Progression of Art
The Artist and His Mother
Gorky's early work The Artist and His Mother (c. 1926-36), for which he did many drawings and painted versions, is a deeply personal composition that depicts the artist as a child with his mother, who died in his arms in 1919 following the Armenian Genocide. The treatment of the figures is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's Blue Period paintings, evoking the same melancholic atmosphere through its palette, abstracted flatness and incompleteness. However, the more immediate source for the painting is a (frequently reproduced) photograph of the young Gorky with his mother taken in Armenia around 1912. Contrasting the painting with the original photograph is a satisfying lesson in the appreciation of modern art. Such changes from the photograph to the painting as the almost painfully negative space that evolves between the two figures, the boy's feet angling away from his mother, the emphasis on the eyes, and the expansion of the dark rectangle to create a sort of Madonna-like "cloth of honor" behind his mother's head (as well as many more subtle differences) all serve to communicate the emotional pain of the loss of his mother, whom he will never see or touch again, as well as to raise her to the status of immortal icon.
Oil on canvas - The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
This early painting of 1927 is a superlative example of Gorky's "Cézanne" period. During these years, Gorky composed numerous canvases after Paul Cézanne's still lifes and landscapes. This particular landscape was painted from nature on Staten Island, where Gorky sought out a hillside reminiscent of L'Estaque, one of the beloved painting destinations of Cézanne. The rigid, architectonic geometry of private houses dominates the composition, while the warm, joyful palette imbues the view of the New York borough with the appearance of the South of France. While not precisely a copy of Cézanne, it is a careful study of the artist's style of geometric abstraction that was part of the modern movement in Europe, pointing to Gorky's desire to actively absorb styles and movements of the past in seeking his own individual style.
Oil on canvas - Jack Rutberg Fine Arts
Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations
During the Great Depression Gorky worked as a muralist for the Federal Art Projects/Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA). Between 1935 and 1937, Gorky produced a ten panel large-scale mural cycle for Newark Airport. Of the original murals, only two still exist; the others were either destroyed or somehow disappeared. Gorky was one of the very few New Deal muralists to paint in an abstract language.
In this mural, Gorky shows the continuing influence of European Modernism. While clearly engaged with the Cubist vocabulary of Picasso and Braque, the brilliant colors, and mechanized forms of these murals are strongly indebted to Fernand Leger. Gorky has harmoniously brought together different strands of modernism, which he uses to celebrate modern aeronautics, flight, and speed. Here, Gorky successfully deploys the language of pure abstraction with biomorphism along with a more literal representation of the United State with flight paths relevant to Newark. The modern, abstract style of these brightly colored murals sparked controversy in the 1930s as the public prized American Scene realism. Each panel stirs within the viewer the excitement of the modern machine age and spectacle of air travel in the Depression era. Further, through the mural's public placement within Newark airport, Gorky successfully introduced modernist vocabulary to a greater, non-art viewing segment of society.
Oil on canvas - Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ
Typifying his work of the mid 1930s, the completely abstract composition Organization (1933-36) is an amalgamation of Gorky's exposure to the Synthetic Cubist works of Pablo Picasso (with flat planes that are less fragmented and linear, yet more colorful), as well as the signature organic pictorial motifs of Joan Miro. The painting explores a multitude of concepts put forth by these artists: flatness, form reduction, the arrangement of color, and images arising from the unconscious, even though Gorky preferred to let his forms be directly inspired by nature and reality. In his later work, Gorky would depart from such rigidly arranged compositions in favor of a more spontaneous painting technique, yet he would always remain attentive to the structure of his paintings.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Garden in Sochi
This painting (the first of at least six relating to this theme) represents Gorky's nostalgic reflection upon the garden that was part of his father's farm near Lake Van in his native Armenia. A defining influence of Joan Miro's work can be discerned in this painting in terms of its palette, composition, and forms, with Gorky's skill as a draftsman evident in the separation of line and color. But more specifically, in a 1942 unpublished typescript that Gorky provided for the Museum of Modern Art, the artist described the garden and its objects (including carrots and porcupines), as well as its depicted motifs, including women rubbing their breasts on rocks to see their wishes fulfilled, and the "Holy Tree" with torn bits of clothing from persons visiting the tree. In the same document, Gorky also described the "sh-h-h-sh-h of silver leaves of the poplars." According to the scholar Harry Rand, Sos or Sosi is Armenian for the poplar tree that creates the sound Gorky describes. The word is also then a pun on the Russian resort Sochi, which was probably an intentional association in the same way that the artist chose the name Gorky. Ethel Schwabacher has also identified the centrally located image of an elegant shoe that Gorky's father supposedly gave him before he left Armenia. However, the viewer who insists upon too specific a reading of Gorky's images will not be fully rewarded, as the higher pleasure is in allowing his titles to suggest a subject matter, and then enabling our own memories and associations to mingle with what is on the canvas. In this sense, his works allow the viewer to revel in the lyrical play of color, following the rhythm of the curving forms as they help us pry open the memories of our own experiences that we realize are common to all humanity.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Liver is the Cock's Comb
Though abstract to a great degree, this work nevertheless reveals Gorky's fondness for organic forms loosely based in nature and the sumptuous colors that would prove to be essential to his mature style. The work of Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as that of Joan Miro and Roberto Matta (who in 1942 suggested that Gorky use more turpentine to loosen up the paint) provided strong influences on Gorky's painting practice. In 1945, Andre Breton, the author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, praised this painting for its combination of nature and reality, filtered through memory and feeling. The scholar Harry Rand has discussed the content of this picture at length, pointing out the rooster-headed figure with the feathered groin at the right as the vain fool. Rand explains that the liver was once thought of as the seat of the passions (love and lust), thus punning on the "cock's comb" part of the title, and could also be construed as "one who lives," therefore asserting that life itself is vanity and all in vain.
Oil on canvas - Albright Knox Gallery. Buffalo, NY
A studio fire, cancer operation, and emotional turmoil help explain the title of this painting executed one year before Gorky's death. Scholars (helped, as in other cases, by the study of Gorky's drawings) have suggested the presence of images including figures - perhaps at the left the pained and suspended figure of Gorky himself - in a structured interior. As with Gorky's other paintings, instead of an exact rendering, the viewer is presented with suggestions of real objects that are subjected to the artist's personal interpretation of their forms and meanings. However, the sober palette and the incisive pulling of the lines and forms in this painting inevitably lead us back to the title of the work and feelings of suffering, pain, and sorrow, yet all within the context of the cycle of life and death expressed in the malleability of Gorky's forms.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York