Gorky at Philly

Currently on view at The Philadelphia Museum of Art is an exhibit titled “Arshile Gorky – A Retrospective”. Although I rarely leave New York, I’m seriously considering making the trip down to Philly to see this show before it closes on January 10th.

People in the art world mention Gorky to me all the time. Why? Because like Gorky, I am Armenian. Obviously, our respective experiences with, and understanding of, our Armenian “identity” are vastly different. But because there are so few of us, both in the United States and around the world, all Armenians feel some degree of a bond with each other, whether ethnic, cultural, or political in nature.

Although Gorky is correctly classified as an “American painter”, he was born in Armenia, under the Ottoman Empire, in the village of Khorgom, along the shores of Lake Van. His birth name was Vostanik Manoog Adoian (pronounced ah-doy-an). Like many ethnic immigrants to America, he later changed his name and adopted “Gorky”, in honor of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, whom he greatly admired.

Arshile Gorky:

In 1910, Gorky’s father fled to America to avoid conscription into the Turkish army, leaving Arshile, his three sisters, and their mother to fend for themselves. With the start of the barbaric Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915 (an event the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge to this day), Arshile and his family fled the Van region and endured many hardships. The defining moment of young Arshile’s life took place in 1919, when his beloved mother, Shushanig, died of starvation in his arms. The harrowing emotional pain and psychological trauma of that experience would haunt him forever, and inform his art in adulthood – art that is distinctive for its palpable mood of anguish and suffering.

In one of his many letters to his sister Vartoosh, Gorky wrote:

As Armenians of Van…. We lived and experienced it. The blood of our people at the hands of the Turks, the massacres…. Our death march, our relatives and dearest friends dying . . . before our eyes. The loss of our homes, the destruction of our country by the Turks, Mother’s starvation in my arms. Vartoosh dear, my heart sinks now in even discussing it.

Gorky arrived at Ellis Island in 1920 when he was 16. He studied art sporadically, first in Boston and then in New York City at the Grand Central School of Art, where he became a highly regarded instructor. Categorized as an Abstract Expressionist, Arshile Gorky drew influences from a range of artistic genres, including Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, and his works have been likened to those of Cezanne, Miró, and Picasso.

Without a doubt, one of Gorky’s most famous, and most personal, works, this is The Artist and his Mother, which he created from an old black and white photograph:

Gorky did achieve recognition during his days in New York, participating in shows at MoMA, the New School, and the Whitney Museum of American Art which was a consistent supporter of his. Gorky also earned great admiration and respect from his peers, such as Willem de Kooning and André Breton. But the critical praise did not exempt Gorky from financial struggles, as the economy of the Great Depression was not exactly conducive for art sales.

In 1941, Gorky married Agnes Magruder and moved to Connecticut. Working in a studio in a converted barn, Gorky entered the most mature and prolific period of his life, creating some of his most acclaimed abstract works, among them Garden in Sochi. Inspired by his childhood memories of the family garden back in Armenia, Gorky recalled a beautiful tree that grew on the property, a tree with extraordinary branches. Considered a “holy tree”, villagers would tear off pieces of their clothes and tie them to the branches. Over time, the fabric strips accumulated, dangling from everywhere and blowing gently in the wind. Noted for its biomorphic, gestural shapes, and borne out of wistful memory and longing, this is Gorky’s Garden in Sochi, from 1942:

Tragically, Arshile Gorky was never able to overcome the severity of his inner torment and emotional scars, and a series of terrible misfortunes in his later years only compounded his misery. A fire in his studio which destroyed many paintings and drawings, surgery for colon cancer, the acrimonious breakup of his marriage, and injury in a car accident which caused a fractured back and neck, all drove him to the breaking point, to where life was no longer bearable. On July 21, 1948, Arshile Gorky hung himself in his home in Sherman, Connecticut. He was 44 years old.

For those of you interested in finding out more about Gorky and the Phildelphia exhibit, I encourage you to read this excellent article from the California Literary Review. I also recommend the Gorky biography page on Brain Juice. While you guys check out those links, I’ll be over on MapQuest finding my route to Philly 🙂

Նո մորե պաին, մյ Արմենիան բրոտհեր. Նու յոու արե ֆրեե. Պեացե.

10 thoughts on “Gorky at Philly

  1. fred says:

    Thanks for featuring this great painter!

    Is that a line of Armenian text at the bottom of your post? What does it say, or is it a private message to readers of the Armenian language?

    • artmodel says:

      Hi Fred!

      Yes, that is a line of Armenian at the bottom. I didn’t intend it as a “private message” per se, but more a eulogy to the spirit of Gorky.

      It says essentially:
      “Your pain is gone, my Armenian brother. Now you are free of suffering. Peace”

  2. Excellent, as usual, Claudia.

    The “holy tree”; The Yakut peoples (now indigenous to the Saka Republic, Russian Far East) have a similar custom.

    There is a tree on a high rock bluff overlooking the Lena River, that may still be holding a strip of a new red shirt I was wearing at the time, along with hundreds of other strips of cloth from years past and years since.

    I don’t know if it’s the same in Armenia, but the Yakut also toast the tree; the glass of vodka is filled to the brim and then shared with the earth, -some purposely spilled upon the ground, then the glass is emptied in one swallow.

    By the way the Yakuts, a horse people, are assumed to have originated somewhere back east, perhaps near Armenia, and to have migrated eons ago to their present lands.

    • artmodel says:


      That is a wonderful story about the Yakut. Thanks for sharing it! I enjoy learning things like that.

      Now I’m really interested in these rituals involving revered trees and adorning them with fabrics. I wonder if your red piece is still hanging?! 🙂

      Thanks again for your comments.


  3. Jennifer says:

    A really interesting post, plus the replies! But so sad to read about such a tragic end to his life. Have Googled to look at some other of his paintings. Look forward to reading about your visit to the exhibition!

    • artmodel says:


      Just from looking at the sadness in Gorky’s eyes in the photograph, one can feel the intense pain he harbored in his soul. Then again, a lot of us Armenians have that “sad look” in the eyes. Gorky, however, lived it every day.

      Thanks for your comments!


  4. Brian says:

    Another great post Claudia…correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t your grandmother a survivor of the Turkish genocide? I seem to recall meeting her once or twice and remember her telling us the story…it left an impression on me to this day.

    • artmodel says:


      You have an excellent memory. Yes, my grandmother and other members of her family (my mother’s side) experienced the genocide firsthand. They were among the lucky ones to get out and flee to America. Grandma died in 2003. But I’m glad you had the chance to meet her.

      Great to hear from you Brian.


  5. CBrown says:

    Claudia, you don’t need Mapquest to get to Philly. The Peter Pan bus is cheap, like $10 or $20, and the Chinatown bus (which I’ve never actually taken) is even cheaper. The train isn’t that expensive, either. If I recall, that museum isn’t that far from the bus depot. The city is small enough that you can cover it on foot if you want. It’s a rather neat little town, so I suggest you just go. For dinner, go to a place called The Continental and get the lobster mashed potatoes, and then go to the soda shop across the street for desert.

    • artmodel says:


      Thanks for the travel tips! I’ve been thinking since I put up this post that i might take the train instead of driving. I was in Philly a few years ago and seem to recall that the Museum is located in good proximity to the stations. And like you said, the city is conducive to walking as far as shops and restaurants are concerned. I’ll keep you posted.

      Thanks again!


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