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 had 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 poet and theorist), Max ErnstRoberto MattaFernand LegerPiet Mondrian, and 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 KooningArshile GorkyMark 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 PicassoJoan MiroAndre Masson and Matta, influenced the artists in America, like Jackson PollockClyfford 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.
Gorky attended school sporadically as a teenager and an adult, in Armenia and the U.S. His studies included drawing, which he had begun as a child, and which he loved and did well. He attended a number of art schools once he came to America, including the New School of Design and Illustration in Boston and, after he moved to New York, the National Academy of Design, sometimes staying only a short time. In some of these schools, he began as a drawing student but was so good that he eventually became the teacher of the classes. In 1924, he got a teaching job at the Grand Central School of Art. All his life, he studied art by looking at other artists, such as Cezanne and Picasso in the 1920's, the Cubists in the 1930's, and the Surrealists in the 1940's, and trying to learn by painting like them. He continued this practice with Wassily Kandinsky, Miro and Matta, 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 Jean 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 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, 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 near the end of their strong 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). 
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 NewmanPhilip 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 series Garden in Sochi 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. The location 'Sochi' in the title was another of Gorky's deliberate misnomers, since Sochi was located in Russia, not the Armenian location of his birthplace. Gorky's painting style 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 did many drawn and painted studies in preparation for his paintings, which is a classical practice, more than a modern one. He also did paintings in series, so that there are often many versions of each painting. He was what is termed a 'painterly' painter - meaning that his painting is more concerned 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.) His work anticipated many of the visual ideas of the Abstract Expressionists also, such as all-over composition, gesture and color-fields that are not flat, but show depth by layering of colors.
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 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 serious car accident injury; and the failure of his marriage. The painting Charred Beloved II is his attempt at a catharsis for his work destroyed in the fire. His painting during this time reflects this painful period, with pinched and tortured forms, more expressionistic in character. In 1947 he and his wife and two daughters returned to Sherman, Connecticut, where his depression continued. After the car accident, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to paint again (his arm was in traction). In 1948, shortly after his wife and daughters left, he committed suicide. His unfinished painting The Black Monk was on the easel; based on a short story with the same title by Anton Chekhov that Gorky had just read, the image has predominantly black, large confrontational forms, almost angular or geometric, with small areas of bright color. There is a quote from the story about a genius who "died only because his feeble, mortal body had lost its balance, and could no longer serve as the covering of genius." Julien Levy considered this Gorky's suicide note. It seems as though the tragic nature of his life had taken on an epic quality.
The Arshile Gorky Foundation website has many images of his work, as well as a very detailed account of his life. Here is another site that has many of Gorky's images.
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Another factor in the development of a new American art was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists' program, a federal government program providing work for artists during the Depression - of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, to jumpstart the Depression economy. Jobs were also created for other professions and trades in the U.S. for the same purpose. The artists, including de Kooning and Gorky, painted murals in public buildings during the 1930's, which not only kept the artists going, but gave them good working experience in art, as well as the opportunity to meet one another, form bonds and share artistic and moral support.
Armenians had lived in the eastern part of what is now Turkey for centuries, but when the Ottoman Turks secured the region in the 15th and 16th centuries, existence became more perilous for the minority Armenians. Though most were poor, a few Armenian families became successful, which was resented by the Turkish Muslims. The Muslims viewed the Armenians as foreigners who would eventually betray the Ottoman Empire to form their own state. From 1894 through 1896, Ottoman troops and Kurdish tribesmen killed thousands of Armenians over a proposed oppressive tax, and an Armenian demonstration in Istanbul became a massacre at the hands of the government. In 1908 a small revolutionary Turkish group popularly called the Young Turks seized power, and became increasingly authoritative and suspicious of non-Turks. In 1913 the two most militant members of the Young Turks seized power. When they lost military battles before and after the start of World War I, they blamed the defeats on the Christians, including the Armenians. In 1915-16 mass killings of Armenian soldiers and civilians were then carried out. When Armenians resisted, they were deemed a national threat and forced deportations began, including Gorky's family, who as part of a quarter-million refugees were forced to march 100 miles to the part of Armenia then under Russian control. In the suffering and starvation that ensued, Gorky's mother Shushanig died in 1919 at the age of 39. After moving from place to place, eventually Gorky and his sister Vartoosh were helped by a wealthy doctor, who got them tickets to come to the U.S. in 1920. Gorky joined his father Setrag and other family members who had already come to the U.S., in Massachusetts. During his time in America, he also lived in New York City and several places in Rhode Island and Connecticut. 
Arshile Gorky was an artist who was a sort of bridge between the art of Europe and America. Born Vosdanig Adoian in the village of Khorkom, province of Van, on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey, probably in 1902, Gorky often changed his name and his biographical details when he came to America in 1920. Because of the terrible experience the Armenians had in Turkey since the late 1890's, including forced deportations and mass killings, Gorky did not speak of his childhood after his arrival in the U.S. Also, an American art teacher told him that an Armenian could not be a painter, so he finally chose the Russian name Gorky in 1932 because of his admiration for the writer Maxim Gorky, who had voiced support for the Armenian cause. Many times in his life, he changed his story concerning his place of birth, his name, and his life experiences, seemingly because of the trauma of his early life. Eventually Turkey became a Republic, but the Turkish government has not officially acknowledged that what was done to the Armenians was genocide, nor have a number of other countries, including the United States, although 48 of the 50 states have officially declared it as genocide. It seems that the U.S. and other countries haven't declared it a genocide because it might harm their relationship with the present Turkish government, even though some U.S. officials have expressed their personal belief that it was. The Turkish government does acknowledge that there were killings, but say that they did not plan the killings intentionally to destroy Armenians (the definition of genocide). Ninety percent of the Armenian population in Turkey was either killed or deported during 1915-16. 
Around 1926, Gorky started two paintings of The Artist and His Mother, based on a photograph of them sent to his father in America in 1912; painting this image probably helped Gorky deal with his childhood trauma. In the first years in America, he worked off and on at various jobs and visited art museums whenever he could. In 1929 he met fellow artist Willem de Kooning, along with many other artists. He and the young de Kooning, a new immigrant in 1926, became friends and fellow artists, suffering through the lean times of the Depression, when they were relatively unknown. Gorky had a brief marriage in 1934, and in 1941 he met and married Agnes Magruder, whom he called Mougouch, which is an Armenian term of endearment.
Gorky taught at the Grand Central Art School in the 1920's and 30's, and he also lectured on art several times. His painting career was gradually successful, and he showed his work in many galleries and museums, including the new Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York City, and also in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Joseph Hirshhorn also collected his work, which was later incorporated into the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. His work was also bought by these museums. In the 1940's, he also showed his work in Paris. He became acquainted with many artists, such as Isamu Noguchi, Miro, Leger, Andre Breton, Stuart DavisJohn Graham and others, and he was highly respected by many artists for how much he knew about art and aesthetics. He also met the gallery dealer Sidney Janis, and advised him on art purchases. He also showed with the Julien Levy Gallery in New York; Levy provided him with a monthly stipend in exchange for showing a certain number of his drawings and paintings annually. Gorky also acquired some patrons of his work, such as Ethel Schwabacher, a former student, who wrote his biography.
In 2010 there was a major retrospective of Gorky's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Kim S. Theriault, who participated in this retrospective, wrote a book about Gorky called Rethinking Arshile Gorky, in which she writes of the themes of displacement, trauma, mourning and memory in his work.
From 1942 to 1948 he worked for part of each year in the countryside with friends in Connecticut, or at his wife's family's farm in Virginia. This closeness with nature greatly informed his last years' work (returning to the earth after his lengthy study of Cubism), as he did many drawings from life, which he later transformed into his paintings in the studio.Water of the Flowery Mill and One Year the Milkweed, both painted in 1944, show the results of this study. His series The Plough and the Song, which he worked on from 1944 to 1947, is noted for its optimistic expression, as opposed to the later more melancholy images, such as many of his last drawings and Agony of 1947. Other great paintings from 1947 are The Betrothal IISoft Night and The Limit. Perhaps his best known image, The Liver Is the Cock's Comb, was completed in 1944; this may be his first image that is truly Gorky, rather than heavily influenced by his early studies of Cezanne, Picasso, etc.
Between 1931 and 1934, Gorky made a series of 80 drawings and two paintings that he titled Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, inspired by a work by the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. With this painting, Gorky moved further afield of a copy of de Chirico's painting, and closer to his own personal vision.
While Gorky's name is perhaps not as well known as 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. At the time of his death his work was experiencing greater recognition and success, and was of the highest quality.
The idea of abstraction began in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century it continued to be explored and developed by many artists, usually with the goal of divorcing painting from the literary and narrative concerns it had been saddled with. Artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian strove to create the completely abstract image, where only the formal elements of line, shape, color, space and composition existed, without any reference to the 'real' world. They succeeded to a certain extent - but I think Gorky was more successful in creating images whose formal elements exist autonomously, in the way the early abstraction theorists dreamt of. Even though his paintings are visibly derived from natural forms, the formal elements have their own existence - line, shape, color, space and composition combine to create an autonomous world - plus they contain a supreme expression not as evident in Kandinsky, Mondrian, et al. In short, Gorky pretty much had it all, as few painters have: he had the form, he had the content, and he had the color and the profound expression more than most. (Usually painters are stronger in form or in color, not equally strong in both - I think Gorky comes as close as anyone to having both.) If abstraction is like music without words, I think Gorky's work is supremely eloquent.
Gorky's late work is like a painting manual for students and artists; like Cezanne's work you can stare and study forever and still not see everything in it. He also had the power and formal integrity of Cezanne, plus Cezanne's delicate and expressive brushwork. They also painted nothing out of habit, and their modern space (flat but also depth) comes from great skill. Gorky also had great color in his painting - not the kind of color used by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, which was based on Chevreul's color study, but a new, more expressionistic color, but with more subtle relationships. He used, for example, shades of gray with black for one image, or a predominantly green image, or yellow and orange color fields. Perhaps because of his propensity for drawing, his paintings resemble drawings with color. His use of line is incredible to me - even though he was influenced by Miro's similar line, Gorky's is even more elaborate and inventive. The curvilinear aspect uses an ethereal, very crisp line that winds inventively through the compositions. This pure and smooth line is in contrast to the ragged forms it goes through and around. His compositions are also first rate, maybe because of the many studies he did for each image.
Then, of course, is Gorky's expression, which is hard to articulate because his late paintings do exist autonomously, non-verbally. And it is, like Van Gogh's, so dependent on the tragic nature of his life that it is maybe impossible to detach from it. However, it would be wrong to view the work mainly in this context, because that always overshadows an artist's skill and accomplishments. In spite of their suffering and difficulties in life, they were both great painters, great artists. This is what should be remembered and emphasized. To me, Gorky's work is metaphysical and profound: in it is the very essence and meaning of life, including suffering. With composition, color, space, brushwork and expression, he was a master. The lyrical and sensitive use of elements, principles and materials is awe-inspiring, and this is what he teaches us. He was to me what an artist should be; even though he was largely self-taught, he was well-read and educated himself in the most sophisticated art ideas of his time. He worked like the devil to perfect his work, just like all great artists.