Five Clues To Arshile Gorky’s Work

by Gregory Lima

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Thursday October 01, 2009

Yerevan – In the 1920s in Yerevan and New York major new art museums
were created. In Yerevan, Martiros Saryan was establishing the
National Gallery, while in New York Alfred Barr was preparing MoMA,
the Museum of Modern Art.

A major art museum is an expensive judgment on what passes as worth
gathering and saving.

Each in its time required an explanatory narrative to justify its
acquisitions. Periodically each narrative requires renewed scrutiny in
the light of new developments, expanded horizons, and reevaluations. We
are in such a period today in Yerevan.

Both Yerevan and New York had to answer the question: What is
significant modern art?

Strangely, perhaps, the question at that time was much more difficult
to answer in New York than in Yerevan. At the turn of the century
and into the early 1920s, as far as the art scene was concerned,
Moscow was a suburb of the Parisian avant garde, often outdoing Paris.

Major Armenian artists of the period studied in Moscow, Paris, or both,
and were generally open, within their own perspectives, to the latest

I grew up as a schoolboy in Arshile Gorky’s New York of the 1930s
and early 1940s, where I haunted the museums and galleries. In that
atmosphere of economic depression, Gorky’s Parisian-inspired outlook
on modern art was an especially hard sell. Personally, I didn’t
understand the formative work he and the small number of artists
attached to the American modern-art avant garde were doing.

The meaning is in the movement

One day, at one of the New York museums, I watched a very tall man
intently staring at a painting on the wall. As I watched him, for the
longest time his eyes would not break from the scene before him. For
some reason it made me uncomfortable. Deliberately, I walked between
him and the wall, breaking his contact.

He turned on me, angry. "It is paint," I said, defensively. "It is
not moving."

"It is a Cezanne!" he answered the rude boy. "The meaning is in
the movement."

I believe the tall man with strong, unblinking eyes focused on the
painting before him was Arshile Gorky. It was the best introduction
to modern art this critic was ever to receive.

What Cezanne brought to modern art was the fusion of time and motion
into painting, as the artist experienced it, and he did it in the
most innocent of all possible ways. He did it by painting in his own
style exactly what he saw, as he saw it. But his painting was not a
quick sketch executed in the moment.

When he stood up and stretched and then returned to the scene before
him, even though he tried to place himself exactly where he was, the
scene had changed, subtly or seriously. The change was in the light,
the color, or perhaps a slight altering of where he was sitting. It was
the same, but different in a visible way against what he had already
painted. Instead of erasing, altering, or ignoring what he had done
before, he learned to deliberately include it. How he did this with
his brush and colors made all the difference. In this simple act he
revolutionized modern art.

It depended on the artists who would follow him and how they
interpreted the innovation. At its simplest, it visibly extended
the plane of a color. Abstract the planes and you come to Cubism,
as with Picasso. But that was only one of multiple possibilities of
new artistic systems with the artist rather than the subject at the
center of the work, all of which may not yet have been explored. At
its heart lay the importance of the artist’s released creativity
in shaping his vision, his intention, and the hinted possibility of
conjoining multiple perspectives in a single composition.

America looks to Europe

The effect on modern art, including early-20th-century Russian art,
was so profound that Lenin, on the advice of his minister of culture,
was prepared (until the money too soon ran out) to erect a statue
of Cezanne in a Moscow square, to celebrate him as one of the major
revolutionaries of the times.

If Cezanne found favor among the revolutionaries in Russia, who
spoke for the disenfranchised, it was an entirely different matter in
America. The French avant garde, with their international influence,
had a certain snob appeal in America, and was largely the province of
the highly educated. Alfred Barr, establishing the Museum of Modern
Art, was a product of Princeton, with a Harvard Ph.D. The collectors
who depended on his educated eye began by looking to Europe, offering
little support for the few local aspirants. That support had to
come from a scant number of collectors, and strangely for the United
States, from the government. In the first six years of its existence,
from 1929 to 1935, MoMA spent no more than $1,000 on new acquisitions.

That Gorky was included in the first group exhibit at the MoMA in
1930 was a notable achievement, and it established him as a serious
artist. By that time he was about 26 years old and had transformed
himself from Manoog Adoian – the boy with the donkey in the Yerevan
market trying to sell to other starving Genocide refugees the
gleanings from the fields that his sisters had gathered after others
had harvested the crops.

He was to become one of the four pillars of Armenian modern art,
standing with Martiros Saryan, Hakob Hakobyan, and Ervand Kochar. Of
the four, to my mind, he is the least understood, cut off by tragedy
at the moment he had finally achieved the breakthrough into a wholly
original style of international importance.

Transferring the capital of modern art

Over a period of some two decades from that first exhibition at the
MoMA, he was a leader among a small group of a new wave that would
sweep the art world, transferring the capital of modern art from
Paris to New York.

It is not strange that recently in Paris, at the prestigious Pompidou,
a new series of exhibitions, showing the development of modern
art from the mid-20th century, started by giving over the whole
designated space for the exhibition to Arshile Gorky as the beginning
of the contemporary movement of which New York is the capital. The
recognition of his stature in Paris, and in contemporary art, would
have made him proud.

How the boy whose earliest memories were of Armenian home life and
growing up on the shores of Lake Van made this journey has been told
in several books. What can be gleaned offers some useful clues to
the particular nature of his art.

Five seem especially important to understanding the man and his art.

Late speaker

The first clue is that he reportedly didn’t speak until he was six
years old. He once boasted that he didn’t speak until he was eight.

Not speaking does not necessarily mean you do not have a language
of thought and observation. Certain aspects of observation may be
keener. It can mean you are not satisfied you know something because
someone gave it a name.

If you have an active, intelligent mind, and Manoog Adonian had a
very active and intelligent mind, you may look more profoundly at the
interaction of things in a way that may be outside the determining
grammar of verbal speech.

Perhaps you see that what surrounds the object may be as important
in its effect as the object itself – at the least it modifies it,
even when it may seem like blank space. In studying Gorky, do not
depend on words. Blank spaces are not blank.

In his own hands

A second clue is that his education was understandably spotty, with
large gaps when he might have or should have been in school. Perhaps
his most important learning all his life was by practical thinking
and doing.

He had to work from the age of 12, hands on, with little instruction,
experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, in order to produce
his own products for market. Among 200,000 impoverished refugees,
Gorky had to produce for a difficult market, to put it mildly.

Among his jobs in Yerevan to earn food for his family, he worked with
animal horn, creating and selling sturdy, fine-toothed combs. He also
found employment working with wood, learning joining as a carpenter.

Perhaps most significantly, he got a job as a typesetter. This involved
movable type, setting each letter and blanks between words in rows
by hand, proofreading words, sentences, paragraphs, correcting. The
final page was a product of many proofs and serious labor. It was a
process he would never forget, adapting it to his painting.

>From the presses he took pages home. In the night he would bind them
for sale the next day as pamphlets or small books.

This direct connection to printed matter would last for the rest of
his life. He was rarely without a small book in his pocket. Such
printed matter was a source of his constant study of the masters,
his delight in Armenian poetry, and significantly, the latest word
and illustrations from Paris, his vital umbilical to the avant garde
of modern art.

He went briefly to three different art schools in America, but his
education as an artist, like his education as an artisan in Yerevan,
was basically in his own hands. He was a quick study in drawing,
at which he excelled, and he could use it to help support himself in
school. Even at school he found practical application for his studies.

When he arrived in New York, after only a few years in America, he
believed himself to be a qualified art teacher. Not only did he land
a job as a teacher at a school in the center of the big city, giving
him a start, but he discovered that by stressing sharp observation of
the masters and committing to a hands-on approach to self-expression,
he was an excellent teacher.

Clarity of space

A third clue is that by accounts of other artists who knew him well,
he insisted on working hard every day, preferring to go without food
than without paint and canvas, pencils and paper; and he was meticulous
in the care of the tools of his trade.

It would seem that having decided to be an artist, he became a serious
artist every day for the rest of his life. In a major distinction
from other artists in the neighborhood, he would not work until the
floor of his studio was spotless, and he would get down on his knees
and scrub it when necessary.

I believe the clarity of the space his art inhabited as he worked
and his ability to precisely navigate that space with his tools to
meet his sensibility was a matter of primary importance to him.

Retaining a grip

The fourth clue is that he kept a picture of his mother close to him
as he worked – the mother that refused food and died of starvation
outside of Yerevan in his arms during the Genocide.

In America he had assumed a new, distinguished name and created an
alternate, somewhat romantic identity as a personal declaration of
freedom from the circumstances of his past. The trajectory of his life
had taken him far from his origins. He retained his grip on reality
by keeping before him who he really was and what that meant to him.

It is reasonable to assume his sense of who he truly was and how he
felt about it deeply affected his work.

An Armenian journey

Finally, he met Armenian artists and first came into direct contact
with oil paintings upon arriving in Tiflis, Georgia, from Yerevan
on his journey to America. I believe he saw himself in the mirror of
those paintings and painters.

In a critical moment of self discovery, his new life began not in
America but in Tiflis, I believe.

Tiflis was the eastern intellectual and financial capital of the
Armenian diaspora. It was the 19th-century center of the first
self-taught school of Armenian oil painting that had originated in
Nakhichevan, the Hovnatanian school. Saryan in that city in 1916
established the Union of Armenian Artists in the hope of safeguarding
the still-living Armenian legacy, and he would draw upon artists in
that circle to create the first home for Armenian art in Yerevan.

When Gorky arrived for his brief visit of some weeks, Ervand Kochar had
recently completed his studies in Moscow and was painting landscapes
in the park. Shortly afterward, Kochar would leave for remarkable
success in Paris.

Hakob Hakobyan was on a different life trajectory, and is still alive
and at work, but he plays a role in the as-yet-unwritten story of the
intertwined lives and tribulations of the four pillars of Armenian
modern art.

Of the four, Gorky had the shortest lifespan, dying by his own hand
at the age of 44, broken in body, arm paralyzed, unable to paint, at
the very height of his success. He is buried in Sherman, Connecticut,
in an all-but-forgotten grave a few winding miles down the back roads
from my parents’ summer cottage, where I now live. Standing where
he painted some of his best late work, I have wondered what he might
have produced had he had just a few more years of life. But that is
idle speculation; this is the Gorky we have.

The Eagle Room

The story took a historic turn this week in the empty Eagle Room, where
preparations are underway for the internationally significant event of
the opening of the brilliantly innovative Cafesian Center for the Arts.

Twenty-three packages of Gorky’s works were brought into the room
where they will be on display. As an ensemble they very well illustrate
Gorky’s strengths, his thinking, and his way of working. They stretch
over time from his early work to his probing experiments in what was
to be called Abstract Expressionism.

Several are startlingly beautiful.

Opening the heavy packing was the Cafesjian Center for the Arts
director Michael De Marsche, with a box-cutter in hand. The package
opening was random, with each work placed against the gallery wall. How
they were to be hung in the room for the anticipated Gorky exhibit
was to be determined in the next days.

To my delight, De Marsche, opening one of the packages, revealed
a Gorky study with the unmistakably heavy influence of Cezanne. In
that moment I was back in New York with the tall man whose gaze I
had broken as a child, and Gorky had come back to Yerevan.

The genial De Marsche was very much up to the occasion. Upon
unpacking each work he placed it for a brief spell on a table. He
has a showman’s instinct. For that moment each claimed the space
of the whole gallery. Gorky seemed to look out of his work from the
high reach of the Cascades to the whole of Yerevan beneath our feet,
and Gorky was in command.

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