SynopsisArshile Gorky was a preeminent American Modernist artist of Armenian descent. His diverse body of work was crucial for the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist style, both in form and content. Throughout his career, Gorky remained extremely responsive to the artistic influences both domestic and international.
Key Ideas / Information
ChildhoodIt 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 of the artist's adopted 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 en route to the Russian-controlled Armenia, his 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 1910 and settling in Providence, Rhode Island. Gorky would join his father in 1920 at the age of sixteen after leaving the war-ridden territory of the collapsed Russian Empire. The painful nostalgic sentiments for the lost homeland remained a prominent theme in Gorky's oeuvre, and manifested most prominently in the series of landscapes, such as The Plough and the Song, Garden in Sochi, and The Sun, and in two figurative portraits of the artist as a child with his deceased mother.
Early TrainingArshile Gorky remained largely a 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. The new land also provided for the artist's initial exposure to the modernist artistic discourse, for which the 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 where Gorky met and developed a personal and artistic friendship with such artists as Stuart Davis, John Graham, and fellow émigré . New York's climate of constant artistic exchange proved auspicious for the formation of Gorky's early style which relied heavily on Cézanne's compositional method and Picasso's Synthetic Cubist forms. The colorful palette of the Fauves and other European Expressionists, among which German-based Wassily Kandinsky proved to be a major avant-garde force, 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. It was also the time 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 a considerable fame in the West.
The first five years that the artist spent in New York crystallized the core characteristics of his early style: from Cézanne-inspired landscapes and still-lifes to a flatter and more experimental rendering of the surface influenced by the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and his fellow artistic innovator Georges Braque. The synthetic nature of Gorky's early works directly reflected the porous artistic context of the New York scene, which provided for a continuous experimentation and innovation within the Modernist artistic discourse.
Mature PeriodIn the 1930's 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, 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 worked under the WPA Federal Art Project alongside Willem de Kooning, 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 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 a growing attention to the artist from critics and public alike. In 1938 Gorky held his first solo show in New York at the Boyer Galleries.
By the 1940's Gorky would move into an entirely new direction in his painting: his mature style would exhibit a paramount dependence on Surrealist conceptual and aesthetic framework imported from Europe 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 the analysis of the New York context, namely a major influx of European artists and intellectuals who moved to the city before and during the Second World War. Among these individuals were Josef Albers and who escaped Hitler's Reich 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; prominent German Surrealist painter Max Ernst and the primary theorist of Surrealist movement André Breton, who fled the occupied city of Paris; and Piet Mondrian and Ferdinand 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 intertwined, preparing the way for the emergence of an inimitable New York style of painting generally 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 in meaning, selecting the elements that were later implemented in his own work. By being an apprentice to the early Modernist tradition, Gorky became a master of his own, his oeuvre serving as a bridge between the pre-War European Modernists and post-War American Abstract Expressionists.
Late Period and DeathIn 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 colon cancer, eventually undergoing a colostomy, which devastated his physical and emotional well being. 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 moving away 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 of 1948 by hanging himself in his Connecticut house.
LegacyArshile Gorky remains an American Modernist artist of paramount importance. He is considered as one of the major forces behind the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which established New York an important arts center, and, by extension, the United States as the cultural capital of the post-war world.
Gorky's paintings exhibit a fiery talent for innovation, intellectual awareness of the contemporaneous artistic discourses, and a deep personal involvement in the work. His artworks can befound in most major American museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The MOMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Guggenheim. About three hundred and seventy oil paintings by Arshile Gorky are known today.
THE ARTIST'S INFLUENCE ON ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM MOVEMENT
Although usually labelled as an Abstract Expressionist, Arshille Gorky should instead be considered as a direct precursor of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The marriage of Expressionist and Surrealist aesthetics in his oeuvre exposed the New York-based artists to the innovative ways of assimilating the predominant artistic trends of the time. Gorky also pioneered the trend of naming the seemingly abstract compositions with titles directly referring to particular objects and places, thus fusing the objective and the subjective within the artistic discourse. Many of the Abstract Expressionist artists would follow this course.
Arshille Gorky maintained a close personal and professional friendship with Willem De Kooning. It is believed that Gorky introduced De Kooning to the insertion of personally relevant pictorial elements within his work, whereas De Kooning was responsible for acquainting Gorky with the major trends of European modernism. Gorky's approach to assembling his compositions, apparently spontaneous, yet carefully planned, became a methodological template for many Abstract Expressionists, including Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, whose fiercely energetic and seemingly unstructured brushwork was often carefully conceived through a set of preliminary sketches.
Below are Arshile Gorky's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Willem De Kooning
Years Worked: 1904 - 1948
Quotes"If Picasso drips, I drip... For a long while I was with Cézanne, and now I am with Picasso."
"The stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of the artist's brush. As the eye functions as the brain's sentry, I communicate my innermost perceptions through the art, my worldview."
"My recollections of Armenia open new visions for me. My art is therefore a growth art where forms, pines, shapes, memories of Armenia germinate, breathe, expand and contract, multiply and thereby create new paths for exploration."
"Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot physically see with his eyes... Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an explosion into unknown areas."
"Art must always remain earnest... Art must be serious, no sarcasm, comedy. One does not laugh at a loved one."
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographiesBlack Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky
From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea
Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work
Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols
PaintingsArshile Gorky (Modern Masters Series, Vol. 8)
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings
Artist in Popular CultureArarat - This movie was directed by Atom Egoyan, is partly about Gorky's youth in Turkey during the time of the Armenian genocide.
Hotel Cassiopeia - This play was written by Charles L. Mee, is about the artist Joseph Cornell and mentions his friendship with Gorky.
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann Page
|Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
ArtStory: Paul Cézanne Page
|Roberto Matta was a Chilean-born artist who lived and worked in New York in the 1940s. His interest in automatism and painterly effects helped forge a crucial link between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
ArtStory: Roberto Matta Page
|A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Wassily Kandinsky Page
|Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting, and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso Page
|Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró Page
|André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: André Breton Page
|Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.
|John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
ArtStory: John Graham Page
|Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
ArtStory: Post-Impressionism Page
|Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled "les fauves" or "wild beasts" by critic Louis Vauxcelles, the artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism Page
|Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism Page
|Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 20s and 30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism Page
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
ArtStory: Jasper Johns Page
|Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop Art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
ArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg Page
|Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg Page
|British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art Page