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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

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.  ...  Displaying 9041 of 16905 characters.

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Biography photo for Arshile Gorky
© 2001 Estate of Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

About  Arshile Gorky

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