Arshile Gorky, a victim of art history’s categories ?

Ca’Pesaro, Venice, 2019

Self-portrait (1937)

Ca’ Pesaro has taken the bold and useful step, on the occasion of the Venice Biennale, to organize a large retrospective – the first Italian one – of an unjustly neglected painter of the first half of the twentieth century, Arshile Gorky; the last such event is probably the Tate Modern retrospective in 2010. Gorky was a passionate painter, a contemplative of sorts, and a great poet of the visible: he saw in nature what others would never see. Mostly self-taught, he absorbed the lessons of the great masters from Cézanne onwards, and created an astonishing syncretic style where you feel that you recognize something from Matta or something from Kandinsky or something from Miro, but in fact you are faced with an original, self-standing formal invention.

Vostanig Adoian – his name is not yet Arshile Gorky – was born in 1902 (or 1904) in Khorkom, an Armenian village near lake Van in Eastern Anatolia, in what was then the Ottoman Empire. According to the Armenian Patriarchate there were approximately three million Armenians living then in the Empire, of which around 400,000 in Constantinople and 1.3 million in Eastern Anatolia.

In accordance with the infamous dhimmi system, Armenians – as other non-muslim minorities – were always treated as second class citizens. What little progress was achieved after the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish war – and timidly translated in article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 – led Sultan Abdul Hamid II to encourage the creation of a paramilitary force, the Hamidiye, which ravaged Armenian properties and perpetrated numerous killings. Pogroms followed, with tens of thousands of victims in what became known as the Hamidian massacres. After being defeated yet again by Russian forces in late 1914, the then Minister of War, Enver Pasha – unquestionably one of the most despicable statesmen in history – blamed the disloyalty of the Armenians; on 25 February 1915, following Enver Pasha’s directives, the General Staff issued Directive 8682 which removed the Armenians from military units and concentrated them in unarmed labour battalions where most of them would ultimately be massacred. From the siege of Van to the “death marches” aimed at causing death by starvation, an endless string of massacres and crimes was then perpetrated, well documented by numerous testimonies, photographs, articles by foreign journalists and reports by foreign representatives, among which German officers – then allied to the Ottomans – were among the most vocal…. A network of concentration camps on the border of today’s Iraq and Syria helped dispose of what was left of the displaced Armenian population. A thoroughly documented book, The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities – 1894-1924, by the Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, was recently published at the Harvard University Press; it draws on the testimonies of numerous eyewitnesses to the events, and is well-worth recommending. It would certainly be a mistake to consider these events as a sad history: the mentalities are still alive in the region, only this population has become scarce…

This will continue to require remembering, at least for as long as the Turkish governments and large segments of the elites will insist on minimizing, excusing and dismissing this appalling period in their country’s history, thereby symbolically endorsing these crimes to this day; but this historic reminder is also directly related to our subject since Gorky’s mother, Shushan, died in 1919 from the consequences of this policy, i.e. from starvation and exhaustion, which led Arshile and his sister Vartush to emigrate to the US in 1920, for their salvation and our enjoyment. Arshile was then aged at least 16, and therefore these events cannot fail to have left a deep imprint in his psyche. Apart from his family, we can only note that Gorky has avoided representing people in his canvases, and that was not for the lack of technical skills as the admirable pencil portrait of his mother, or the portrait of Admiral Magruder dated 1943, make abundantly clear.

As soon as 1921, Gorky attends the New School of Design and Illustration in Boston, where he becomes familiar with the French Impressionists and other avant-garde painters of the time such as Picasso and Kandinsky. The Blaue Reiter is from 1911, Duchamp’s Nude from 1912, the famous 1913 exhibition at the Armory Show had already introduced to the US some of the most exciting artworks of the time; the pittura metafisica had taken shape before the war; De Stijl was about to give rise to the International Style; Picabia, who had attended the Armory Show, spent part of the war years in New York, spreading the ideas of modernism, and had painted his mechanomorphic Parade Amoureuse in 1917… There could hardly have been a more exciting time for a young artist coming from a culturally remote, backward part of the world. 

In 1924, the young man moves to New York, where he attends the Grand Central School of Art  created in 1923, and manages to get teaching jobs such as at the Parsons School of Design, where Mark Rothko was his student; around that period he changes his name to Arshile Gorky, probably after the Russian writer Maxim Gorky who lived in exile in Sorrento since 1921 for having denounced the Moscow trials, and whom we assumed he must have admired. Maxim famously stated that “in the carriages of the past, you can’t go anywhere”, a useful advice to a young emigrant to the U.S. fleeing the burdens of a monstruous period…. But gorky also means bitter in Russian, and how bitter his life had been ! In 1929 or 1930, he will meet and befriend Willem de Kooning, who became a great admirer of Gorky and would not hesitate to state that “it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence”.

Interestingly, Gorky will become one of the first artists to become involved with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. This was a program created by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal; it operated between 1935 and 1943, and helped employ artists during the Great Depression. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko also benefited from this remarkable initiative which, under the enlightened directorship of Holger Cahill, has certainly contributed to the development of Abstract Expressionism and the emergence of the American art scene immediately after the war.

As part of this program, Gorky is given a mural commission for the Newark Airport Administration Building, itself built by architect John Homlish with New Deal funding. Let us remember that the famous Detroit Industry Murals, one of the most successful examples ever of an artist addressing the visual world of industry, were painted by Diego Rivera in 1932 – 1933, and may have served as a incentive for this type of commissioning. Gorky’s airport murals, which are definitely not at the same level and utterly lack inspiration, will be inaugurated in 1937; the year after Gorky will become an American citizen.

This is also a time when Gorky achieves some degree of notoriety; he participates in the exhibition New Horizons in American Art, curated at the MoMA by Dorothy Miller in 1936, he has a painting at the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum in 1937, he is invited for a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1941. The year when Willem de Kooning will introduce him to Agnes Magruder, whom he would later call Mougouch; although very different in character and social background, they will soon marry. However, this is a time when the couple struggles to make ends meet: Gorky sells very little, and does not seem to be able to emerge.

He will start spending quite a lot of time in the countryside, at the Crooked Run Farm in Virginia. There, he spends many hours in the contemplation of nature, of details only he seems able to discern, of light through the foliage… Suddenly, around 1943, a breakthrough seems to happen. The period is fertile, and prepares the ground for his Studies for Pastoral, Landscape-Table, Waterfall, which will be painted in his very last years and count among his most personal achievements.

Gorky meets André Breton in 1944, who will write an article for the catalogue of his exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1945. Breton has a shrewd understanding of Gorky’s work: “I say that the eye is not opened when it is limited to the passive role of a mirror… The eye-spring… Arshile Gorky – for me the first painter to whom the secret has been completely revealed !”. Breton celebrates in Gorky’s paintings “the great open door to the world of analogy”, the ultimate compliment from a poet; he praises the hybrid forms in which human emotions are precipitated rather than a mere landscape or still-life. Breton explains: “By “hybrid” I mean the resultants provoked in an observer contemplating a natural spectacle with extreme concentration, the resultants being a combination of the spectacle and a flux of childhood and other memories, and the observer being gifted to a rare degree with the grace of emotion”. He speaks of Gorky sharing “the sublime struggle of flowers growing toward the light of day”, of nature being treated as a cryptogram, in fact of the mingling of a state of mind, of memories, of forms created by other artists, on the one hand – the internal spring or the eye-spring if you will – and of what is being captured by the eye, on the other hand. Breton tries of course to enrol Gorky as a Surrealist, having heard the voice of the unconscious in his images.

Breton liked in particular The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, dated 1944, which he described as “one of the most important paintings made in America”.  Coxcomb means a dandy, a conceited man; it may refer to a fools’ hat; the cock also has the obvious meaning, and we clearly distinguish female genitals in the picture. Liver may refer to the dark reddish-brown colour we can see on the bottom part of the painting; however, the intended meaning remains unclear as the liver may refer to eternal suffering, as in the myth of Prometheus, or to regeneration, or perhaps to “the one who lives”. The biomorphic forms, the association of colours, the mix of carefully drawn graphic elements with non-delineated colour areas, have something definitely “kandinskian”; this painting is a good example of the change occurring in Gorky’s painting around 1943 – 1944, a radical change when compared to what he painted in the 1930s, so much closer to late cubism.

The Liver is the Cock’s Comb

As the great art historian and critic Giulio Carlo Argan wrote in an article on the occasion of the 1948 Venice Biennale, the first edition after WW2, “Why start all over again? Art generates images, but the matrix of an image is yet another image, and so on indefinitely. Artists who want to create something everlasting from nothing are like those biologists who, instead of studying the phenomena of life…keep discussing the topic of the origin, of creation, of the system.”. He went on: “One could say that, at the root of Gorky’s paintings stands an iconography of the deep; not of images, but of signs. Iconography is the reverse of the logic of representation. The latter teaches to say the same things with different words; Gorky tells different things with the same words. But words do not remain forever the same, they change, and this mutation is they way of existing…Rather than meaning, what matters to Gorky is mutation, the lability of signs, the endless metamorphosis of images”. Perhaps one could say that, indeed, Gorky borrowed some of his words from an existing language, but gave them the wings of poetry which make them resonate differently according to who listens, under what circumstances, in which frame of mind.

Argan also invokes the towering figure of Surrealism, an inevitable reference in the 1940s although its golden age had already passed: “It was inevitable that Gorky would find its way through Surrealism. But European Surrealism still revolved around the ancient duality: conscience, or reason, its antithesis. It was still a metaphysics, even if the “out there” was brought back “in here” and conceived as an unexplored but active region of our existence. And it was, in the end, an eschatology, even if the paradise of the conscious and the hell of the unconscious had become two bordering territories of the being. But Gorky, having rejected the question of the origin, cannot accept this distinction any more. Existence, for him, has no antithesis, it is a continuum…Art is not an image, but a way to exist.”. But then he admits: “Thinking of it, Gorky was the last Neoplatonist. “You can make your choice” – do I read in Fitzgerald’s Notebook – “between God and Sex. If you choose both, you are a dirty hypocrite. If you do not choose any of them, you will be left with nothing”. When, on 21th of July 1948 Gorky hung himself in his studio, he had not chosen and he had nothing. But perhaps he knew that his painting had given a new idea of beauty to the world, not any more as perfection or transcendence but as perfectibility of being in the lucid and rigorous existence of art”. This long quote of Argan’s article, despite a slightly pompous style typical of the period, is useful to the extent that it perceives the refusal of duality, of exclusion, of assertion perhaps, in Gorky’s work, a refusal probably born from knowing too much about life.

Invasion of the Night – Matta (1942)

The proximity of Gorky with the tenets of Surrealism is probably exaggerated, as the omnipotence of all manifestations of the unconscious and in particular of dream, the fantastic dimension, are not fully consistent with the contemplative nature of Gorky, with his attention to nature, his refusal of the odd. From a formal perspective, it is easy to detect elements of the nascent Abstract Expressionism of De Kooning, memories from the Blaue Reiter and from the surrealism of Juan Miro.

The Song of Oerpheus (1944-45)

It is in fact obvious that the late works of Gorky are particularly in harmony with Abstract Expressionism from the formal perspective: let us consider Barnett Newman’s Song of Orpheus, dated 1944-1945, and it becomes self-evident.

The intent of Gorky was never to represent the human psyche itself, as could be said of the “inscapes” of Roberto Matta, based on the concept of “morfología psicológica” which date back to the late 1930s, an art which possibly represented, from Breton’s perspective, one of the most successful transpositions of the Surrealist manifesto into the visual arts. But the relationship with Matta would have its tragic components. Gorky and his wife Mougouch had met Roberto Matta, as well as André Masson and Yves Tanguy, when they left Europe for the US in order to escape the war.

Although the life of Gorky was blessed with renewed creativity, which probably explains why Julien Levy agreed to represent him, it would also soon be marred by tragedy. In January 1946, his studio burnt down and he lost many of his works; in March, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent colostomy; he became depressed and walled himself into silence. In June 1948, Mougouch could stand it no more, and left for a few days with Matta, who was attracted to this extremely seductive woman. Gorky learnt about it; later he broke his neck in a car accident, with his right arm temporarily paralyzed, thinking that he could never pain any more. Without explaining his gesture, he committed suicide on the 21st of July. We know that Breton distanced himself from Matta, considering that he was indirectly responsible for this death, and expelled him from the Surrealist group.

Let us have a look at Gorky’s work during the last two years of his life. This is when he achieves his artistic maturity, finds his own path, liberates himself from his excessive intimacy with art history. He becomes Arshile Gorgy for art history. Soft Night (1947), currently at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, most probably alludes to Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, published in 1934. One cannot help but notice that there is a betrayal at the heart of the novel, that the painting is entirely in sombre, grey tones apart from two small yellow and red brush strokes…and that Gorky’s mind is perhaps laden with the foreboding of things to come, events in the making. The Limit, also painted in 1947, is a masterpiece in its own right. It delineates a border between a whitish and a greyish space, with traces of colour masterfully interspersed in the latter, perhaps attracting us to it, perhaps attracting this white, vaguely human form on the left which already walks onto the grey, or overflies the abysmal waters of the unconscious, or of some other side. The 1947 Pastoral, in dark browns dripping here and there on the few light areas, seems all but pastoral: an autumn of the soul perhaps; what is usually merry and cheerful, connoting the nascent love of shepherds in rural surroundings, is somewhat symbolically reversed, perhaps denied out of bitterness and despondency.

Dark Green, painted in 1948, is the image of a world falling apart, an inscape as much as an image of the world behind the curtain: you could project some visions of Bosch, with little effort, with a tall sorceress on the right, some white angel on the left, some odd creatures here and there… or perhaps the painting only allows us to project such dark sentiments, and the art of Gorky is precisely – outstandingly – in this allowing, in this door opened onto darkness, the swarming of indistinguishable forms which are not any more from the world of the living. Green is usually associated with hope, renewal, nature. The Egyptian god Osiris, who reigns on the dead but is fore and foremost a god of rebirth, is sometimes depicted with green skin; the Holy Grail is emerald green. But here Dark Green seems to contradict such a well-established symbolism, as if the frustration of hope and regeneration. We can certainly infer from the Study for Dark Green Painting, dated 1946, how carefully each element is positioned on the canvas, and how long the image has taken to build up, to mature.

Actually, preparatory drawings count among Gorky’s most impressive and subtle achievements, if you consider the 1947 Study for the Betrothal, a dark theme indeed for that year of Gorky’s life, or again the 1946-1947 Study for Pastoral.

Study for the Betrothal

A delicate confrontation between nature and the soul, a quasi-divinatory art applied to oneself, a freedom allowing for many a reversal of signs… such is the legacy of a painter who did not either seek or manage to establish, as so many around the same period, a potent “trademark”. Gorky is the exact opposite of what Warhol, “the only student that had a product to sell” as one of his teachers said, would become ten years or so after Gorky’s death. Gorky is among the last painters without any product to sell, which does not mean of course that there are no good – and even excellent – products. 

Ultimately, Gorky was a great painter who became a victim of art history’s categories: a Surrealist – up to a point – he may also be considered amoung the founders of Abstract Expressionism. He fell into the cracks of categories, his place was perhaps too interstial to capture the light which he deserved…

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