. The series demonstrates the countless formal
possibilities of drawing (this one alone runs to more than 50 works).
Inhabited by entangled biomorphic shapes of no particular provenance,
the melancholy meditations of Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia compel
our lingering attention. When asked what personal or symbolic
significance the series’ imagery held, Gorky’s response was “wounded
birds, poverty, and one whole week of rain.” A related drawing, Image
at Khorkom (1934-36), references the village of his birth.

Gorky’s mature work began in the early 1940s, when he encountered the
surrealists, who were here in America to escape the Nazis. He would
incorporate their ideas into his own work and become the link between
the surrealists and artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson
Pollock. Of prime importance to Gorky’s development was Roberto
Matta, who encouraged him in the surrealist technique of automatic
drawing — the hand moving unguided by the mind. Around this time,
Gorky left New York for Connecticut and began drawing from nature.
The combination seems to have unleashed a torrent of creative
invention in Gorky as he filtered the world he saw before him through
his imagination and memory. In Drawing (1946), two figures in the
lower half are clearly cows, but a foreleg of one cow ends in not a
hoof but a scythelike shape. And in the lovely large drawing The Plow
and the Song (1946), the sinuous vertical figure in the center
suggests an Armenian plow from Gorky’s childhood.

But this is not to say that to appreciate Gorky’s art one must play a
game of identification; form was more important to him than the
object that suggests the form. It’s the whole composition as an
abstraction, the interplay of forms, and the assuredness and economy
of draftsmanship that seduces. In Study for Charred Beloved (1946),
there isn’t a wasted line or gesture, as if, in executing this
delicate composition, Gorky barely removed pencil from paper.

The last drawings in the exhibit are dated 1946-47. In January 1946,
a studio fire destroyed about 25 of Gorky’s paintings. That March, he
underwent a colostomy operation necessitated by rectal cancer. A
fastidious man, Gorky was deeply embarrassed by the procedure. He
also had marital problems. Still, Gorky continued to work through
1947. In 1948, his marriage collapsed, and in June, his collarbone
and two neck vertebrae were broken in an auto accident. Confined by
an immobilization collar and constrained from working, on July 21
Gorky wrote “Goodbye my loveds” on a wooden crate in his Connecticut
studio, and then he hung himself.

Through May 9 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.
Through April 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet,

One Hell of a Gift

Caroline Wiess Law has been very, very good to the MFAH. An art
collector and philanthropist, Law died last Christmas Eve on her 85th
birthday. She left the museum a $25 million endowment and a cache of
55 artworks, with an estimated value of between $60 million and $85

Law was Houston to the core. She was the daughter of Harry Wiess,
co-founder of Humble Oil & Refining Co., which became Exxon. Her
first husband was a partner at the law firm Vinson, Elkins, Weems &
Francis; after he died, she married Theodore Newton Law, founder of
Falcon Seaboard Drilling Co. Wiess’s parents were founding members of
the MFAH, and Law herself was an MFAH supporter for four decades. In
1998, the Watkins-Mies building was named after her.

“A Spirited Vision: Highlights of the Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law
to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston” presents works from some of the
major names in 20th-century art. Philip Guston’s Passage (1957) is an
early ab-ex-inspired work that feels incredibly fresh. Its smears and
brushy smudges of color have a visceral feeling. They remind you of
the hues used for those plastic models of the human body from biology
class — the rosy pink of flesh; the pale, greenish-blue of veins;
the deep red of the heart; the brownish red of the liver.

Joan Miró’s Painting (The Circus Horse) (1927) is especially nice,
with the lush, chalky blue of the background playing host to the
artist’s tentatively elegant linear elements. One of the more
appealing works by Hans Hoffman in the show features brushy
rectangles of near-primary colors on a pale ground. It hangs
especially well between two vivid works by Lucio Fontana, one an
intense red and the other a powerful, almost artificial green. True
to form, Fontana has interrupted their saturated monochromatic
surfaces by elegantly slicing through the canvases.

There are some early, colorful works by Franz Kline that are okay,
but they make you glad he switched to the black and white of his 1961
Corinthian II. Picasso’s Two Women in Front of a Window (1927) was
donated in 1964 but remained in Law’s home until her death. It’s a
notable work and a definite feather in the cap for the MFAH, but
there’s so much Picasso in the museum world (the MFAH alone has 80),
it’s hard to be visually excited about it. Andy Warhol’s Caroline,
four 1976 portraits of Law, is also included. Warhol cranked out
scads of portraits of collectors and celebrities in the ’70s and
’80s. This is a particularly unflattering series that gives Law the
look of a not-overly-convincing transvestite. She must have really
loved Warhol to keep those around.

Neither Law’s upbringing nor her education predisposed her toward the
modern art she came to love. When she was furnishing her home in the
’50s, dealers kept showing up with impressionist paintings. According
to Law, “I just couldn’t get interested in those things. They didn’t
talk to me.” Law went on to find artworks that did talk to her — and
now they’re holding forth at the MFAH. – Kelly Klaasmeyr

Through April 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet,