Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective
This is a large and powerful exhibition – but it hurts. The artist has survived disaster. He has found his voice as a painter. His paintings are intense, moving and splendid.
Arshile Gorky turned up in New York in 1920, aged about 16, his Armenian family having been driven out of their home in 1914 by what is now regarded as an early 20th-century genocide. He chose a name, studied art in Boston and was employed as a drawing tutor. His drive to be an artist was realised in the immigrant’s melting pot: America.
For a time he absorbed Cézanne’s way of seeing and painting. It is clear that he was not simply swimming in Cézanne-tinted water, but became committed to a kind of deep-sea diving in order to create a group of works which acutely embody Cezanne’s insights. Artists through the ages have followed similar paths in their passage from student to master. Gorky also digested some of Picasso’s ways of seeing – and throughout his life willingly absorbed insights from his contemporaries as vehicles for his personal vision.
Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia is the title of a number of works on paper (1931-32). In sharp black and white, using ink or pencil, these commanding images owe much of their form to the surrealism of the period. Patterns which suggest human and fish presences are mixed with recognisable things. A large painting in dark grey and brown with white curves uses Picasso-like shapes to carry us to the edge of tense darkness. Painting and drawing are vital and serious. Gorky is less than a dozen years removed from a period of life-anddeath struggle in which his mother had died of starvation.
What stands out clearly in the first half of the exhibition is the ordered discipline of his shapes and compositions. Often we can detect layers and layers of paint, and it is clear that the final order of each work has been painstakingly won. Modern forms and classical structure persist. Consciousness, dented by experience, becomes both melodic and visceral.
Two life-size portraits of the artist with his mother, based on a 1912 photograph, are superb. They reveal how a brilliant artist can turn the frozen image from an ordinary photo into something touching and fine. Each was re-worked over the course of several years, and the delicate contrasts between the two are moving. The colour is superb.
A series of large drawings called Virginia Landscape, produced in 1943, marks a departure from structured order. Tense pencil shapes (vegetation/human/animal?) are punctuated by smears of bright crayon colours. The Waterfall canvas (1943) is more lyrical. Painted with layers of liquid colour it reads as “nature”, but there are troubling undertones. Ten related works fill the room. Gorky creates canvases with flowing or running paint interspersed with fine liquid lines. In one, the darting web of lines and sharp colours flicker across a white ground. In another, How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944), the title describes his source in memory, and colours from embroidery on a white ground accompany flowing, dripping and smudging paint, presenting again two responses: delight and disquiet.
In other works, a more polished and tuned surface reigns and a sense of stability prevails. A 1947 series of large paintings, The Betrothal, use rich paint and a “tuned” format. Luminous colour backgrounds support the lines and marks which bring to mind fragments of ancient tablets that are somehow compelling but cannot quite be deciphered. In 1946 a year’s work was lost in a studio fire, and Gorky was diagnosed and treated for cancer. A wonderful and painful drawing, Study for Agony (1946/7), uses sharp and tense marks. Nearby, the canvas, Agony, reveals a beautifully formed and carefully ordered group of shapes and fine lines using reds on a rustcoloured ground. A gentleness reigns – as if the alphabet of tension has relaxed into lyrics in a minor key. It is very beautiful.
And nearby another rust coloured canvas, worked on between 1943 and his suicide in 1948, provokes a deep spiritual response. This transfiguration of tragedy and memory into art is one of its deeper purposes and demands much from the artist and the viewer.