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.
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.