Arshile Gorky - Biography and Legacy
Armenian-American Draftsman and Painter
near Van, Turkey
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.
Arshile Gorky remained a largely self-taught artist before his immigration to the United States. Here he enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, which he attended from 1922 to 1924. His new home provided the artists with his first exposure to the discourses of artistic modernism, whose founding fathers, such as the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, would exercise a great deal of influence on Gorky's own work in this formative period. Around 1925 Gorky moved to New York where he swiftly penetrated the emerging artistic milieu and enjoyed an ever more expansive introduction to the current artistic trends, including the groundbreaking innovations of Pablo Picasso as well as the early work of Spanish Surrealist painter Joan Miró.
It was in New York that Gorky met and developed a personal and artistic friendship with such artists as Stuart Davis and fellow émigrés, including the Ukrainian John Graham (born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky) and the Dutch Willem de Kooning. New York's climate of constant artistic exchange proved auspicious for the formation of Gorky's early style that relied heavily on Cézanne's compositional method and Picasso's Synthetic Cubist forms. The colorful palette of the Fauves and European Expressionists were also formative influences on the artist.
While in New York, Gorky enrolled at both the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art, where he also taught until 1931. This was also the period when the artist changed his name, from Vosdanik Adoyan to Arshile Gorky, in order to divorce himself from the negative perception of the Armenian refugees in the United States. The change was also made to claim a certain connection to the Russian artistic milieu. For a while Gorky even claimed to be a relative of the prominent Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who enjoyed considerable fame in the West. Additionally, the name Arshile was a form of the name of Homer's hero Achilles, and Gorky was a Russian word for "the bitter one." Given Gorky's personal history and the prevalence during and after World War II of the existential philosophy that called upon humans to take responsibility for creating their own meaning, his chosen name and persona would seem apt.
The core characteristics of his early style crystalized during his first five years in New York: from Cézanne-inspired landscapes and still lifes to a flatter and more experimental rendering of the surface influenced by the Synthetic (less fragmented and more coloristic) Cubism of Picasso and his fellow artistic innovator Georges Braque. The degree to which Gorky assimilated these influences in his early works directly reflected the porous artistic context of the New York scene at that time, which provided a platform for continuous experimentation and innovation.
In the 1930s, Gorky's work began to enjoy public recognition. In 1930, he was included in the group show of the emerging artists assembled by Alfred Barr, Jr., the influential director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The year 1931 marked the first solo exhibition of Gorky's paintings at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia. From 1935 to 1941, the artist, alongside De Kooning, worked under the Works Progress Administration of the Federal Art Project, a major government initiative to provide artists with work at the time of the Great Depression. One of the projects conceived by Gorky for the WPA was the group of murals at the Newark Airport in Newark, New Jersey. Also in 1935, four of Gorky's paintings were included in the famed exhibition mounted by The Whitney Museum of American Art titled Abstract Painting in America, which attracted growing attention to the artist from critics and the public alike. In 1938, Gorky held his first solo show in New York at the Boyer Galleries.
By the 1940s, Gorky's paintings would move in an entirely new direction: his mature style would bear resemblance to Surrealist ideas and forms imported from Europe (though the artist eschewed the Surrealists' reliance upon the unconscious), as well as an innovative technique of paint application which anticipated, if not inspired, the Action Painting method of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the following decade.
The stylistic shift in Gorky's work is best understood through an analysis of the New York School in the 1940s, which was precipitated by a major influx of European artists and intellectuals who had moved to the city before and during World War II. Among these individuals were Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, who had escaped Nazi Germany and established themselves as influential art teachers and theorists in New York; Erwin Panofsky, a founding father of the academic discipline of Art History in its modern form, who taught at New York and Princeton Universities; the prominent German Surrealist painter Max Ernst; the primary theorist of the Surrealist movement André Breton, who fled occupied Paris; and Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger, who brought their unique pictorial modes as their only luggage. The confluence of these individuals made New York an ever more boisterous and diverse artistic ground, where the iconic names of modern painting, with all its variety of styles, intermingled, and prepared the way for the emergence of an inimitable New York style of painting known as Abstract Expressionism.
It is worth noting that while Gorky was dependent on outside influences throughout his career, he never directly copied his sources. Rather, he examined them thoroughly for their structure and meaning, selecting elements that could later be assimilated into his own work. As an apprentice to the early modernist tradition, Gorky became a master in his own right, his oeuvre serving as a bridge between the prewar Europeans and the postwar Americans. One example of his importance is that André Breton actively courted Gorky to join the Surrelism movement. Gorky even allowed Breton to name some of his paintings. Later, Gorky, a loner personality, disassociated himself from Breton, and the Surrelism movement - for this reason, or a number of others - disbanded.
Late Years and Death
In 1941, Gorky married Agnes Magruder, who was twenty years his junior, and the couple would have two daughters. Unfortunately, the marriage was marred by tragedy. In January of 1946, Gorky's studio, set up on his wife's property in Connecticut, burned to the ground, destroying most of the artist's work. A month later, the artist was diagnosed with cancer, which devastated his physical and emotional wellbeing. It was soon discovered that Agnes was involved in an affair with Gorky's friend and fellow artist, Roberto Matta, which led to the couple's subsequent breakup and Agnes's relocation with the children. Shortly after, Gorky was involved in a car accident that exacerbated his deteriorating health. The conflation of these tragic circumstances led the artist to commit suicide on July 21, 1948, by hanging himself in his Connecticut house.
The Legacy of Arshile Gorky
Although usually labeled an Abstract Expressionist, perhaps Arshile Gorky should instead be considered a direct precursor of the Abstract Expressionists. His combination of Expressionist and Surrealist aesthetics exposed the New York-based artists to the innovative ways of assimilating the predominant European modernist styles of the time. As a major force behind the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Gorky helped to establish New York as an important arts center and, by extension, the United States as the cultural capital of the postwar world.
In particular, Gorky maintained a close personal and professional friendship with De Kooning. It is believed that Gorky introduced De Kooning to the insertion of personally relevant pictorial elements within his work. Moreover, Gorky's approach to assembling his compositions, apparently spontaneous, yet carefully planned, became a methodological template for many Abstract Expressionists, including De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, whose fiercely energetic and seemingly unstructured brushwork was often carefully conceived through a set of preliminary sketches. Gorky's emphasis on the process of painting - as he put it himself, "always to keep starting to paint, never finishing painting" - also greatly impacted Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.