Arshile Gorky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art | Review by Eliot Markell

Gorky is one of those well known artists whose work we think we know, but this retrospective is a like finding an open diary. All sorts of intimate things are revealed. Gorky’s seductively drooping, elegantly looping curvilinear forms are his signature move, but to supplement that impression you need to get down to Ben Franklin Parkway by January 6 and re-introduce yourself to this artist’s odyssey.

His life began and ended in trauma and tragedy, in between he made art that sprung from a psyche imbued with creative instinct. The Armenian Genocide of his childhood shaped everything in his art. After the forced marches of Turkish ethnic cleansing, and then watching his mother starve to death, he emigrated to the United States and in an effort to forge a new life and identity changed his name to Arshile (Russian for Achilles) Gorky, in homage to the Russian dramatist.

Fortunately this exhibit contains plenty of drama, particularly the second part of his career. I found the early work after his arrival from Armenia in Boston MA, getting off to a slow start. Some nice, well crafted, but derivative cityscapes and abstracts that don’t hint much at whats to come. The first things that grabbed my attention were a series of works on paper and paintings called Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia based on a small De Chirico painting “Fatal Temple”. The De Chirico is included in the same room which provides a vital connection to Gorky’s inspiration. I’ve always thought of De Chirico as one of the most influential picture makers of the 20th century. Everyone from Fellini to Guston owed De Chirico a painterly debt, so it was encouraging to see some of Gorky’s seminal art emanating from Giorgio D C.

Since I view De Chirco as a painter first and a Surrealist second, I also find Gorky’s origins more about the personal than the graphically inclined imagery of Surrealism’s post World War I dogma and angst.
Gorky really starts to get juicy working from a photograph of himself and his mother. Although the oil painted portraiture from this group is a bit on the stiff side, there is a small ink rendering that is as forceful as any Rembrandt pen and ink. Its here that his story becomes almost as compelling as the art you are about to witness. This small work on paper is so freighted with memory and poignancy that it’s almost like a love note, and you know that this sentiment will propel and infuse everything else Gorky touches.

One constant that I found throughout this exhibition is that Gorky’s studies on paper seem to better represent his highly skilled abilities as a draftsman, and generally provide a deeper sense of his visual poetic narrative. I say this with some remorse since I think most artists (including myself) run up against this sentiment. Thats not to say Gorky didn’t paint some highly evolved oils on canvas that contain nuanced and profound composition, just that oil paint is resistant to causal manipulation. Twentieth century artists more interested in interpretative imagery generally put aside the technically demanding requirements of polished oil painted perfection.

Even though Gorky could probably have made his paintings more classically proficient, to his credit he chose to purse a more innovative approach. By the mid 30’s Gorky was ensconced in a studio near Union Square in NYC. His prestigious neighbors included Stuart Davis and De Kooning. There is small group of portraits on paper of some of his cohorts that extol the virtues of fine lines and a steady hand. These drawings carefully carve their subjects like two dimensional busts in a way that Picasso should have envied.
Gorky’s painting to this point has not been too exciting, but as he continues to delve into the wellspring of his childhood, a series of paintings called “Khorkom” (based on his Armenian hometown) begin to move into a more unencumbered realm. Color brightens and the rigidity of cubist form starts to loosen and detach from a concrete ground and gain some fluidity.

During the Depression Gorky hunkered down in Union Square while he got involved in the WPA. Although I found his surviving full sized Newark Airport murals overly blocky and heavy handed (obviously influenced by Davis, and not in a particularly good way), again his studies save the day. One small, elongated rectangular format for a mural design including a tri-engine aircraft, is so precise it seems to morph into an abstract graphite engineering blueprint for propellers. There are also a couple of small, playful gouaches that look like plans for toy planes.

In the forties Gorky begins to enter into his most energetic period. Putting aside his portraiture he launches a series of abstract paintings and gouaches based on his plein air sketches. He and his wife and two daughters relocated to the rural Virginia estate purchased by his father-in-law. Gorky had started to work from nature a few years earlier in Connecticut, but paintings such as “Garden of Suchi” based on memories of his father’s gardens in Armenia inform and infuse the work from his Virginia oeuvre. A bucolic dalliance with the birds and the bees inhabit the identity of these paintings, which finally integrate the intimate act of drawing with the broad flourishes of oil paint and gouache. Bursts of color saturate the canvas in transparent washes, fusing intricate lines that seem in a constant state of flux. Solids juxtapose the flatter planes becoming more dimensional, the fuller bodies of these pictures have become more substantially satisfying compositions to the eye. That Gorky’s mature work arose from his interaction with nature defines and sets him apart from his Abstract Expressionist brethren. I find this to be a breath of fresh air in the domain of sequestered urban studios of most other painters of that time (excluding Pollock’s studio in the Springs, but as far as I know although he painted outside, he didn’t paint from nature). Evocative titles such as “Scent of Apricots on the Fields” and “How My Mothers Apron Unfolds In My Life” populate his work from this period and reflect the fecundity seen spread out in this gallery. (Overall I like the way this show is laid out, but for some unfathomable reason the walls in the large room containing all the Virginia work have been painted with large brown swathes in a straight edged design, moving up and down the walls like a graph?!) But even as his work rose to new heights theres still lingering doubt for me surrounding the vacancies and voids that haunt his later art, especially in relation to a sense of missing figure /ground connections. Its as though a fog permeates the croma, subsuming and weakening his resolve to work through and completely express a sensation.

However this struggle may actually increase Gorky’s aesthetic credibility, he’s not so interested in heroic results as he is in the emotional authenticity of his marks. You can tell he never pandered to critics or collectors; his work and soul is laid bare for all to see, complete with faults, foibles and failings. What a Sisyphean task his life became at the end. Rectal cancer, a younger wife grown weary of illness and depression takes up with a peer, a devastating studio fire that most likely consumed some of his best art (after losing some of my own best works on paper in a gallery fire in Maine last year, I can attest to the acute sense of loss), and then suicide.

Not only did Gorky endure until the end, but he focused his creative energies as a cathartic cure, throwing himself into the series of paintings called “The Plough and the Song”. The first canvas oozes a murky morass of sepia tints, but you can make out the vaunted Gorky passages emerging. By the time he got to the fourth and last version his mood has lifted significantly. The mise-en-scene recalls a sun drenched picnic of abstracted delight. There the good cheer ends. The last few rooms are devoted to his most fatalistic work. The series of paintings titled “Charred Beloved” are a gloomy bunch of smoky grey and black visages that seem less of an homage to the lost art, and more a funeral. Then suddenly the “Betrothal” paintings appear personifying everything Gorky strived for. Inverted lily pads drift downwards pulling our gaze along into a vivid dusk populated by unknowable entities striking classic poses like players on a stage. These epic narratives epitomize the unfettered nature of creative intuition, freeform and dreamlike, yet ironically they were closely engineered by Gorky. Some of his most striking late studies on paper employed the academic grid technique to facilitate assembling his imagery on larger scale. Yet his grids turned out to be a means to an end; they become integral to the visual integrity of his compositions on paper. Its testament to his savvy and guile as a painter that the “Betrothal” paintings seem so animated and elastic.

Of the final work “Diary of a Seducer” is truly spooky and prophetic. Spectral, ghost-like figures gracefully undulate in a softly darkened scene. Prefiguring Guston, a succinctly painted eyeball nestled on a black pillow stares out into the abyss. Finally, in 1947 “Limit”, his last painting, embraces Gorky’s ever recurring void. The black, splotchy form hovering mid-field simplifies everything. There is no doubt that this portends death, but theres no sense of urgency. The feel is of profound ambivalence, its not that he didn’t care, just that there was nothing else left to paint. Arshile Gorky 1902-1948 “I never finish a painting, I just stop working on it for awhile”