Artist Profile: Arshile Gorky


After World War II, American art came into its own for the first time, and New York City became the  world's art capital, previously Paris. There were a number of factors which caused this to happen, one important one being the exodus of European artists to the United States before World War II, many of them escaping Hitler's Third Reich. These artists included Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, both from Germany, who became influential teachers when they came to the U.S. Albers, who taught at the Bauhaus in Germany, eventually established an excellent art program at Yale University, and published his life's work in the study of color in the book Interaction of Color, which has since become widely used in the instruction of art students in color. Hofmann had many students who later became well known American artists. Other artists had come from Europe, such as Andre Breton (the Surrealist theorist), Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, and many others who had a great influence on artists in America, sharing their Cubist and Surrealist ideas. Artists in the U.S. experienced firsthand these revolutionary ideas of the early 20th century during their association with them. Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and others had come to America even earlier, in the second and third decades of the century, from Holland, Armenia and Russia, respectively.
These Cubist and Surrealist ideas, and the work of artists such as Picasso, Joan Miro, Andre Masson and Matta, influenced the artists in America, like Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, de Kooning, and many others. These influences eventually resulted in a movement called Abstract Expressionism (also sometimes called Action Painting), which began in the 1940's and was at its peak in the early 1950's. (At the above link, the work of various artists is shown - de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Still and others are examples of Abstract Expressionism - scroll down the page to see a good sampling of artists.) Arshile Gorky was an artist who was sort of a bridge between the art of Europe and of America. He was born in Armenia in 1904, and came to America in 1920. He and the young de Kooning, a new immigrant in 1926, became friends and fellow artists, suffering through the lean times of the Depression and the early 1940's, when they were unknown.

Another factor in the development of a new American art was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists' program, a program providing work for artists during the Depression - of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, to jumpstart the Depression economy. Jobs had also been created for other professions and trades in the U.S. for the same purpose. The artists, including de Kooning and Gorky, painted many murals in public buildings, which not only kept the artists going, it gave them good working experience in art, as well as the opportunity to meet one another, form bonds and share artistic and moral support.
Gorky, who had no formal art training, studied art by looking at other artists, such as Cezanne and Picasso, and trying to paint like them. He continued this practice with KandinskyMiro (at this link, Miro's aesthetic progression is shown) and Matta (click on the images to enlarge), and only began to develop his own personal style in the early 1940's. He was influenced by Cubist composition and by Surrealist ideas, such as automatism, which meant creating with the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind and reason. Andre Breton, in the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, wrote that the unconscious was the real expression of the mind, as opposed to reason, or aesthetic or moral preoccupations. This idea also influenced other Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, who painted his famous 'drip' paintings in this manner (it is sort of like stream of consciousness in writing, or improvisation in jazz). Another Surrealist idea which influenced Gorky and some other Abstract Expressionists was biomorphism, which is somewhat abstracted and simplified natural shapes; these can also be seen in Miro's paintings and Arp's sculpture (both Surrealists). Gorky was also influenced by the painterly abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with painting one of the first two completely abstract paintings, in 1910. Kandinsky wrote an essay called Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which described his journey from painting naturalistic landscapes to painting abstract works. In it, he writes that painting, like music, should not be a description of the external world, but rather contains its own reality, which comes from the 'inner necessity' of the artist - the inner artistic vision.
There were also differences between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, both in theory and practice. First, Surrealism was initially a movement driven by political, psychological, literary and philosophical ideas, rather than visual aesthetic ideas, and some Surrealist artists, like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte (various museum links - The Art Institute of Chicago's site also has some excellent accompanying text), used representational imagery painted in fairly conventional ways - not at all like the revolutionary visual ideas expressed earlier in the 20th century. Other Surrealists, like Miro and Matta, however, painted abstracted images which came from their inner selves - their memories or other self-expression. After the heady experimentation of the first years of the 20th century (Cubism, abstraction, etc.), the Dadaists (precursors of Surrealism) had wanted to bring art back to its more communicative nature, feeling that abstraction was too 'pure' - isolated from the world - thus, they reintroduced subject matter in art (iconography) - not of the ordinary external world, but the Surrealist world - dreams, fantasy, the unconscious - the Surreal world. Gorky joined the Surrealists at the end of their influence in the art world - the early 1940's. After that, he and other artists who were to become the Abstract Expressionists, went on a more personal journey, which did not include the representational imagery of Dali and Magritte, but rather continued the more abstracted images of Surrealists Miro, Matta and Masson (although many of the Abstract Expressionists were influenced by the ideas and practices of the Surrealists, such as using myths and 'signs' (abstracted marks), automatism, and the use of the subconscious to create their imagery). 
So, in the late 1940's, the 'pure' abstraction of the early 20th century again became dominant, after the Surrealist influence of the 1920's and '30's. Between 1947 and 1950, Abstract Expressionist artists, including Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, and others realized their signature styles. Gorky was one of the European artists whose work influenced their thinking and manner of painting, in varying degrees for the painters (probably de Kooning was most influenced by Gorky). In the early 1940's, Gorky used 'free-form' organic shapes in his work (biomorphism). His painting Garden in Sochi, of which he painted three versions, is an example of his personal style. In it are recollections of his father's farm in Armenia, where his father had a garden, called the Garden of Wish Fulfillment. It contained trees, animals, and a Holy Tree, where passersby would stop, tear off a strip of their clothing, and tie it onto the branches. After many years, the tree wore many of these "banners," which blew in the wind, producing a magical presence. Gorky's painting abstracts these images into biomorphic shapes - a central "tree" shape, a flying bird, animals, and a large rock. The shapes reflect his inner vision as much as the outer vision of these memories. He was influenced by Miro, who also painted using memories of his childhood in a similar manner; the shapes are not like the literal images produced by Dali or Magritte. His painting was also gestural - meaning that the forms and compositions possessed a type of visual movement, or gesture, boldly curved or geometric, and sweeping across the canvas, like other of the Abstract Expressionists, such as de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Gorky was an excellent draftsman, and he often did his paintings from his drawings of nature - plant forms, insects, etc. He then added his own personal psychology into this landscape. He was what is termed a 'painterly' painter - meaning that his painting is more concerned more with shape/mass than line; and his forms do not have strong contours, but rather flow into one another in a loose manner. His work can also be described as lyrical abstraction, meaning that its delicacy of expression, as well as delicacy of drawing and color, combine to produce a poetic kind of painting - lyrical also implies a refined musical quality of emotion. There was also an erotic character to his work, which was common to all of the Surrealists (influence of Freud's ideas), and of which he was conscious. The method of automatism was emotionally liberating for Gorky, allowing him to express his deep emotion in his work. (The work of many Abstract Expressionists is also characterized by this emotional/spiritual aspect.)
Gorky was a unique and colorful character; there are many stories of his eccentric behavior, some of which he invented himself, such as his various versions of where he was born, etc. At times, he could be melodramatic; but his life and work were characterized by his deeply felt emotions, and perhaps a sense of the tragic. In the years 1945 to 1948, at the height of his creative powers, he experienced cancer; a fire which destroyed much of his newest and best work; a broken neck; and the failure of his marriage. His painting during this time reflects this painful period, with pinched and tortured forms, more expressionistic in character. In 1948, he committed suicide. While Gorky's name is perhaps not as well known as the other Abstract Expressionists, his work was of the highest quality and art historical importance, as a bridge between European abstraction and American painting of the 1940's and '50's, and on its own as first-rate painting which, like Van Gogh's, conveys the deep emotion of the human spirit - not just by its subject matter, but with its sensitive paint handling, its color, and its delicacy and depth of expression.
See Arshile Gorky's work (Scroll down to see a representative sample of his work)
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