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Arshile Gorky

 (1904 - 1948)
Arshile Gorky was active/lived in New York, Connecticut / Russian Federation.  Arshile Gorky is known for painting-abstract expressionism, surrealism, automatism.

Arshile Gorky

    GOR-kee  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Arshile Gorky
Review of Arshile Gorky Retrospective at the Philadelphia Art Museum, October 21, 2009-January 10, 2010.

This is an excellent exhibition which takes the viewer on a journey from Gorky's early years as an artist struggling to find his own identity and style to his later years of freedom and confidence in an art that was all his own.  Though it is large in scope, it is completely manageable in an hour to an hour and a half. Most people are familiar with Gorky as "a seminal figure in the movement toward abstraction that transformed American art after World War II," but they might not know about his personal and often tragic history.  He was born around 1902, and witnessed firsthand the Armenian genocide.  In 1915 his family was driven out and his mother died of starvation in 1919. 1920 brought him to Boston to join his father and siblings who had left Armenia in 1908.  Little did he know that his father had created a new family in the United States which would devastate Arshile.  Gorky ended up changing his name at around this time in honor of Russian writer Maxim Gorky who was an advocate for the Armenian cause. In 1924 Gorky moved to New York City to make a new life for himself as a "modern artist." He was influenced by peers such as Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró. It was not until the 1940s, however, that he arrived at his own painting style.

When he began as an artist, Cézanne was dominant and Gorky's early work is a dialogue with the artist about whom he stated, "Cézanne is the greatest artist, shall I say that has lived….modern art has gone ahead widely and developed as it never had a chance to in the hands of the old masters." Gorky's landscapes of Staten Island from the late 1920s have the same outlines and quick brushstrokes that Cézanne used as well as a palette of orange and brown earth tones.

After mastering Cezanne's technique Gorky moved on to Cubism creating flattened forms and compressed space.  In Woman with a Palette, 1927, Gorky depicts the female form in exactly the same manner as Picasso.  The woman's body is dense with folds of Greco-Roman drapery. Interestingly enough very few of Gorky's works from the 1920s still exist so this demonstrates what he was up to at that time.

Between 1931-1934 Gorky made 80 drawings and 2 paintings called Nighttime, Enigma,and Nostalgia.  All of these works were inspired by a de Chirico work called The Fatal Temple, which he saw at NYU.  De Chirico's painting is a small work with sections of green sky, a profile of his mother, wood grain, and a diagram of a dissected brain as well as the quintessential architectural elements he is known for.  Gorky's related works are a departure from his earlier experiments with modern master techniques.  The two finished paintings ended up nothing like de Chirico's painting and thus canbe considered two of Gorky's earliest works in his own unique style.

Like many Armenian genocide survivors Gorky did not discuss his experiences after the horrors he lived through but his paintings speak volumes due to their emotional intensity. My favorite works in the show were two paintings he made based on a photograph of him and his mom from 1912.

Gorky later found a photograph that had been sent in hopes that the two would not be forgotten by the father and siblings in America.  After Gorky's mother died in his arms of starvation, he learned that his father kept the photograph in a drawer as he had created a new life for himself in the US.  This became a pivotal point for Gorky.  The small side room where these two works hang also includes sketches and preparatory drawings that acted as studies for the larger paintings.  I couldn't take my eyes off of a charcoal, The Artist's Mother, from 1926-1936 of his mother.  It is crafted with such love and care.  Her expression is haunting knowing what ended up happening to her once she was forced out of her home.  By observing these works carefully the viewer can see the grid that Gorky used when organizing his compositions. One painting has subtle muted colors of brown, gray, and yellow. The other painting is made of pinks, beiges, and oranges.  He began both pieces in 1926 and worked on these for almost his whole life. The hands of the figures in both works were continuously painted out and sanded down; it was almost as if he thought that if he finished the work, he would have to accept that his mother was gone forever. These paintings capture the serenity and beauty of his mother.

During the Depression Gorky supported himself by working as a mural painter for the WPA. It was during this time that Gorky painted Organization.  He was inspired by Léger, Mondrian and Picabia, working on the painting for over 3 years he "assimilated these artists' disparate visions into his own highly original composition."  As he moved away from Cubism, Gorky became more and more interested in Surrealism.  He began to create biomorphic shapes like those found in the works of Arp and Miró.  One artist explained that Gorky was not an imitator because of a weakness but for him it was a strength which allowed him to develop his own style.

A few drawings on view are portraits of friends and family from the 1930s when Gorky was heavily influenced by the French 19th century artist, Ingres.  They are gorgeous and it is obvious from these that he was an incredible draftsman.  For many years he could not afford paint so he only made black and white drawings; in 1934 he returned to color.

In the fall of 1937 he made his first sale to a museum. The Whitney bought a Cubist style work called, Painting.  Between 1935-37 he worked on ten large scale murals on the theme of aviation for the Newark Airport Administration Building.  These were influenced by the work of Fernand Léger which had urban, machine inspired imagery and vivid colors.

In 1942 he spent three weeks of his summer in the country in Connecticut, and his work changed once again.  A series called Garden in Sochi marks his transition to his own style after a "two decade-long self-imposed apprenticeship to a series of modern artists." In this series the works are brightly colored free floating forms.  They memorialize the family's garden in Armenia.  The dominant motif of the series is a large black boot-shaped form that some believe is a slipper or a butter churner.  Either way they reflect his fondness for his childhood growing up in what he considered an idyllic place.

By the fall of 1943 Gorky was happily married with a daughter.  During this period he spent a great deal of time on a farm in Virginia owned by his in-laws with his family unit.  He had a strong interest in the natural environment and he created improvised drawings in the fields. What began as recognizable imagery (plants, flowers, birds), expanded into an imaginary world when they were made into paintings.  In 1945 the Surrealist poet Andre Breton praised Gorky saying that his work, "decoded nature to reveal the very rhythm of life." this period was a tremendous breakthrough for Gorky's career.  This was the happiest moment of his life and his work reflected that with its vivid colors and swelling forms.  During this time he also works with paint thinned by turpentine that becomes almost transluscent.  Roberto Matta, his good friend, inspired him to achieve this effect.

In One Year the Milkweed from 1944, the paint bleeds together to create magical abstract forms.  He was able to capture the dynamic energy of nature and his paintings capture the spontaneity of his earlier drawings.  I had never seen works from a series called The Plow and the Song. The theme of these works is the fertility of the earth.  Gorky was sad that technology was advancing and the plow was becoming obsolete. Once again, he associated the plow and the fields with his childhood.  His style as an artist is completely modern, but he definitely has immense respect for the past. In these works he is not trying to represent anything but simply intends to convey the mood of what it was like to be in a certain place at a certain time.

In the late 1940s Gorky's work becomes much darker after a studio fire in 1946 destroyed a number of his paintings and drawings. His palette of black and gray had flashes of orange and red at this time. Later he had an operation for rectal cancer. He battled depression and his anguish and torment is evident in his paintings from this period. In 1948 his wife had an affair with Matta and left him taking his little girl. It was not long after a car accident paralyzed his painting arm that he hung himself.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Arshile Gorky
Living a life dominated by tragedy and despair, Arshile Gorky became one of the most important 20th century artists in abstract painting style.  The art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that Gorky was "an artist in exile for whom art became a homeland". (Baigell, 139)

Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian in Turkish Armenia, Arshile Gorky had a happy childhood in his small village but became an Armenian refugee during World War I. He escaped the Turkish slaughter but became a refugee in Russia with his mother and younger sister.  The mother died of starvation in his arms.  The next year, 1920, he and his sister, Vartoosh, came to the United States to Watertown, Massachusetts and joined their older sisters who had escaped earlier.

He enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design* and then taught at the New School of Design in Boston.  In 1925, settled in Greenwich Village, he changed his name from Vosdanig Manoog Adoian to Arshille Gorky because he thought it more appropriate for a painter.  The name Gorky he took from Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer with that surname, which means "bitter one" in Russian.  He added Arshile, likely after the mythical Achilles.

From 1925 to 1931, Gorky taught at the Grand Central School of Art* and associated with many of the avant-garde* artists of that time including Stuart Davis. However, that friendship ended when Davis became involved with the leftist Artist Union.  Gorky felt that politics had no place in art.  Admiring Picasso, he adopted the style of Cubism* beginning 1927.  He worked as a WPA* muralist, painting a controversial mural with cubist forms at the Newark, New Jersey airport.  In 1939, he did a mural for the Aviation Building at the New York World's Fair.

The exhibition part of Gorky's career began in 1930 with a show at the Museum of Modern Art titled "Forty-six Painters Under Thirty Five". After 1944, he exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery*, and Surrealism* was by then apparent in his work.

During World War II, Gorky applied to the draft board to serve as a camouflage artist, but was rejected as being over age.  Then when teaching at the Grand Central School of Art, he organized a course in camouflage "voraciously consuming all literature on the subject, a literature that covered data on protective coloring in zoology, optical illusions in the physics of light, and visual reactions to movement in Gestalt psychology" . . .(Behrens, 165). Gorky put a tremendous amount of energy into the project, but the venture was not a success and had to be abandoned.

He married in 1941, which brought him the most stable existence he had after much poverty and neglect.  He spent much time in Virginia and Connecticut, enjoying the countryside, and he did paintings in a surrealist-influenced style, which he found liberating and uniquely his own.  The work of what is considered his mature period is abstract with "extraordinary freedom in its washes and bursts of color" and forms "encoded with erotic symbolism". (Zellman 913)

But tragedy struck again including a studio fire, divorce, cancer, and a disabling auto accident.  In 1948 at age forty-three, he committed suicide.

The book Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky by Nouritza Matossian is a comprehensive biography of this artist.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Roy H. Behrens, Camoupedia, A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage

*For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)

A vivid biomorphic style and uniquely tragic personal history define Arshile Gorky as a major figure in twentieth-century modernism.  While often classified as late Surrealism or as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism, his emotionally charged abstract style holds a distinct place among the explorations of the avant-garde. 

Born in Armenia, Gorky emigrated to the United States as teenager in 1920.  He and his family left their native land under duress after the genocide and massive displacement of Armenians during the World War I.  Gorky's mother starved to death as a result of their forced march—later, her memory inspired a series of family portraits.  Although the upheaval of his early life profoundly shaped his art, Gorky took pains to obscure his Armenian heritage.  Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, the artist abandoned his given name for a more Russian-sounding pseudonym after coming to the United States.  To perpetuate the deception, he even claimed to be a cousin of the writer Maxim Gorky.  As a young man, Gorky studied at the New School of Design in Boston and, later, the Grand Central School of Art in New York, where he taught from 1925 to 1931. 

In the 1920s and 1930s Gorky embarked on a self-directed effort to retrace the artistic revolutions of Cézanne and Picasso.  He had relatively little interest in Analytic Cubism, but was particularly interested in Picasso's flat, richly painted, and deeply colored Synthetic Cubist paintings of the 1920s.  Gorky's acquaintance with Synthetic Cubist work--specifically that by Picasso--came primarily through his familiarity with paintings in museums and in publications such as Cahiers d'Art, a leading periodical that featured reproductions of works by both Braque and Picasso.

During his first decade in the United States, Gorky befriended Stuart Davis and John Graham, two artists who were also pursuing Cubist motifs.  Gorky, Graham, and Davis came to be known as the "three musketeers." Graham became a particularly important influence on Gorky in the 1930s, providing Gorky with stylistic and intellectual material that would complement Gorky's understanding of Cubism.  Gorky also developed a close relationship with Willem de Kooning soon after the Dutch-born artist arrived in the United States in 1926, and he helped introduce him other artists working in New York.

In the mid to late 1930s, Gorky moved away from Cubism and toward the looser, more emotional style he would explore for the rest of his career.  The Garden in Sochi series, created from 1936 to 1942, marked an important new direction for him, both artistically and personally.  The series was inspired by the Gorky family's garden in Khorkom, the Armenian village where Gorky was born and spent his early childhood.  Biomorphic shapes reflect the strong influence of Joan Miró on the artist during this period.  The colorful shapes scattered across the solid-colored ground are generally understood to contain symbolic references to Gorky's life. These forms are rendered so abstract, however, that explicit narrative readings of these works are impossible.

Just as he reached artistic maturity in the mid-1940s, Gorky was beset by series of tragedies: a studio fire that resulted in the loss of much of his work, a diagnosis of throat cancer, a car crash, and the breakup of his second marriage.  He committed suicide in 1948, still relatively unknown outside art world circles.  By 1951, when the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted "Arshile Gorky: Memorial Exhibition," Gorky's stature as an important modernist painter was secure.

Herrera, Hayden. Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work. New York: Farrar,
Strauss and Giroux, 2003).
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1991).

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About  Arshile Gorky

Born:  1904 - Khorkom Vari Haiyotz Dzor, Armenia
Died:   1948 - Sherman, Connecticut
Known for:  painting-abstract expressionism, surrealism, automatism

Essays referring to
Arshile Gorky

Abstract Expressionism