On Arshile Gorky

On Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)

By Christian Kile

‘Without tradition art is no good. Having tradition enables you to tackle new problems with authority, with solid footing.’ – Arshile Gorky

‘…And for some mysterious reason, he knew lots more about painting, and art – he just knew it by nature – things I was supposed to know and feel and understand – he really did it better. He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head.’ – Willem de Kooning


Some artists come in and out of fashion. Others, though considered important, are written off by many as a ‘bridge’ or a stepping stone to what is to come. In Arshile Gorky’s case this seems particularly so. He is cited as a forerunner to the New York School whose work is often written off as a derivative of modern European art.

This is largely due to his extensive workings from certain modern masters. However, had he destroyed them or if these had been of the traditional classical ilk, his place in the history books perhaps would be different. Even today, working from 20th century art so extensively is unusual. The critic Harold Rosenberg noted that for Gorky ‘imitation was a learning to be, as well as a learning to do.’


Gorky at his easel in Central Park, Late 1920s

What is interesting about Gorky is that while he worked from Picasso he did not suspend his critical faculties, and changed his mind as he developed his own style. Later, when he looked at the Spaniard’s works, he noted:

‘The more I admire them (Picasso’s paintings) the further I feel myself removed from all art, it seems so easy, so limited.’

Sadly, and wrongly in my view, historians have dismissed Gorky’s achievements so that he now seems to occupy a space that detracts from the significance of his work. In the same way that Braque and Picasso took what they needed from Cézanne so did ‘The Irascibles’ (a group of American Abstract artists) take from Gorky – though, of course, few if any would describe Cézanne as merely a ‘bridge’.


Paul Cézanne, Rocks at Fontainebleau, circa 1893, Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Arshile Gorky, Staten Island, 1927-28, Oil on canvas, Collection Richard Estes, New York


Paul Cézanne, Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, 1893-94, Oil on canvas, Collection of Mrs. John Hay Whitney


Arshile Gorky, Pears, Peaches and Pitcher, Late 1920s, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

The influence of Gorky’s homeland Armenia was important to him throughout his life. He was exposed to biblical Armenian sculpture from an early age, and despite having to flee his country’s genocide he always longed to return. This was not to be, and recollections of his childhood and youth in Armenia remained a strong stimulant for his work. In a letter to his sister following their emigration to America Gorky wrote: ‘Our beautiful Armenia which we lost and which I shall repossess in my art…I shall resurrect Armenia with my brush for all the world to see.’

Gorky was born Vosdanik Adoian in 1904 to a peasant family in Armenia. His father abandoned the family in 1908 to escape the draft into the Turkish army. Later, the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks, who were allied with Germany in 1915-18, exterminated the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks justified the massacres and mass deportations of survivors on the grounds that the Armenians would otherwise ally themselves with the Orthodox Christian strength of Russia. During this period Gorky’s 39-year-old mother Shushanik der Marderosian died of starvation.

Gorky arrived in the United States in 1920 and in 1924 moved to New York to seriously pursue a career as an artist and about this time he decided to change his name. He settled on the name Arshile Gorky: Arshile is a form of the Armenian royal name ‘Arshak’ and ‘Gorky’ means ‘bitterness’ or ‘the bitter one’ in Russian. Both names suited this imposing artist, who stood six foot tall, and became well known for his authoritative presence and forceful, outspoken personality.

The dominant fashion of American Regionalist and realist painting throughout the 1920s and 30s and lack of an American avant-garde was plain. Gorky was not concerned with this. He immersed himself in what he considered to be leading contemporary art, without adhering to the provincial fashion, years ahead of the opening of the Museum of modern Art to the public in 1929. His exposure to Parisian art came from private gallery exhibitions and two prominent European art publications, ‘Cahiers d’Art’ and ‘Transition’.

The American public’s limited opportunity to view these actual European works − indeed, its experience of them as printed reproductions may have intimidated or mystified those who did see them. So besides the prevailing taste for provincial art one suspects Americans also developed an inferiority complex that resulted in the lack of consideration and attention paid to Gorky’s work in the early 1930s.

The criticism aimed at Gorky’s early work seems inexplicable to me. He was in line with other artists who drew substantially from the work of past masters. He drew from the Medieval Armenian manuscript illuminator Toros Roslin, French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and early Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello whose compartmentalised spaces he studied closely.


Paolo Uccello, Scene 2 of ‘The Miracle of the Host’, circa 1467-68, Tempera, Galleria Nazaionale della Marche, Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

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Arshile Gorky, Untitled, circa 1931, Pencil on paper, Private Collection


Pablo Picasso, Studio with Plaster Head, 1925, Oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

But Gorky also focused on 20th century artists. He conducted many experiments to develop his tones and composition, drawing from Henri Matisse and Surrealist André Masson. He studied Cézanne and Picasso intensively during this period; this would have been considered a gamble by any other artist but Gorky, who was driven by his ambition. His decision to commit to this apprenticeship reveals his single-minded determination and focus, and his choice not to destroy these works, equally so.

He was renowned for keeping his materials meticulously: ‘There was nothing haphazard about the piles of left-over or unused paint; there was no bit of material that he was indifferent to…’ and ‘…the feeling it evoked is of work done there, work in progress, day and night, through long years of passionate, disciplined and dedicated effort’, recalled Gorky’s friend, Ethel Scwabacher of his studio methods.

Gorky recognised the importance of draughtsmanship in past and present art works, leading him to concentrate on drawing in the early 1930s. Aside from alleviating financial restraints it allowed him to experiment and work through ideas in quick succession.

‘…drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But a good drawer can always paint…’ he said.

He felt too that in order to create his own style of painting it was necessary to consider only the quality of the artwork without the distraction of the political conditions that were pervasive in his time. Gorky’s comment, ‘Proletariat art is poor art for poor people’ was his judgement on the Social Realism.

Unfortunately, the amount of art he produced, referencing Cézanne and Picasso in particular, has had a detrimental effect on his reputation. Hoping they would inspire him to develop his original paintings, their pervading presence, Picasso in particular, perhaps left him with no other direction to go but to push on into abstraction.

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Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, 1926-27, Oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Toronto


Arshile Gorky, Head, Early 1930s, Gouache on cardboard, Private Collection

As an artist who had searched through the European order to establish himself, Gorky’s choice to study the modern masters is not surprising. Despite their influence his painting of an antique cast (1926) shows his change of direction: he aimed at a more pared down style and a timeless quality in his paintings; wine bottles, notes, newspapers, pipes and playing cards are absent!

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Arshile Gorky, The Antique Cast, 1926, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Picasso’s Seated Woman (1926-27) prompted Gorky to continue on the path of selecting and reducing parts of structures. He combined his reduced motifs with objects and settings often found in the work of de Chirico – anatomical samples, shadows unexpectedly placed and manipulated perspectives.

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Giorgio de Chirico, The Fatal Temple, 1913, Oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was not until the mid-1940s that he went out of his way to gain the acceptance of a group, the Europeans. When Surrealist Andre Breton acknowledged Gorky, he felt he had arrived, said artist Isamu Noguchi.

Breton’s endorsement of Gorky’s work does not help much: Gorky is an artist primarily preoccupied with nature in all its variety and not by irrational dream states. Towards the end of his life he became disenchanted by the Surrealist movement, alienated by its veiled academic features, which he felt lacked conviction –a case perhaps of never meet your heroes!

By the 1940s Gorky was consolidating the ideas formed through drawings and earlier paintings. In 1946 a cancer operation and studio fire that destroyed a significant number of his paintings drove him to work furiously and resulted in a late body of work. It was in the country, away from city, where he produced some of his best and most original paintings.

Gorky knew that to advance modern painting demanded a willingness to work through its history so that he would be able to recognise the point at which a new style was forming, and be ready grasp the opportunity and give his intuition free rein.

However, in charting the traditional and chronological span of art history, he is an artist who has been used as a convenience to illustrate the rise of the New York School and little more.

On one hand he is ignored by those who dismiss ‘abstract’ art as requiring little or no skill and on the other, his work is easily accessible on the Internet alongside good and bad Abstract Expressionist works without any accompanying discriminating comment. That he was thoroughly drilled in more traditional approaches, and the artist de Kooning, with considerable academic training, saw so much in Gorky’s work does not appear to have made a jot of difference.

His approach has and will continue to polarise: it is an irony that despite Gorky’s ultimate misgivings about Surrealism and his divergence from it his paintings have been labelled and criticised as such.

The detractors of Abstract Expressionism have derided its works as facile, the triumph of theory over the actual art − long established academic art in particular − and a prime example of the American tendency to idolise European Art taken to extremes.

American writer Tom Wolfe has bemoaned the impact of the International style on American Architectural practice and the way in which the deans of architecture got rid of all the plaster casts of classical details and pedagogical props accumulated over a half-century or more. He voiced their view in the following satirical quote:

‘I mean, my God, all those Esquiline vase fountains and Temple of Vesta capitals…How very bourgeois.’

These sentiments resound too in the realm of fine art and Gorky’s ‘mature’ style is not likely to disabuse anyone with this view! While remaining steadfast to maintaining a natural element in his late paintings there is little in the way of an illusionary perspective. What’s more, because he died before he was able to develop his full range, he shares a fate similar to Modigliani– being criticised for repetition.


Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944, Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York


Arshile Gorky, One Year the Milkweed, 1944, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those who regard Gorky as producing some of the last great paintings of the twentieth century, at the point when America became the dominant force in the fine arts, outstripping France, which had reigned supreme since the classical French artist Nicholas Poussin brought back the honour from Italy. In their view Gorky was at the forefront when America was established as the new centre for avant-garde art and all that came with it.

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Arshile Gorky, circa 1935

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Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944, Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Arshile Gorky, Diary of a Seducer, 1945, Oil on canvas, Collection on Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden

Many of Gorky’s paintings are as much talked about as looked at because they provoke such different responses in viewers and diverse interpretations − so it is difficult to do them full justice. But that just goes to show how multi-layered his work is.

The ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show at London’s Royal Academy (24th Sept 2016-2nd Jan 2017) revealed Gorky as one of the most promising modern painters that America has produced. The tragedy is that he died too early and never realised his range. Yet though the Gorky room was small, the paintings on show easily held their own with those of Pollock, Rothko and the more celebrated usual suspects.


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