Arshile Gorky
Year, Birthplace 1902, Armenia
Year, Place of death 1948, United States
Arshile Gorky's early years were extremely harsh and would leave an indelible mark on him. His father emigrated to the United States in 1906 to escape being enlisted in the Turkish army. In 1915, fleeing from genocide, the eleven-year-old Gorky walked over one hundred and twenty miles to Erevan with his mother and sister. His mother died during the great famine of 1919. In 1920, at the age of sixteen, he succeeded in emigrating to the United States, where he met his father in Providence. While working as a dishwasher in a restaurant he became interested in art. He visited the Boston Museum of Fine Art, attended some classes and occasionally went to the School of Fine Art and Design. He settled in New York in 1925. Believing that an Armenian would have no chance of being recognised as an artist, he adopted the pseudonym Gorky, passing himself off as a cousin of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. He attended the National Academy of Design. When he had completed his education, he became a lecturer at the New England School of Design, where Mark Rothko was one of his pupils. At the time Gorky was heavily influenced by European painters such as Paul Cézanne, Henry Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and, at a later date, Joan Miró, even to the extent of imitating the latter two figures. In 1913, when Alfred H Barr was preparing an exhibition for the MoMA, he visited Gorky’s studio and chose three of the artist’s works for his first appearance in a collective exhibition (46 Painters and Sculptors Under 36 Years of Age). The critics would shortly come across him again at an exhibition entitled Abstract Painting in America, which was held at the Whitney Museum of American Arts in New York in 1935. Gorky mixed with many young New York artists, including John Graham, Stuart Davis, David Smith, Frederick Kiesler and, at a later date, Willem de Kooning. Along with many others, he experienced misery during the Great Depression and in 1933 he joined the Public Works of Art Project, which helped artists by commissioning work from them, particularly the decoration of public buildings. He would leave the organisation in 1940. It was at this time that he began to exhibit his work (his first solo exhibition took place at the Mellon Gallery in Philadelphia in 1934) and to receive some recognition, albeit without obtaining any material benefits. He belonged to a young New York generation that was shaped by its roots but which managed to create a totally open space and a highly formal style. These artists are now considered to be the founders of American abstract expressionism. His meetings with the surrealists who began to disembark in New York in 1940 would prove decisive: first Yves Tanguy, then Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta and André Breton (the understanding between the poet and the painter was immediate when they met in 1944). He attended the lectures on Miró, Matta, Tanguy and Ernst given by Gordon Onslow-Ford at the New School of Social Research. Although he discovered a need for greater freedom in his work through these artists, their influences would remain: he oscillated between the art of Matta and Miró without copying either of them. Later, this inheritor of the surrealist automatic style would gradually come to find his own path, inventing a language that was unique to him, lying halfway between oneiric figuration and lyrical abstraction. His marriage to Agnes Magruder in 1944 took place during a highly creative period in his life. He continued with the series Garden in Sochi and created works such as The Liver is the Cock's Comb, One Year the Milkweed and Waterfall. His inspiration came from the landscapes surrounding his wife's country house in Connecticut, where he spent a lot of time, and from his childhood memories, as the titles of some of his works reveal: Water of the Flowery Mill, How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life, Scent of Apricots, Khorgom Gardens and Agony. In 1945 he was the subject of a large solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Breton wrote the preface, in which he praised his originality (the text was reprinted in the next edition of Surréalisme et la Peinture). However, these years of happiness, which saw him father two children, were followed by a series of tragedies. Reviews of his 1945 exhibition were not particularly positive and some critics considered him to be merely a follower of European art. In January 1946, his studio caught fire and Gorky lost the pieces on which he had been working. A month later, he discovered that he was suffering from cancer of the colon. A medical examination left him incapacitated. On 26 June 1948 he was seriously injured in a car accident which paralysed the arm with which he painted. A few days later he was abandoned by his wife, who was having an affair with his friend Matta. Physically and morally broken, Gorky hanged himself on 21 July. In 1951, the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a retrospective exhibition of his work. AC