By Lucy Davies
At the Venice Biennale in 1950, America chose three artists to present its new avant-garde to the outside world: Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Arshile Gorky (1904-1948). Together, their bold, radically expressive paintings were intended as a challenge to the consecrated position Paris then held, as the only place real art could be made.
Before the Second World War, art galleries in America did not show American Art at all. Every inch of wall space was given over to the Europeans – to paintings by the Surrealists, the Cubists, or the Impressionists.
But when dissenting artists from Nazi-occupied Europe came to America in the late Thirties and early Forties, bringing with them prevailing ideas about the subconcious, dreams and primitive art, an opportunity arose for those ideas, which had formed and bloomed in the cafes of Montparnasse, to mingle with the work that American artists were making on home soil, producing something entirely and excitingly new.
The 1950 Biennale exhibition was a sensation; the contest between Paris and New York decided firmly in the latter's favour. American art had come of age and all eyes swivelled westward, curious to see where these spotlight-stealing firebrands would venture next.
All three would go on to gain great critical acclaim – in the case of Pollock and de Kooning, as two of the best-known poster boys of Abstract Expressionism. But Gorky's contribution to modern art, considered remarkable in his lifetime, has slipped since from mainstream view.
Now, though, almost 70 years on from that seminal show at the American Pavilion, Gorky is returning to the Venice Biennale, with a retrospective exhibition at Ca'Pesaro, the city's International Gallery of Modern Art.
The first museum exhibition of his work in Italy, it is designed to restore Gorky to his rightful place as a pivotal figure in the history of American art, and, says his granddaughter Saskia Spender, who is president of the Arshile Gorky Foundation, to encourage a new generation in discovering Gorky for themselves.
"He is fascinating as an artist," says Spender, "because his work has no one, signature element. Everything, whether composition, line, colour, theme and objective, is incredibly important to him and it is all happening at once. "I think that is very rare. It's what makes his work so vivid, mysterious, captivating and moving… and somewhat eternal. For me, that's what art is."
The Ca'Pesaro exhibition, which includes around 80 works, has been co-curated by the Royal Academy's Edith Devaney, who worked on the RA's Abstract Expressionism show of 2016.
"Before I began work on [the Abstract Expressionist exhibition], Gorky was one of those figures I was always aware of; I understood where he sat; I liked his work," Devaney says. "But I hadn't set out to feature him as strongly as I eventually did. For me, his influence on the Abstract Expressionist group was a revelation."
Partly it's this positioning of him as a bridging figure between Europe and America, and between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, that has had an adverse affect on Gorky's prominence.
He died young in 1948, before Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, and though he was fascinated by Surrealism and a friend of its leader, the poet Andre Breton, he didn't want to be affiliated to either movement. "Gorky wasn't interested in isms of any kind," says Spender, "he eschewed all categories."
"Artists who are so individual in that way and hard to categorise are often the most interesting," says Devaney, "but it does mean that they are often left out. Was he the last Surrealist or the first Abstract Expressionist? The argument is a long-running one, but I would argue that he was both.
"He examined Cubism and Surrealism, Kandinsky, Miro – really a huge range of artists – and out of those created a language that was wholly his, feeding it back into American art."
Gorky was an elusive character. "One of the things that set him apart was his background," Delaney suggests. "He had the most fantastic life." Born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, in the rural village of Khorkom, Turkish Armenia (now Turkey), in 1904. At the age of 10, his father left the family and went to America. The plan was for Gorky and his mother and sister to follow, but the invitation never came.
Then, in 1915, when millions of Armenians were slaughtered or forcibly removed from Turkey during the Armenian genocide, Gorky, his sister Vartush and his mother ended up among the thousands forced to walk northeast across the border toward Yerevan, Armenia.
Gorky's mother, like many other of those walkers, died of starvation – in her son's arms. It would take Gorky and Vartush another five years to reach their father, but in 1920, when Gorky was about 18, they finally arrived in Watertown, Massachusetts, to begin a new life.
"There he was, an exile in America, as so many people were," says Devaney. "One of the things I've examined [for the Ca'Pesaro show] is how that affected his personality, his art.
"You could argue that de Kooning came over to the US because there was no future for him in Rotterdam, and Breton came over to escape the war in Paris, but Gorky's reasons were completely different: everything he loved and held dear was destroyed. Breton was able to return later, to pick up the pieces and resume his life. That wasn't the case for Gorky, but it did mean that his situation was ripe for reinvention: in deciding to become an artist, he was absolutely steadfast."
Gorky borrowed his pseudonym from the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), claiming variously to be his cousin or nephew. It was a clever move which allied him immediately with the cultural elite.
In 1924, he moved to New York, supporting himself as a teacher while spending his free time in museums, copying the Old Masters and the European Modernists.
Their influence never left him: included in the exhibtion at Ca'Pesaro are are wonderful remnants from Gorky's studio, which include pictures he had cut out from books and art magazines, of works by Ingres (1780-1867), Uccello (1397-1475) and Cezanne (1839-1906), among others.
Gorky very quickly became a fixture in Greenwich Village, where he fraternised with other artists, such as John Graham and Stuart Davis. Together they were known as the Three Musketeers, always huddled in a corner talking about art.
He also met de Kooning, at a party, and the pair remained close friends throughout Gorky's life. "He was already such a fine painter," de Kooning later said. "He came from nowhere and yet he knew everything."
In 1940, when he was in his mid thirties, Gorky fell head over heels in love with a beautiful 19-year-old American girl named Agnes Magruder (1921-2013), nicknamed Mougouch, and reinvented himself yet again – he told her he had studied with Kandinsky in Paris, for instance, and that he was a graduate of Brown University, neither of which were true.
"I was a beautiful blank book that he could write anything he wanted in," she says, in a film about Gorky made by Cosima Spender, Saskia's sister. "But he was so proud and fine looking, I was smitten immediately… I was stunned by his painting, it was delicious, I had never seen anything like it."
Historically, it is Gorky's late works of the Forties that have been most sought after. Certainly his auction record of more than $14 million for Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln, is for a 1944 painting sold at Christie's last November.
"Generally speaking the market is strongest for the Forties works, which are largely regarded as the pinnacle of Gorky's career," says Christie's specialist Emily Kaplan, head of the day sale in Post-War and Contemporary Art.
Gorky is also more widely collected in the US than in Europe, she adds, "perhaps in part because he is so well-represented in American museums and public collections".
As well as rekindling interest in Gorky in Europe, then, Devaney and her co-curator Gabriella Belli are also hopeful that the current exhibition at Ca'Pesaro will encourage visitors to rethink Gorky's early work. A chronological hang makes it clear that the work becomes stronger as he goes on, and that he really hits his form in the Forties, "but what you also see," explains Devaney, "is that his early work is quite extraordinary. The portraits in particular are very accomplished.
"Not only that, but his drawings, which have also been overlooked. He drew very quickly and some of them are like visual streams of consciousness. They really informed his paintings and his draughtsmanship is second to none."
Much of the attention that has routinely been paid to his later work, Devaney adds, comes down to a comment that Alfred Barr, the great founding director of MoMA, made in 1958: that Gorky's early work was derivative. "But I believe that even though he is following the work of others in those years – literally getting under the skin of artists like Cezanne – his own artistic voice was very present… Each work is pure Gorky: imbued with his thinking, his imagination. He engaged with his art completely."
Gorky was only active for about 20 years. Nevertheless, around 2000 works survive, of which slightly more than 400 are paintings, the rest drawings. His story doesn't end well – in 1946 the studio he was borrowing in Connecticut, which was filled with his paintings and drawings, burned to the ground. "He managed to rescue a hammer, a screwdriver and a box of powdered charcoal," wrote Mougouch, in a letter to a friend, "Gorky sounded so hollow I think my heart broke."
A few months later, Gorky discovered he had contracted rectal cancer. After an operation, he and Mougouch and their two children, Maro and Natasha, retreated to a friend's home in Connecticut.
Artistically, he was soaring, featured in Life magazine, receiving positive reviews of his work in the Whitney Annual and exhibitions at the Julian Levy gallery, which championed the Surrealists. Then, in 1948, a car he was in with Levy slid off the road and Gorky broke his neck. Unable to paint and in considerable distress from the several hours of internal ablutions he had to perform on his gut every morning, Gorky became increasingly morose and agitated. In July, while Mougouch and the girls had sought refuge with her family in Virginia, he hanged himself in a barn.
"What makes his death a particularly bitter thing to take," wrote the art critic Clement Greenberg at the time, "aside from all personal considerations (I respected and admired Gorky as a man), is that he had just entered upon the fullness of his powers in these last three or four years and was going ahead with an astounding force and rapidity.
"Nobody else is doing what he was, and nobody else will show us what direction American painting may have taken in certain of its aspects had Gorky lived longer… Gorky was among the four or five most important painters alive in this country at the time he died."
"Although we have no way of knowing where his art would have gone next," says Spender, "we can see that he anticipated many things. Some artists have connected with his legacy through his colours, others through his lines, or through his compositions.
"What's very current in his work is that he was constantly transforming his themes – the "heart shape" that we see in many Nighttime, Enigma, Nostalgia ink drawings, for instance, reappears later in The Liver is the Cock's Comb of 1944. Or the the black triangle motif, which appears at the edge of 11 of the Virginia drawings and three The Plough And The Song-themed paintings from 1946 and 1947. They get different treatments according to the phases of his interest as an artist. Even so, he is always deeply Arshile Gorky.'
Arshile Gorky is at Ca'Pesaro until Sept 22 capesaro.visitmuve.it