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Art: The Bitter One

3 minute read

When Painter Arshile Gorky died in 1948, the New York Times gave the story a mere 15 lines—and perhaps it would not have run even that much had it not believed, mistakenly, that the artist was “a first cousin of Maxim Gorky, the writer.” Hindsight proves that the press and public sadly wronged Arshile Gorky. As two new shows in Manhattan demonstrate, he was one of the significant U.S. painters of this century.

The show at the Sidney Janis Gallery is a small retrospective; the one at the David Anderson Gallery concentrates on graphic works. Different as they are, the exhibitions eloquently recall Gorky’s tortured perfectionism. At the Anderson Gallery there are six studies for one oil painting, each showing some refinement that Gorky made of its predecessor. The Janis exhibition, though incomplete, shows what a tireless experimenter he was.

Barefoot & Ragged. In his short lifetime (he was 43 when he died), Gorky knew more than his share of sorrow. Born Vosdanig Adoian in Turkish Armenia, he was three when his father deserted the family and ran away to avoid being conscripted into the Turkish army. During the Turkish massacres of the Armenians, his mother fled with the boy and his three sisters to Erivan in Russian Armenia. After his mother died at the age of 38, Gorky and his youngest sister decided to go to the U.S. Barefoot and ragged, they made their way to Tiflis. There they joined a band of Armenian refugees and set sail for America in 1920. He was 15 when he arrived, and one of his first acts was to change his name, picking Gorky because it had for him a pertinent meaning: “the bitter one.”*

He studied in Boston, then taught in Manhattan. His own work was at first strongly influenced by Cézanne. Then the Dada revolution and the surrealists came across the Atlantic. In what turned out, as Biographer Ethel Schwabacher shows, to be a search for an expression of his own, Gorky borrowed from Picasso, Miró and Matta. He went from figurative to abstract and then added surrealism. Sometimes he built up his paint until his canvas seemed like sculptured relief. Sometimes he kept the paint thin as film and his canvas almost devoid of color.

Peepholes on the Unknown. When Gorky finally hit his stride, his images exploded into enormously imaginative compositions. The images came from childhood memories, from nature, the human body and from dreams. As Gorky built up his compositions, the images were transformed to keep perfect balance and harmony. It is not easy to decipher a Gorky painting, but the impact is there all the same. His shapes are partly recognizable, but they are also peepholes into the unknown. Gorky painted two worlds —and each was charged with melancholy.

It was only natural that this should be, for Gorky’s life was a series of disasters.

He fought poverty all the way along. His two marriages broke up, he suffered from cancer, and not long after a serious operation he was in a nearly fatal automobile accident. Though the first glimmerings of recognition had begun to come to him, his depression became so acute that he could scarcely paint. On July 21, 1948, he went to the barn behind his home near Sherman, Conn. A few hours later, friends found his body hanging from a beam.

* The novelist, born Aleksei Peshkov, had taken the pen name for the same reason in 1892.

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