Arshile Gorky in Venice

Master Bill GORKY79829

[Image: Arshile Gorky,  Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937), oil on canvas / Olio su tela, 52⅛x 40⅛in. (132.4 x 101.9 cm). Private collection/ Collezione privata]

In May 2019 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia opened a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in Venice (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, 9 May-22 September 2019). It is the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s art in Venice, though his art was exhibited a number of times at the Biennale. The retrospective exhibition includes 81 works, paintings and drawings, from all periods of the artist’s career. Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney, the exhibition is realised in cooperation with The Arshile Gorky Foundation. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition presents the full range of Gorky’s art, starting with a response to Cézanne, painted about 1927-8. Gorky was famous in his early years for his fastidious craftsmanship, the high quality of his materials and his fascination with incorporating and reworking the ideas of leading Modernists. Cézanne, Léger, de Chirico, Picasso and Miró his idols and his art before 1940 was heavily influenced by these painters. In still-lifes he made work that was resolutely European. (He claimed to have studied in Paris but he travelled from his native Armenia via Greece to the USA without studying art in Europe. Gorky was always vague about his origins in Armenia and was unwilling to talk about his past.) Gorky’s portraits from the 1930s are more independent and the demands of representing particular sitters (in life and from photographs) seem to have encouraged Gorky to develop more personal solutions in terms of styles and forms. The exhibition includes portraits, some of named subjects (including Gorky, his mother, Frederick Kiesler and friend Willem de Kooning), others of unidentified heads.

At this time Gorky was teaching art and painting in New York. He was employed on the WPA painting murals (one for Newark Airport), receiving coverage that portrayed him as an heir to the famous European master of Modernism. He formed close bonds with some artists in New York, particularly de Kooning. It was around the time the first artist wartime emigres arrived from Europe in late 1939 and 1940 that Gorky raised his game. Like many of the American artists interested in the avant-garde, they were impressed and disappointed to meet the trailblazers such as Ernst, Tanguy, Mondrian and others. They discovered that these pioneers were human, subject to fallibilities such as cupidity and vanity. Sparked by Surrealism in particular, the American artists took the ideas of automatism and developed it into ambitious abstract painting. Gorky was in the vanguard, developing his late style: biomorphic forms, intense colours, technical virtuosity, visible materiality. Gorky had synthesised his influences and applied a unique style (associated to Tanguy and Matta but independent) to his natural surroundings.

The Liver Is The...GORKY82535-hires

[Image: Arshile Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb / Il fegatoèla cresta del gallo (1944), oil on canvas/ Olio su tela73 ¼ x 98⅜in. (186.1 x 249.9 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New YorkGift of / Dono di Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956, K1956:4Image courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery]

The landscapes of Virginia and Connecticut over the summers of 1942-1945 are considered high points. André Breton visited the Gorky family and invented titles of some works. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) is one of the great lyrical masterpieces – full of vigorous forms, delicate and energetic brushwork and intense colour. The energy belies the fact that at least some of Gorky’s classic Surrealist compositions were drawn on paper before being carefully transferred to canvas. From 1944 to the year of his death, Gorky’s oil paintings were thinly painted, with dilute paint forming light veils. An early colourful example is One Year the Milkweed (1944). Delicate Game (1946) has a drawn design barely covering the canvas surface. It includes only a few washes and most of the painting is bare primer. Painting (1947) is as translucent as a watercolour, with no firm lines. Only in his final months did Gorky use opaque oil paint, as seen in Dark Green Painting (c. 1948). Some unfinished paintings indicate how Gorky started his oil paintings.

Dark Green painting GORKY94811-hires_EDIT

[Image: Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting / Pittura verde scuroca (1948), oil on canvas / Olio su tela43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.(111.1 x 141 cm)Philadelphia Museum of ArtGift (by exchange) of / Dono (in scambio) di Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F.Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54]

The drawings supplement paintings and show Gorky’s virtuosity. The early portrait drawing of his mother stands in for the two painted versions of that subject, which did not travel to Venice. The ink drawings and gouache paintings are related to his mural works. Apple Orchard (c. 1943-6) is one of the pastels which show the artist fusing forms of leaves, fruits and flowers. Other drawings allow us to compare the preparation with the final paintings.  There is an experimental drawing where a sheet has been smudged and the forms are indicated by erasing them. Ink wash and line are indicative of Gorky’s command of many materials and approaches, served by his long apprenticeship following the art of his heroes.

Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948 includes works loaned from museums and private collections across the USA and Europe and gives a strong overview of the artist’s work. The generously sized catalogue has full illustrations, essays describing the artist’s career, an essay discussing the reception of Gorky’s art in Italy and a chronology, all in Italian and English languages. It comprises a good introduction to Gorky’s achievements.

 

Gabriella Belli, Edith Devaney, Saskia Spender, Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, Hauser & Wirth (distr. Artbook), June 2019, hardback, 240pp, 118 col. illus., Italian/English text, $55/C$75, ISBN 978 3 906915 34 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

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Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams