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Arshile Gorky, Betrothal I (1947). 

© 2010 Estate of Arshile Gorky, © 2010 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern


by Anna Leung

Arshile Gorky was a romantic figure, a double outsider whose life was dogged by misfortune. Despite the facts that one drawing from his series Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia and one painting from the series Garden in Sochi were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and that two one-man shows were held at the Julien Levy Gallery, one in 1945 and the second in 1947, on the whole Gorky met with a cool reception at a time when the young generation of Abstract Expressionists were preparing to wrest artistic hegemony from Paris. Even when Clement Greenberg, the eminence grise behind the rise of the New York School who was at that time pushing Pollock into the glaring flood lights of celebrity, admitted that Gorky had made the grade and was the equal of any of his generation, he clawed back this compliment by accusing him of hedonism, a typically French failing that smacked of aestheticism, and was therefore inherently un-American. Little wonder then that Gorky from the first concealed his Armenian identity and took on the fiction of being the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s nephew, even though he could not speak Russian. He saw himself not as a tragic figure but “as a man of fate.”

This sense of fatality can be traced to his mother. It was she who called him “the black one, the unlucky one who will come to a no-good end.” She was both right and very wrong. The double portraits of the young Gorky and his mother, transcribed from a photo originally sent to his father in 1912 to remind him of their existence, occupy the centre of the exhibition – a room devoted to portraiture which while biographical also functions as a homage to Cezanne and to Ingres. The two figures look down at us with eyes of deep loss and longing, his mother belonging to the past and the old country, the young Gorky belonging to the land of the future. Together with other portraits of family and friends, this space at the heart of the exhibition reminds us of the overwhelming sense of loss which is the experience of the émigré, a loss that informed Gorky’s life and continued to haunt his work. His exotic and maverick genius came to the fore after a childhood of persecution and near starvation and once in America was honed by years of apprenticeship to European modernism.

Arshile Gorky was born between 1902 and 1905 in Turkish governed Armenia. His real name was Vosdanig Adoian and his family on his mother’s side came from a noble line of priests, some of whom were revered as martyrs. Throughout the centuries Armenians had persistently suffered persecution at the hands of succeeding waves of Arabs, Mongols and Tartars. During all this time it was the Armenian apostolic church that represented the Armenian people and constituted a force preserving their cultural identity. Ironically it was the Ottoman Turks who brought a temporary reprieve to this persecution and a modicum of peace and tolerance to the Armenian people. But by the nineteenth century, with Turkey becoming “the sick man of Europe,” this tolerance began to wane, at the same time that Armenians, coming into contact with revolutionary ideas from the west, were beginning to demand an independent state. Massacre followed on massacre and many young men choose to emigrate. One of them was Gorky’s father who left for America following in the footsteps of two of his uncles who had emigrated in 1896. He virtually abandoned his family, leaving them to face a sustained and systematic policy of brutality and starvation which was followed up in 1915 by “a death march” when the Armenians were forced to flee on foot to Russian Armenia which was then still part of the Russian empire.

In 1918-19 there was a famine and the refugees starved. Twenty percent of the Armenian refugees died of cholera, typhus or dysentery. It was the news of this human catastrophe that gave rise in the States to the common place phrase “starving Armenians” which made Gorky all the more determined to hide an identity that caused him so much shame and re-awakened terrible haunting memories. He was not willing to take on the stigma of refugee status. Whether the onslaught against the Armenian population constitutes genocide remains a hotly contested subject of debate in the United Nations assembly. It was during this period that Gorky’s mother died in his arms. She had starved to death. Two months later Gorky and his sister embarked on their journey to America arriving on Ellis Island in February 1920 and were met by family who took them to their home in Watertown, Massachusetts. By high school Gorky had already decided he wanted to be an artist. He attended the Technical High School in Providence and took up various lines of employment before moving to Boston in 1922 to enrol at Boston’s New School of Design, and it was probably at this time that he changed his name and took on his new persona. Two years later he had so impressed his tutors that he was invited to teach part time in the life drawing class. In 1924 he moved to New York, followed art courses at the New School of Design but was chiefly self taught, studying and scrutinising the old masters, traditional and modern, in the many New York museums.

Apprenticeship to European Modernism

Gorky never set much store by “the modern imperative of originality” but believed in learning from his predecessors, catching up on the great European tradition that had culminated in Picasso. By the mid twenties Gorky had discovered “Papa Cezanne” and was able to develop a style almost undistinguishable from this founding master. From Cezanne he took nature as his starting point in his journey towards abstraction. He then went on to emulate Picasso, exploring his strategies, both figurative and abstract, including Amazonian nudes and the shallow spaces of Cubism, and by the thirties he had succeeded in resolving his subject matter into interlocking abstract shapes. Gorky was ambitious. His aim was to assimilate what he could from art history in order to add to it; a traditional project for artists till the advent of the modern period which demanded total originality. His series of drawings Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia (1931-33) already seemed to attest to his closeness to Surrealism and the idea of psychic automatism whereby the artist allows his hand to move over the paper or canvas without any purposeful or conscious control. But this was far from the case, since, as in all his work, Gorky experimented in advance with all manner of permutations and continued with the age old practice of squaring up his sketches before transferring them to a canvas. Inspired principally by Miro and Masson he created forms that meander and create a maze of lines. Using elaborate crosshatchings and veils of coloured ink these shapes were transmuted into ever changing relationships that were already sexually suggestive. In Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia Gorky integrated cubism and the mystery of de Chirico (the bust and skeletal fish) with Jean Arp’s biomorphism. All this in drawings that demonstrated a sureness of draftsmanship based on Ingres’ delicacy of line and were compartmentalised in the manner of Uccello’s Miracle of the Host, a reproduction of which he had on his studio wall.

In 1930 Gorky had moved to a larger studio in Union Square, which was the liveliest place to be in New York at the time. His fictitious curriculum vitae now included three months of study under Kandinsky. Alfred Barr the head of Moma came to his studio and, although somewhat dismissive of his obviously derivative style and his dependence on the School of Paris, he invited Gorky to participate in an exhibition of artists under 35 years of age. Three still-lifes were chosen; this led to other group shows, and gradually Gorky began to gain a reputation.  His momentum was disrupted by the Depression which, however, had its up as well as obvious down sides. The Depression brought artists together in their struggle to survive and changed the artists’ relationship with society. But even being accepted as part of the Federal Art Project did little to lessen Gorky’s sense of being an outsider and this was partly due to his own inherent anti-Americanism, his conviction that European art was far superior to American home-grown art making. His close friend de Kooning, with whom he had shared a studio, recalls that Gorky thought that America had no real art, that it was basically regional or vulgar, and was that he was far from discreet in promulgating such views. However he welcomed the opportunity, when it came, to take up a New Deal PWAP (Public Works Art Project) offer to produce a set of murals for Newark Airport

Arshile Gorky, Agony (1947).  

© 2010 Estate of Arshile Gorky, © 2010 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Public Works Art Project

Very little of Gorky’s work on the murals for Newark Airport has survived. The analytic composition was based on the mechanical shapes of airplanes and derived stylistically from Picasso, Léger and Ozenfant. Gorky dissected the mechanics of the airplane into their constituent parts. It is significant that this strategy already represented a conjoining of a Cubist aesthetic with the beginnings of a Surrealist agenda in that he took a well-known object out of its normal context in order to defamiliarise it – in Gorky’s own words “making from the common -  the uncommon.” While this project, with its machine age aesthetic, was not that characteristic of Gorky’s oeuvre, he nevertheless continued to explore the potential of this type of hard edged, flat coloured painting in a large canvas Organization (1935) that was based on two of Picasso’s paintings The Studio (1927-8) and Painter and his Model (1919). Basically a still-life contained within a horizontal and vertical armature of strong black lines it is assembled against a white background which Gorky reworked with many layers of paint. He was famed, despite his poverty, for his profligacy with expensive oil paints. Organization gave rise to a series of still-lifes in which the biomorphism characteristic of Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia reappeared presaging a return to the more poeticised organically charged paintings of his Khorkom theme and his series of Garden in Sochi, both of which were based on his childhood in Khorkom the village of his birth.


It is no secret that Gorky was inventive about a childhood that must have been distressing to say the least and yet was often remembered as beatific. He probably invented much of this happy childhood since in reality conditions were primitive and poverty, even in the good times, all too habitual. But in conversation he remembered the devotion to the land, the gathering of the apricots in his father’s orchard and the tilling of the fields with a plough fashioned out of a tree branch. His fondness for these rituals came out in his art together with a magic that invested his landscapes with a spirit of animism that can be traced back to his love of Coptic and traditional Armenian folk arts. A new period began after Organization; his style became far looser, his use of paint more impulsive and his modulated colours were earthy and warm. These paintings conveyed vestiges of figuration but the shapes were indecipherable or ambiguous, often suggestive of birds, female figures and something that could be a butter churn or boot that would reappear in later works. Basically it was as if shapes that were still contained in Organization’s cloisonnist structure had been released into a more spatial area of play but one in which no one identifiable image could take centre stage. These paintings, and the series of Sochi that followed, seemed to have a hidden narrative that linked in with Gorky’s childhood but also coincided with a period of much happiness when he began living with Agnes Magruder who was to become his wife and mother of his two daughters. From Hans Hoffman, the émigré artist who did most to advance the cause of abstraction in the States, Gorky had learnt about negative and positive space and the need to keep the picture plane flat while at the same time creating a sense of balance by setting up a state of tension between shapes. The problem facing the American artist was that of bringing abstract form and meaning together. For artists such as Rothko and Pollock the advent of Surrealism contributed to the part resolution of this problem. Gorky at this particular time was still close to his European masters, only Mirò had replaced Picasso, with all the lyricism that such a move would entail, while in addition providing a new theoretic outlook and a new vision.


Many of the best known European Surrealists fled to the States in 1939 when war was declared in Europe, and though Gorky was already conversant and sympathetic with surrealist theories, the presence in New York of Breton, Mirò, and Matta had a further liberating effect on his vision. This sense of release was especially noticeable in a series of drawings from early in the 1940s made on site during a stay with the artist Saul Schary in Connecticut in which the whole landscape was activated with indecipherable cryptograms suggestive of fecundity and growth. It was here too that he painted Waterfall (1942) which technically represented a totally new approach with its washes of turpentine diluted oil paint and a far freer handling of line no longer confined by colour. Waterfall was abstract and yet succeeded in conveying the sense of water falling over rocks. Of greater significance, however, was the fact that, as in surrealist paintings, landscape had become mind- or inner-scape. It is important to underline that though Gorky was very close to Breton and Matta he never really adopted surrealist practices; he felt greater affinity with Kandinsky’s idea that beauty had its origins in an “internal necessity that springs from the soul.” Moreover, control was important to Gorky. He was a great perfectionist and therefore had no real sympathy with the idea of psychic automatism, though he understood full well the way the unexpected and accidental could form bridges to the unconscious mind and reveal another reality, an inner world that speaks of a primordial unity between man and the universe. In common with many artists who were to make up the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, rather than finding a compatibility with Freud Gorky found compatibility with Jung, rather than Freud, who spoke for an art practice that stressed the collective unconscious and was therefore beyond psychoanalytic interpretation.

However, in many cases the presence of the Surrealists, especially in New York, was irksome and gave rise to real resentment among local artists since the Surrealists were fêted as the celebrities of the art world and given the exhibition space the younger artists thought should have been theirs’ by right. Gorky’s case was different. It was through Breton’s support that he was able to sign a contract with Julien Levy, the dealer who had done the most to promote Surrealism in America. Breton and Duchamp persuaded Julien Levy that Gorky had come into his own and that his paintings were no longer derivative. He was no longer a Picasso copyist. With a regular stipend, Gorky finally achieved the financial stability he needed at a time when he had become responsible for a growing family; his eldest daughter, Maro, was born in 1943. Andre Breton also helped choose titles for the paintings that were to go on display at Gorky’s first one-man exhibition, which opened at Julien Levy’s Gallery on March 6, 1945. Breton also wrote the foreword to the catalogue. The Eye-Spring: Arshile Gorky emphasised the analogical character of Gorky’s vision that enabled the artist to turn his forms into hybrids that brought together the actually seen and the remembered. This closeness to the Surrealists was not totally advantageous to Gorky. Surrealism was anathema to Clement Greenberg, who accused Gorky of lacking “independence and masculinity of character,” an especially cruel and humiliating taunt to someone coming from Gorky’s background. Only two paintings were sold and no new patrons found for Gorky. From this point onwards Gorky was to suffer a catalogue of misfortunes. He had become “the unlucky one” just at the point when elements in his paintings were beginning to coalesce and he was at last receiving critical acclaim.


“The Unlucky One”

In 1946 Gorky was preparing for his second one-man show at Julien Levy’s Gallery when a fire broke out in his studio in Connecticut and all the canvases he had been working on were destroyed. Gorky was known to have a passion for fire, always building huge bonfires or, as in this case, stacking the pot-bellied wood burning stove too high. But he was also keenly aware that his family was said to live under a curse. His grandmother had set the local church on fire in revolt against God who had allowed her son to be tortured by the Turks. So when his studio was burning, he acted as if under that curse, not informing the fire brigade but trying to staunch the flames himself. This was to be the beginning of a litany of misfortunes that befell him; in 1947 he underwent extensive surgery for rectal cancer and in the same year his father died, but having kept his existence hidden even from his wife, he was unable to really mourn him and give vent to his grief. The following summer of ‘48 he broke his neck in a car accident and, while this was healing, suffered paralysis of his right arm and was convinced that he would never paint again. Finally his wife, ground down by his depression and worried on account of the children and his increasing violence, moved back to her parents’ house. Three weeks later, in July of 1948, Gorky hanged himself, leaving a note for them that said “Goodbye, my loveds.”

After the fire, Gorky at first had characteristically met adversity with renewed vigour, throwing himself into his work and recreating from memory the canvases that had been lost in the conflagration. There were also new paintings, such as Charred Beloved and The Betrothal. His canvases had become much more complex, his colour more muted and more chromatic, his textures denser; it was as if he had found his own language. The Plough and the Song (1947) is resonant with feeling, its subject matter probably a celebration of fertility though identification of the concatenation of shapes is virtually impossible. As in cubist paintings, forms and their meanings are multivalent. The Limit (1947), with its almost monochromatic expanse of gray, suggests a terrible emptiness and seems weighed down by a loneliness that reminds us of those orphaned and plaintive eyes of the young Vosdanig Adoian in the photo of himself and his mother. It is as if this sense of overwhelming loss never really left him despite his efforts to integrate himself in American society.

Viewing the paintings at the second Julien Levy Gallery exhibition, Greenberg conceded that Gorky had come into his own. But he significantly withheld the real accolade by insisting that Pollock was still the greater of the two. Predictably, Gorky no longer needed Greenberg’s approbation after his death. His fame spread and his prices at art auctions escalated. Historically, Gorky is now seen as a transitional figure marrying abstraction and surrealism, cubism and abstract expressionism. But Gorky was no Surrealist despite his acute understanding of the relationship between poetry, memories of childhood, sex and pain. He did not share their scorn for fine art and for art history but was moved by a deep reverence for the craft and history of painting. There was no room in his practice for anti-art or non-art. Similarly Gorky was not a proto-Abstract Expressionist. Unlike artists such as Barnett Newman, Rothko, and Pollock he had no wish to deliver himself from the artistic hegemony of the European tradition. By identifying with the Europeans, Gorky never became an American artist, despite his naturalisation, as his friend de Kooning succeeded in doing. Like so many romantic artists, he had to wait for death to bring him.

© 2010, Anna Leung 

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective was at theTate Modern, London, from 10 February - 3 May 2010. It is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from 6 June - 20 September 2010.

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

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