Armenian-American Draftsman and Painter
near Van, Turkey
Summary of Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky's diverse body of work was crucial to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. He adopted the biomorphic forms of the Surrealist painters, but further freed those forms through the process of painting itself by emphasizing more lyrical color and personal content. By means of his unique approach to color and form, he was able to communicate to the viewer the painful childhood experiences of the Armenian Genocide as well as the pleasant and nostalgic sentiments he felt toward his lost homeland. His work is also significant because it so directly reflects the cultural and historical milieu of New York in the 1940s, where avant-garde artists from both the United States and Europe converged, and of the postwar period in general, when existentialist philosophy prevailed. This philosophy proclaimed the absurdity of life at the same time as it called upon humans to take responsibility for creating their own meaning - which Gorky did by creating beauty out of personal tragedy.
- Many of Gorky's works reflect both the artist's traumatic past as a genocide survivor and the memory of the exquisite beauty of his early childhood surroundings in Armenia. Through the process of painting itself, Gorky could begin to resolve his largely tragic life by transforming real people and real objects, remembered or present, into new realities, abstracted and controlled.
- Gorky pioneered the trend of naming his abstract compositions with titles directly referring to particular objects and places, thus fusing objective reality and subjective feeling in his works.
- Gorky's work is particularly historical significant in that it provides the most important link between prewar European modern styles and the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in America during the 1940s.
Biography of Arshile Gorky
It is not exactly known when Arshile Gorky was born. 1904 is widely accepted as the year of his birth, but the precise date remains a mystery because the artist adopted the habit of changing his birthday, year after year, while residing in New York. As a child, the artist survived the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks. With his family displaced and dispersed, Gorky's mother died of starvation in Gorky's arms in 1919. His father, however, had escaped the Turkish military draft by moving to the United States in 1908 and settling in Providence, Rhode Island. Gorky would join his father in 1920 at the age of 15 after leaving the war-ridden territory of the collapsed Russian Empire.
Important Art by Arshile Gorky
Gorky's early work The Artist and His Mother (c. 1926-36), for which he did many drawings and painted versions, is a deeply personal composition that depicts the artist as a child with his mother, who died in his arms in 1919 following the Armenian Genocide. The treatment of the figures is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's Blue Period paintings, evoking the same melancholic atmosphere through its palette, abstracted flatness and incompleteness. However, the more immediate source for the painting is a (frequently reproduced) photograph of the young Gorky with his mother taken in Armenia around 1912. Contrasting the painting with the original photograph is a satisfying lesson in the appreciation of modern art. Such changes from the photograph to the painting as the almost painfully negative space that evolves between the two figures, the boy's feet angling away from his mother, the emphasis on the eyes, and the expansion of the dark rectangle to create a sort of Madonna-like "cloth of honor" behind his mother's head (as well as many more subtle differences) all serve to communicate the emotional pain of the loss of his mother, whom he will never see or touch again, as well as to raise her to the status of immortal icon.
This early painting of 1927 is a superlative example of Gorky's "Cézanne" period. During these years, Gorky composed numerous canvases after Paul Cézanne's still lifes and landscapes. This particular landscape was painted from nature on Staten Island, where Gorky sought out a hillside reminiscent of L'Estaque, one of the beloved painting destinations of Cézanne. The rigid, architectonic geometry of private houses dominates the composition, while the warm, joyful palette imbues the view of the New York borough with the appearance of the South of France. While not precisely a copy of Cézanne, it is a careful study of the artist's style of geometric abstraction that was part of the modern movement in Europe, pointing to Gorky's desire to actively absorb styles and movements of the past in seeking his own individual style.
During the Great Depression Gorky worked as a muralist for the Federal Art Projects/Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA). Between 1935 and 1937, Gorky produced a ten panel large-scale mural cycle for Newark Airport. Of the original murals, only two still exist; the others were either destroyed or somehow disappeared. Gorky was one of the very few New Deal muralists to paint in an abstract language.
In this mural, Gorky shows the continuing influence of European Modernism. While clearly engaged with the Cubist vocabulary of Picasso and Braque, the brilliant colors, and mechanized forms of these murals are strongly indebted to Fernand Leger. Gorky has harmoniously brought together different strands of modernism, which he uses to celebrate modern aeronautics, flight, and speed. Here, Gorky successfully deploys the language of pure abstraction with biomorphism along with a more literal representation of the United State with flight paths relevant to Newark. The modern, abstract style of these brightly colored murals sparked controversy in the 1930s as the public prized American Scene realism. Each panel stirs within the viewer the excitement of the modern machine age and spectacle of air travel in the Depression era. Further, through the mural's public placement within Newark airport, Gorky successfully introduced modernist vocabulary to a greater, non-art viewing segment of society.