Oct 25 2009
Art: Arshile Gorky: Art and Anguish
The powerful paintings from a brilliant, brief life form a masterful,
must-see exhibit at the Art Museum.
By Edward Sozanski
Contributing Art Critic
Make the strongest effort to see the spectacular Arshile Gorky
exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not only does it contain
an abundance of powerful, lyrical abstract painting, it tells a
poignant and ultimately tragic story of how a poor, proud immigrant
methodically and diligently transformed himself into one of the most
influential artists of the last century.
Gorky’s transformative role in American modernist art became obscured
by the subsequent celebrity of the abstract expressionists and then
the pop generation. This magisterial retrospective restores historical
balance through a body of work that’s both formally stunning and
suffused with emotion.
Everyone enjoys colorful stories about tortured artists like Vincent
van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jackson Pollock. But when it
comes to a compelling life story at Hollywood scale, no artist tops
That wasn’t his real name; he was born Vosdanig Adoian about 1902 in a
town near Lake Van, the heart of the historical Armenian homeland in
In 1906, his father left for America, and thereafter had little
contact with his wife and children. In 1915, the event known as the
Armenian Genocide forced young Vosdanig and his mother to become
refugees. Four years later, his mother, whom the artist subsequently
memorialized in two iconic paintings, died of starvation.
Vosdanig and a younger sister emigrated to the United States in 1920.
Shortly thereafter, he changed his name to Arshile (possibly a version
of Achilles) Gorky, reportedly a tribute to the Russian writer Maxim
Gorky, who supported Armenian nationalism.
After moving to New York in 1924, Gorky methodically schooled himself
in art history by reading and visiting museums. With very little
formal art training, he taught himself to be a modernist painter by
absorbing, through mimesis, the techniques of other artists,
particularly Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso.
By the 1930s, he was reasonably proficient in the modernist idiom,
thanks also to the influence of Henri Matisse, Joan MirÃ³, Piet
Mondrian, and his American friend Stuart Davis. He didn’t become an
original, authentic voice until the early 1940s, when two
circumstances provoked a dramatic transformation in his style.
The first was his marriage in 1941 to young Agnes Magruder, whom he
called Mougouch. Her parents owned a farm in Virginia, where Gorky,
till then a city-bound Manhattanite, discovered nature – or, rather,
rediscovered what he had experienced on his father’s farm in Turkish
The second stimulus, which reinforced the first, was his encounters
with leading European surrealists and his inclusion in two important
This synergy resulted in the paintings, created over perhaps six or
seven years, that represent his legacy. Sadly, a series of tragedies
stifled his career just as he reached the pinnacle.
In early 1946, his Connecticut studio burned, destroying a number of
paintings. Two months later he was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which
was treated surgically.
Then, in the summer of 1948, further catastrophe descended. His wife
had a brief affair with his friend and fellow painter Roberto Matta.
His neck was broken in an automobile accident. His wife left him,
taking their two children. In mid-July, he hanged himself. He was only
Such a biography quickly metamorphoses into legend. Yet ultimately we
want to know, does his art transcend the soap-opera pathos of his
The answer, as Art Museum curator Michael R. Taylor demonstrates
brilliantly in this masterly exhibition, is that Gorky is bigger than
his tragic story. Not only the later paintings, monumentally composed
and lushly colored, but his drawings, similarly intricate and
precisely calculated, reveal an intuitive, finely honed, and
persistent artistic intelligence.
At nearly 180 oils and drawings, this is a large, dense, and at times
emotionally febrile collection – too much for one viewing. Plan at
least two visits. It covers Gorky from alpha – a 1924
impressionist-style study of a Boston church – to omega, the aptly
titled Last Painting of 1948, which is unfinished.
Thankfully, Taylor doesn’t dwell on Gorky’s prolonged infatuation with
Cezanne or his later tutorial with Picasso. Some critics have cited
both these phases as evidence that Gorky was essentially a pasticheur,
but when this early work is considered in the context of the whole
career, that accusation doesn’t hold up: He was simply following the
example of countless generations of artists who liberated their
individuality by dissecting the work of established masters.
Once past the 1920s, when Gorky was still absorbing and experimenting,
the show breaks into two general sections. In the first, the 1930s,
Gorky is painting structurally. He’s still influenced by cubism and,
in paintings such as Organization and the Newark Airport murals (two
of the original 10 are on view), also by Mondrian. The paintings tend
to be linear, geometric, and heavily worked; some surfaces are
stuccolike. Picasso’s presence is palpable.
One senses that these works do not express either Gorky’s experience
or his essential spirit, that they are formal responses to, or
variations on, what his contemporaries in New York are doing.
Two paintings, perhaps his most familiar because they’re figurative,
diverge from this practice. Made from a 1912 photograph, they depict
young Vosdanig standing next to his seated mother. Gorky has pushed
beyond mere transcription of a neutral document to a profoundly sad
evocation of a fractured family and a lost culture.
The inner Gorky begins to emerge in a series of paintings called
Garden in Sochi (a city in the Crimea) made in 1940-43. Despite their
title, part of Gorky’s adopted Russian facade, these paintings refer
to his father’s garden in Armenia. MirÃ³-esque biomorphic forms,
precisely situated, have replaced Picassoid distortions.
Garden in Sochi exposed the romantic surrealism that energizes Gorky’s
imagination; the paintings also suggest that work to follow will evoke
Armenia, albeit in ways not obvious to most observers.
His exposure to the rural Virginia landscape in the early 1940s
produced the efflorescence on view in the show’s largest gallery,
devoted to work of the mid-1940s. This features a stunning suite of
seven landscape drawings, all completely abstracted from nature. Gorky
always could draw, but these works reveal how much thought and
intensity he put into efforts that sometimes served, in an Old
Masterish way, as studies for paintings.
The full force of his creative ingenuity emerges in paintings such as
One Year the Milkweed and Water of the Flowery Mill. The year 1944 is
perhaps the apogee of Gorky’s distinctive blend of surrealist form and
natural content. His surrealism was rooted not in fantasy or dreams
like that of Salvador DalÃ or Max Ernst but in observation tempered by
memory. It’s not an alternative reality but a modified one.
In the last several years of his truncated career, Gorky’s paintings
become more somber. The Charred Beloved pictures refer to the studio
fire, while the elegiac Soft Night, which is dark green, and The Limit
can be read as reflecting the deepening depression that led to his
death. While quieter and less exuberant than paintings of a few years
earlier, these are sublime evocations of a tragic view of existence.
This retrospective, the first for Gorky in America since 1981,
substantially enhanced my appreciation and understanding of this
marvelous talent and conflicted soul. I hope it affects you similarly.
Art: Gorky Apotheosis
The Arshile Gorky retrospective continues at the Philadelphia Museum
of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Jan. 10. Hours are 10
a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays.
Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for
students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday
of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress