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Modern Artist: Arshile Gorky
Arshile 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
  • The work of Arshile Gorky was a unique conflation of the Surrealist, Cubist, and Expressionist artistic styles.
  • Gorky's innovative stylistic fusion prepared the way for the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in its various artistic forms.
  • Many of Gorky's works were also very personal in their content, reflecting on the artist's traumatic past as a genocide survivor.

It 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 Training
Arshile 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 Willem de Kooning. 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 Period
In 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 Hans Hofmann 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 Death
Arshile Gorky dancing at a party In 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.

Arshile 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.


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.

Paul Cézanne
Roberto Matta
Wassily Kandinsky
Pablo Picasso
Joan Miró
André Breton
Stuart Davis
John Graham
Willem De Kooning
Arshile Gorky
Years Worked: 1904 - 1948
Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Willem De Kooning
Harold Rosenberg
Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art

"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."

Artist Timeline

Content written by:
  Ivan Savvine

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Black 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

Arshile Gorky (Modern Masters Series, Vol. 8)

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings

Artist in Popular Culture
Ararat - 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.