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Abstraction with a Palette
Abstraction with a Palette, c. 1930-1931
Arshile Gorky, American (born Armenia)
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About Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian around 1902 (there are differing accounts of the actual date) in the village of Khorkom, near Lake Van, in an Armenian province on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey. As a teenager, Gorky witnessed first-hand the systematic ethnic cleansing of the minority Armenians by Turkish troops in 1915, which led Gorky’s family and thousands of others to flee to the frontier of Caucasian Armenia. During a winter of severe deprivation for the Armenian refugees, a teenaged Gorky watched his mother die of starvation. Gorky and his sister Vartoosh immigrated to the United States in 1920. There, he would change his name to Arshile Gorky (claiming to be a relative of the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky) and invent a new life for himself.

Following his arrival at Ellis Island, Gorky spent a brief period in Watertown and Boston, Massachusetts, before settling permanently in New York City in 1924. Although he enrolled in art classes at a number of art schools in Boston and New York, Gorky was largely self-taught, choosing instead to spend his time copying works of art in museums and galleries, and reading art publications to familiarize himself with the masters of modern European art, especially Paul Cézanne, whose paintings exerted a powerful influence on the Armenian-born artist in the 1920s, before giving way in the following decade to the work of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Joan Miró. At a time when the fledgling American avant-garde privileged originality over traditional working methods, Gorky was a nonconformist who developed his personal vocabulary through a series of intensive apprenticeships to the style of other artists, before developing his own unique vision in the early 1940s.

During the Great Depression, Gorky worked as a mural painter for the Public Works of Art Project (and later the Work Progress Administration), while continuing to pursue his easel painting in his studio on Union Square. The sequence of ten murals that Gorky created in 1936 for the Administration Building of Newark Airport owe a strong debt to the work of Picasso and Léger, but these large-scale paintings on the theme of aviation also signal the artist’s emergence as an abstract painter of great promise.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Gorky’s prominent position in the New York art scene brought him into contact with several members of the Surrealist group, who had been forced to flee Europe following the outbreak of the Second World War. His close friendships with André Breton, the poet and leader of the exiled group, as well as the Chilean-born artist Roberto Matta, led Gorky to further develop an abstract language all his own. Matta encouraged Gorky to improvise and experiment with biomorphic forms rendered with thinned out washes of paint. Matta also introduced the artist to the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, which Gorky deftly mastered and used as the springboard for some of the greatest drawings of the modern era, in which objects and nature is abstracted with an explosive, erotic energy.

Gorky’s artistic development can be defined in part by the transitions between rural and urban environments that marked the turning points in his life. Gorky’s experience of the American landscape would greatly expand in 1941, when he married Agnes Magruder, whom he called “Mougouch,” an Armenian term of endearment. The parents of his new wife had a farm in rural Virginia, and over the next seven years Gorky came to spend a great deal of time in the countryside there, and later in Sherman, Connecticut. The fields and countryside surrounding Crooked Run Farm reminded him of his homeland, and inspired Gorky to make highly original abstractions that combined memories of his Armenian childhood with direct observations from nature. The resulting works are remarkable for their evocative power, lyrical beauty, and fecundity of organic forms.

The last few years of Gorky’s life were marred by tragedy. In 1946, he suffered a devastating fire in his studio, resulting in the destruction of about twenty paintings, and underwent treatment for colon cancer. In June 1948, Gorky was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a broken neck and temporarily paralyzed his painting arm. Finally, the break-up of his marriage to Mougouch, who left Gorky after he had fallen into a deep depression following this series of personal tragedies, led Gorky, in physical and emotional agony, to take his own life on July 21, 1948. The impressive body of work that he left behind secured his reputation as the last of the great Surrealist painters and one of the first Abstract Expressionists. Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective positions Gorky not only as the crucial junction between two of the 20th century’s most influential art movements, but also as a passionate and dedicated artist, whose compelling and often tragic life informed his groundbreaking and deeply personal paintings, which continue to resonate with artists and the public today.