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Arshile Gorky

American (born Armenia), c. 1902 - 1948

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Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian around 1902 (there are differing accounts of the actual date) in Khorkom, in the Armenian province of Van, on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey. As a young teenager, he witnessed the systematic ethnic cleansing of his people, the minority Armenians, by Turkish troops, who in 1915 drove him, his family, and more than a quarter million refugees out of Van on a harrowing eight-day march to the frontier of Russian Armenia. These traumatic events culminated in his mother's death from starvation in March 1919, during a winter of severe deprivation for the Armenian refugees.

In 1920, Gorky and his younger sister Vartoosh immigrated to the Boston area, where they joined their father and siblings, who had left Turkish Armenia before the worst of the genocide. Soon after arriving, the artist changed his name to Arshile Gorky in honor of the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky, a great advocate for the Armenian cause, and moved to New York in 1924 to invent a new life for himself as a modern artist.

Early Work

Gorky's early work has been described as a succession of dialogues with artists, both living and dead, whose paintings and techniques he sought to master and ultimately transcend. The dominant figure among the modern artists in his pantheon was Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906), whose paintings exerted a powerful influence on him in the 1920s. Cézanne's heroic life story as an essentially self-taught artist who triumphed over adversity after years of personal struggle and critical neglect made him the perfect father figure for Gorky to emulate during his first years as an artist. Gorky's early paintings confirm that he did not embrace mainstream modernism's cult of innovation and originality, believing instead that a steadfast allegiance to another artist's vision could be used as a means of self-creation.

In a 1926 interview, Gorky expressed his reverence for Cézanne as a rule-breaker who had reformulated the art of painting: "Cézanne is the greatest artist, shall I say, that has lived. The old masters were bound by convention and rule to painting certain things--saints, the Madonna, the crucifixion. Modern art has gone ahead widely and developed as it never had a chance to in the hands of the old masters."


Following his dialogue with the work of Cézanne in the 1920s, Gorky progressed to a sustained engagement with Cubism the following decade. In an essay on Stuart Davis, published in the September 1931 issue of Creative Art, Gorky exclaimed, "Has there been in six centuries better art than Cubism?" By this time, Gorky's still-life compositions had already begun to incorporate the flattened forms and compressed space found in the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and other modern artists before World War I.

Gorky's works from this period reveal his systematic immersion in the styles and techniques of European modernism, as well as his growing independence of line and color in representations of actual objects.

Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia

Between 1931 and 1934, Gorky made a series of more than eighty drawings and two paintings that he titled Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia. The inspiration for this important body of work came from Giorgio de Chirico's 1914 painting The Fatal Temple, which was acquired by Albert Eugene Gallatin, the noted artist and collector, in 1927. When Gorky began the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series, the painting was on view at Gallatin's Gallery of Living Art, located in New York University's main building at 100 Washington Square East in Greenwich Village. The gallery was free to the public and offered progressive American artists access to important masterpieces of the European avant-garde. On his frequent visits, Gorky was clearly drawn to de Chirico's The Fatal Temple, probably because it contains a portrait of the artist's mother, Gemma de Chirico, and an outlined self-portrait, complete with a dissected brain.

De Chirico's mysterious painting, with its suggestion of the joy and suffering of the mother-and-son relationship, must have resonated with Gorky, who had by this time begun two important works on the theme of the artist and his mother. With its interlocking shapes, shallow, Cubist-derived space, and compartmentalized imagery, the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series represents a distinct departure from Gorky's earlier experiments with the techniques and motifs of Cézanne and other modern masters. While his paintings of the 1920s remained recognizably close to their original sources, the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series moved farther and farther from de Chirico's work as it progressed, to the point where the two paintings on the theme can be considered among the most original of Gorky's early accomplishments.

The Artist and His Mother

Two of Gorky's best-known paintings, both titled The Artist and His Mother, were based on a photograph of the young artist and his mother, Shushanig der Marderosian, taken in 1912 in Van. The photograph was sent to Gorky's father, Setrag Adoian-who had immigrated to the United States four years earlier to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army--and was intended to remind him of the family he left behind.

Persecution of the minority Armenians reached its culmination in 1915 when the Turkish army began systematically slaughtering entire Armenian villages, forcing a quarter million refugees, including Gorky, his mother, and his sister to leave their homes and travel more than one hundred miles to the protected frontier of Russian Armenia. In March 1919, Gorky's mother starved to death after Turkish blockades severely restricted the food supply to the Armenian refugees, and the following year Gorky and his sister traveled to the United States to reunite with their father. Six years later, while living and working in New York, Gorky began the first of two paintings based on the 1912 photograph, which had great personal significance for him after his mother's death.

Like many survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Gorky did not discuss his experiences during and after the massacres, but the paintings seem to have provided an outlet for his grief; the resulting canvases are unsurpassed in his oeuvre in their extraordinary emotional intensity. Both versions of the painting underwent substantial revisions in the 1930s and early 1940s, as the artist continually revised, erased, and repainted the compositions, perhaps believing that to finish either work would be to acknowledge that his beloved mother was gone forever.


Gorky supported himself during the Great Depression by working as a mural painter for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA), a government relief effort aimed at easing the plight of unemployed artists. He also pursued his own work in his Union Square studio, using money he earned from the FAP to purchase oil paint, canvases, and other supplies. During his free time, Gorky created such important paintings as Organization (1933-36), which represents the high point of his engagement with Cubism in the mid-1930s. In the studies for Organization, Gorky found inspiration in the work of Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Francis Picabia, and his close friend Stuart Davis, but as he worked and reworked the painting's thickly encrusted surface over a period of three years, Gorky assimilated these artists' disparate visions into his own, highly original composition.

Gorky's budding interest in Surrealism, which began in the early 1930s, eventually encouraged him to move away from the spatial effects of Cubism seen in Organization toward a new form of abstraction that incorporated biomorphic shapes derived from the work of Jean Arp and Joan Miró, while also bearing his own unique imprint. Between 1934 and 1936, Gorky would combine organic imagery drawn from the work of these artists with the interlocking, geometric shapes of the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia drawings to produce his Khorkom series, titled after his cherished hometown.

Other paintings from this period reveal Gorky's interest in André Masson's violent Surrealist compositions of the 1930s, which feature slaughterhouses, cockfights, and animals devouring each other. Gorky's interest in Masson helps to explain the presence of similar bird motifs, especially schematically rendered heads and necks, in his own biomorphic paintings of the mid-to-late 1930s, which, despite their seemingly abstract appearance, often suggest combat or struggle.

The Newark Airport Murals

Between 1935 and 1937, Gorky painted ten large-scale murals on the theme of aviation for the Newark Airport Administration Building. This mural cycle, known as Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations, was among the first modernist murals created and installed under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Art Project. Although still engaged with the Cubist vocabulary of Picasso and Braque, the mechanized forms of these murals also reveal a debt to the work of Fernand Léger, especially his monumental 1919 painting The City, now in the Museum's collection. Léger's urban, machine-inspired imagery and vivid colors were particularly suited to express the spirit of aviation, and Gorky clearly studied The City intensely since his color reproduction of the painting is covered with his paint-smeared fingerprints.

Like most WPA murals, the panels were not made in situ, but rather painted in the studio on monumental canvases that were later installed on the walls at Newark Airport--a practice that was in keeping with Gorky's belief that "mural painting should not become part of the wall, as the moment this occurs the wall is lost and the painting loses its identity." Although the modern style of these brightly colored murals made them highly controversial at the time, these large-scale compositions signaled Gorky's emergence as an abstract painter of great promise. Sadly, eight of the Newark Airport murals were later lost or destroyed, while the two remaining works, Aerial Map and Mechanics of Flying, were not rediscovered until 1973, when they were found beneath fourteen layers of wall paint at the Newark Airport Administration Building.

Garden in Sochi

Garden in Sochi, an important series of paintings and gouache studies, marks Gorky's transition from the biomorphism of Joan Miró to his own independent painting style after a two-decades-long, self-imposed apprenticeship to a series of modern artists. The brightly colored, free-floating forms of these works memorialize his father's garden in Khorkom, although the deliberately obfuscating title confusingly references the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, in line with Gorky's efforts to camouflage his background.

The dominant motif of this series is a large boot-shaped form, thought to represent an old-fashioned butter churn used by the artist's mother, or an Armenian or Turkish slipper. Gorky later described his father's garden as filled with poplars and apple trees, as well as "incalculable amounts of wild carrots," and he based these paintings on his childhood memories of this idyllic place as filtered through Miró's lexicon of abbreviated natural forms. He had recently seen the Catalan artist's 1941 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which included several early nature-based abstractions, whose joyous fantasy world shared the exuberant impulse and subject matter of Gorky's Garden in Sochi paintings.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Gorky completed the earliest and largest image in the series upon his return to New York from San Francisco in October 1941. During this trip, the artist had married Agnes Magruder in Virginia City, Nevada. For the first time since his childhood, Gorky experienced the comfort and security of a loving relationship, thus suggesting that the Garden in Sochi theme reflects his great personal happiness at marrying his beautiful, intelligent, and vivacious young wife, whom he affectionately called "Mougouch," an Armenian term of endearment.

Gorky and Surrealism

Gorky spent the summer and fall of 1943 near Lincoln, Virginia, at Crooked Run Farm, which had been recently purchased by the parents of his new wife. Gorky and Agnes's first daughter, Maro, was born on April 5, 1943, and the time that the artist spent with his wife and baby at his in-laws' country house helped shape his newfound interest in the natural environment after more than a decade of Cubist experimentation in New York. The lush vegetation reminded Gorky of his rural Armenian homeland, and the freely improvised drawings that he produced in the fields surrounding the farm combined childhood memories of the orchards and wheat fields of his father's farm in Turkish Armenia with direct observations from nature. These imaginary landscapes are remarkable for their evocative power and fecundity of organic forms.

The quick sketches Gorky made in the fields often began with recognizable imagery from the natural world, such as flowers, plants, and insects. He would expand upon these sketches in highly finished drawings and paintings (many of which were completed in his New York studio during the winter months) in which organic forms were imbued with an explosive, erotic energy. In paintings like Water of the Flowery Mill and One Year the Milkweed (both of 1944), Gorky emulated the forces of nature by improvising with thinned-out washes of liquid oil paint to create transparent veils of evanescent color. In 1945, Gorky's paintings were enthusiastically endorsed by the Surrealist poet André Breton, who praised the artist's abstract visual language: "Here for the first time nature is treated as a cryptogram. The artist has a code by reason of his own sensitive anterior impressions, and can decode nature to reveal the very rhythm of life."


Gorky's continued interest in Surrealism in the late 1940s led to his participation in two prominent Surrealist exhibitions in 1947: Bloodflames, held at Alexander Iolas's Hugo Gallery in New York in February, and the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, which opened at the Galerie Maeght in Paris on July 7. The former exhibition, organized by the Greek-born poet and art critic Nicolas Calas, presented the work of eight artists--Gorky, Roberto Matta, David Hare, Gerome Kamrowski, Wifredo Lam, Isamu Noguchi, Helen Phillips, and Jeanne Reynal--in a dynamic environment designed by the visionary architect Frederick Kiesler. The walls of the exhibition were painted with a continuous ribbon of solid color that wound its way around the gallery and framed the works on display. Calas had employed Kiesler to create a disorienting environment that would exacerbate the inward-looking or otherworldly qualities of the works of art in the exhibition, which included Gorky's Nude, a large and austere painting that the artist had completed the previous year.

Co-organized by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme was dedicated to the theme of modern myths, a familiar subject for the Surrealists both during and after World War II, who sought to reinvigorate their activities in the changing cultural landscape of the 1940s. Two of Gorky's greatest paintings of 1944 were included in the Paris exhibition: the monumental The Liver Is the Cock's Comb and How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life. The latter painting was particularly suited to the show's theme since it expressed Gorky's own personal mythology, based upon childhood memories of his beloved mother and his lost Armenian homeland.

The Plow and the Song

The lyric beauty and optimism of The Plow and the Song series, which Gorky worked on from 1944 to 1947, stand apart from the often brooding, melancholic atmosphere of other paintings and drawings that the artist made in the late 1940s. In these works, the Virginia landscape that he had first explored in the summer of 1943, and had sketched again in 1944 and 1946, converges with his own, surely idealized, childhood memories of communal farming in the wheat fields of rural Armenia. The theme of these paintings is the sun-warmed fertility of the plow-turned earth and Gorky's memories of farmers singing songs to pass the time as they worked. These recollections were combined with his studies of a toppled haystack he had seen in the fields around Crooked Run Farm, which supplied the elongated central form of his compositions.

In addition to making drawings and paintings on The Plow and the Song theme, Gorky also fashioned three small wooden plows based on his recollections of plows he had seen in Armenia during his youth. While working on The Plow and the Song series, the artist had realized that the horse-drawn wooden plow was quickly becoming obsolete in the age of modern, mechanical agricultural methods; he may have created these small-scale wooden sculptures in order to record the appearance of these implements, now part of a lost tradition of pre-industrial farming. As he reminisced to the journalist Talcott B. Clapp: "What I miss most are the songs in the fields. No one sings them any more . . . and there are no more plows. I love a plow more than anything else on a farm."

Charred Beloved

The often bleak and nightmarish atmosphere that pervades much of Gorky's work of the late 1940s has commonly been explained in relation to the tragic events of the final years of his life, beginning in January 1946 with a catastrophic fire in his Connecticut studio that destroyed a large number of recent paintings and drawings. This disastrous event was memorialized in an elegiac series of grisaille paintings titled Charred Beloved, which Gorky completed shortly after the blaze in an improvised studio in a ballroom on New York's Upper East Side. The palette of these paintings, in which the smoky depths of smudged black and gray are occasionally punctuated by flashes of orange or red, surely alludes to the traumatic incident of the studio fire.

The studio blaze was followed two months later by a painful operation for rectal cancer. As he convalesced that summer at Crooked Run Farm, Gorky once again drew in the fields during the day and before the fireplace in the living room at night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his fragile mental state during this time of deep emotional and physical crisis, many of the nocturnal drawings made in the firelit living room have a more menacing tone than his joyous 1943 pastoral drawings. The spiky forms and monstrous creatures in many of the close to three hundred drawings that he made in the summer reveal his increasingly dark and sardonic view of the human condition. The ominous atmosphere of these Fireplace in Virginia drawings can be found again in the paintings that Gorky completed the following year on the theme of The Betrothal, with their dramatis personae of menacing exoskeletal figures, derived from the work of Marcel Duchamp and Paolo Uccello.


The secondary title of Gorky's 1931 lithograph Painter and Model (The Creation Chamber) refers to his New York studio at 36 Union Square, where the artist worked from 1930 until his death in 1948. The phrase "creation chamber" provides a useful framework for understanding Gorky's creative process. The vast majority of Gorky's paintings from the 1930s--and every major painting he made after 1943--were informed by several preliminary studies and highly finished drawings that determined its composition.

In Gorky's later works, the initial sketches were often made in the fields of Virginia or Connecticut. The artist would return to his "creation chamber" to experiment with the imagery found in these initial sketches, which he would develop in subsequent drawings or pastels. After completing a highly finished preparatory drawing, Gorky would transfer it to the canvas through a grid system that allowed him to map the entire composition of his new painting. However, the artist frequently returned to his earlier sketches, even making new drawings, to solve formal problems he encountered in the act of painting.

This working process can be clearly discerned in the drawings and sketches that Gorky made for his 1947 painting Agony, including an impressive pastel study that is almost identical in size and composition to the finished work. The painting and its studies reveal his anguished state of mind as he continued to battle cancer and depression. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, once described Agony, with its smoldering reds and deep blacks, as "a painting of pulsating ominous beauty." Even without prior knowledge of the painting's title, viewers no doubt sense that Gorky's tragic life story takes on epic proportions in this heartrending masterpiece.

The Limit

Despite the growing misery of his final years, Gorky produced some of his greatest paintings, including Soft Night and The Limit (both of 1947). At the end of a lifetime fraught with unimaginable suffering, he remained an ambitious and innovative painter, and after his death these works secured his reputation as one of the most important artists of his generation. In the summer of 1948, Gorky's increasingly black moods led his wife to pursue a brief affair with Roberto Matta, his friend and former mentor. On June 26, 1948, he was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a broken collarbone and two broken vertebrae, temporarily paralyzing his painting arm and leading him to fall into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Unable to cope with her husband's brooding melancholy and suicidal thoughts, his young wife left him shortly afterward, taking their two daughters with her. In physical and emotional torment, Gorky took his own life in Sherman, Connecticut, on July 21, 1948. At the time of his death, a work now known as Last Painting remained unfinished on his easel.

Gorky's work had a profound influence on the subsequent generation of artists, especially those associated with the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. Although Gorky remained deeply involved with Surrealism until the end of his life, paintings like The Limit and Dark Green Painting (c. 1948) share some of the characteristics associated with Abstract Expressionism, such as expansive scale, non-illusionistic flatness, gestural brushwork, and all-over compositions. The problem of finish that preoccupied many Abstract Expressionist painters was also addressed by Gorky in a 1948 interview, "I don't like that word finish. When something is finished, that means it's dead, doesn't it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting--I just stop working on it for a while."

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, 2009

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