His Own Private Armenia

Anne Hollander

  • Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work by Hayden Herrera
    Bloomsbury, 767 pp, £35.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6647 X
  • Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings edited by Janie Lee and Melvin Lader
    Abrams, 272 pp, £30.00, December 2003, ISBN 0 87427 135 5

Arshile Gorky is better known for his role in 20th-century American art than he is for his actual work. The collective memory, besides noting that his art reputedly links 1930s Surrealism to 1950s Abstract Expressionism, is rather vague about his pictures: were they realistic? Abstract? Easier to remember that he committed suicide, that he was a romantic character, that he was a liar.

These two beautifully illustrated books, one the catalogue for an exhibition of his drawings,[*] the other a detailed Life and Work, are a reminder of the extremely individual character of his work. Equally extraordinary is the record of how a great modern painter created and then destroyed himself in America, having arrived in the United States early in 1920 as Vosdanik Adoian, a 19-year-old refugee from Turkish Armenia.

From the beginning of his artistic life, Gorky denied his origins and invented others, as if he couldn’t become a painter in free America as yet another abject Turkish Armenian. Although victims of persecution had steadily brought their own traditions to America and flourished there, Gorky seemed to feel that what he carried with him was poisonous and shameful. His father, whose first wife had died, had left for America in 1906 with his grown-up son from that marriage, promising to get rich and send for his younger family, but he didn’t get rich and didn’t send for them. What money he sent was seized by the older relatives, now avowed enemies of the more gentle second wife and her children, and ready to drive them out. In 1910 they left for the city of Van, where they lived through the massacres of 1915, then perilously escaped Turkey on foot to settle in Yerevan in Russian Armenia. In 1919 his mother starved to death in the famine. The children were taken in by an uncle, and friends helped to arrange for their passage to America at the beginning of the following year.

Gorky always honoured Russia for chasing the Turks out of Van but also for ‘rescuing’ the Armenians by transforming their ancient, afflicted Christian kingdom into a modern Soviet Socialist Republic. He told people in America either that he was Russian – sometimes that he was Maxim Gorky’s nephew and Kandinsky’s student – or that he came from the Caucasus. En route to their transatlantic crossing, he and his sister had spent a few weeks in Georgia, entranced by its wealth and calm. Gorky’s early memories of his primitive native village deep inside Turkey were often transferred to the Caucasus in the telling, or he might say he was a Georgian prince. Russians who met him, especially Maxim Gorky’s real relations, were astounded that he spoke no Russian and didn’t know that ‘Gorky’ wasn’t the writer’s real name.

Not even Gorky’s wife knew he was Armenian until years after his death, although she had met his sister – who obligingly called him Gorky. Other Armenian immigrants knew, those who worked in the Massachusetts and Rhode Island factories where he got his first jobs, or the ones who ran the luncheonettes where he ate in New York. The art world, however, accepted whatever name, birth-date and homeland he assigned himself, even though they kept shifting. Sometimes he helped himself to Picasso’s birthday, hoping always to be defined by art and never by starving Armenia. Only when he had encountered some non-starving art-world Armenians was he willing to be one, though he long remained officially Russian.

His other big lie was to deny his father. He repeatedly told everyone, including his wife, that as a little boy he had watched his father ride away into the mist one morning and vanish for ever. But Sedrak Adoian survived in America, and eventually remarried, though he never prospered and remained under the thumb of his eldest son. For a time Gorky even stayed with them and worked in Rhode Island, but his father’s uncomfortable remarriage at the age of 60, his mean half-brother and the years of abandonment took their toll. He went back to live with his sisters and their husbands in the Armenian immigrant community of Watertown, Massachusetts, and thereafter made no effort to help his father, even through his final decline. In 1947, Sedrak checked himself into a hospital where, refusing all food, he starved to death in his turn.

It was his beautiful young mother who left an indelible mark on Gorky. His best-known painting is a double portrait of himself and her, an image distilled from a photograph taken in 1912 and sent to Sedrak to remind him of his promise. Gorky worked intermittently on the painting between 1926 and 1942, never wholly finishing it, never letting it out of his studio, leaving it on the wall for long periods without touching it. It exists in two versions, one now in the Whitney Museum, the other in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The photograph also survives, guarding its own pathos and dim beauty. All three show him as a boy with smooth hair and a neat coat, holding a small bouquet in well-articulated fingers. He is standing next to his seated mother, who wears an enveloping apron and a veil draped around head and neck, her empty hands rendered as two blobs on her lap. Mother and son gaze at us with intense, icon-like black eyes. The mother’s eyes are even stronger in a magnificent bust-length charcoal drawing of her on her own, taken from the same photograph.

During their harsh fugitive life, his mother had disapproved of his spending hard-earned pennies on drawing materials instead of food, and she looked doubtfully on his artistic gift. She had hoped for a sage, a master, a teacher – a son to lift the intellectual and spiritual level of her husband’s crude family. And so he did; but she didn’t live even to see it coming, to know how well he had bound himself to fulfil her wish. In Turkey she had taken him to visit churches with vivid pictures and monasteries with illuminated manuscripts, and he would have seen the monumental stone crosses decorated with carved reliefs that stood at local crossroads. Herrera finds traces of shapes from these sources appearing and reappearing in his most original abstract works, confirming the early birth of his visual hunger and transformative eye.

From Watertown, Gorky haunted Boston, devouring and copying the treasures in the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, even getting a little basic training at night from the New School of Design. Later he would promulgate more lies about having studied at the more prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, or graduated from Brown University. Daily life remained cramped, poor and family-ridden. He was eager to break free, but he was working hard only at drawing, painting and looking at pictures. His family berated him for wasting time. Herrera more sympathetically suggests that Gorky’s impulse to create fine fables about his beginnings was the same one that made him invent a better world to contemplate and inhabit in his paintings.

He invented his name in 1924, first using variants – Archel or Archele Gorki. He even considered Archie Gunn or Colt, after seeing a lot of westerns. He moved with it to New York, to take a teaching job at a branch of the New School of Design. By this time he had already made himself an adept painter, with an unusual understanding of art history and an intense affinity for the abstraction of form, which he saw in the work of Uccello and Brueghel, Ingres and Poussin, Vermeer and El Greco, even more than in the stylisations of medieval icons and ancient Egyptian tomb frescoes.

He drew with great ease, as he had since boyhood, and mastered oil painting on his own. He taught others what he had taught himself, and he was a hard teacher. He didn’t allow facility to become a habit: once you master something, he would say, stop doing it at once and try something new; try using your left hand; try drawing with an ink-soaked piece of string. Art is an ordeal.

Gorky had spent every moment trying to fathom old secrets and to practise what he discovered in his own pictures, while using the methods of modern painters as working models. Cézanne was the greatest artist who ever lived, he would say. He meant that Cézanne had thoroughly understood and assimilated the basic principles of his predecessors and used them to build his own utterly new work, as if to show that it was their inevitable future. Gorky copied Cézanne’s methods rather than his pictures; as a result, his Cézanne imitations look very like real Cézannes, and in a sense they are. He had done the same with Impressionism, and later, extensively, with Picasso, a little with Braque and Matisse, and still later with Miró, Chirico, Matta and other Surrealists.

Gorky had come to America with no European education or culture, his talent unsupported by a sense of great artistic footsteps to follow in, or even to efface. He never went to Europe, but discovered European art in American galleries and museums, and above all in black and white reproductions, which he found in the thousands of art books and periodicals he studied in libraries and later bought. He looked at past and present European painting with an eye for the direct effect of formal strategy. He was unaffected by historical baggage, unconcerned about the sacred, bourgeois or imperial patronage that might lie behind images made in a particular epoch or region. Instead, he saw all paintings as part of a continuum of painterly struggle. Cézanne seemed to look at past works in the same way, learning from them how to set up powerful relations between line, form, space and colour. It was the Modernist mandate, and Picasso became the most prolific and gifted contemporary practitioner. ‘He is a devil!’ the envious Gorky said, watching and trying to match Picasso’s agony-free creative play. The problem in all this for Gorky was that he became well known early in his New York career chiefly as a Picasso spin-off or a Miró imitator, and not as the original painter he really was. The true extent of his originality consistently showed only in the last six years of his life. The late works have the look of something coming into existence with great difficulty, something that would come to be seen as the Abstract Expressionist effect that Pollock, De Kooning and others carried forward in the following decade.

What would Gorky’s later works have been like, had he allowed himself to paint them? Herrera and others have doubts that they would have resembled the art of the New York School very closely, even though the feeling in his interacting shapes overlaid with colour patches is so explosive, like the feeling in full-blown Abstract Expressionism. Equally potent in Gorky’s painting, however, is the unfailingly harmonious balance in the composition, the beautiful fit inside the frame, the lessons of Poussin visibly in use. The Abstract Expressionists were not at school there, nor anywhere in the past.

During his first years in New York, Gorky slowly developed a following among lovers of abstract art. There weren’t very many of them in those days. Most abstraction was French in the 1920s and 1930s, and much of the American public found it a questionable, even a ridiculous European import. Most successful American painters – Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, Thomas Hart Benton and Georgia O’Keeffe – were then producing Americana, adding a 20th-century image of the United States to the work of the great Hudson River School painters of the early 19th, or of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer in the late 19th, or of the Ash Can School in turn of the century New York. Like those earlier Americans, they wanted to make the point that their themes were indigenous, not borrowed from the Old World. At the turn of the century, on the other hand, John Singer Sargent had been a transatlantically renowned American painter with avowedly European artistic roots. Gorky admired his work – he even claimed to possess one of Sargent’s brushes – and was eager to take on the mantle of this quite incidentally American master, with his European background and following.

He also met kindred spirits among the few American abstract painters – Stuart Davis was the prime example – and appeared in some group shows with them, his pictures sometimes judged too Picasso-like as he followed the Cubist programme for a time. He acquired some American patrons, such as Sidney Janis, whom he advised about his collection, gratified that his own pictures went into it, next to the Picassos and Matisses. Other New York admirers would pay for private lessons besides buying his pictures. He had his first one-man show in 1934 in Philadelphia, where he saw the Barnes collection with its great Cézannes; but his reviews and sales were not very good. With time he found a serious French admirer in André Breton, who wrote about Gorky as the best American painter, and introduced him and his work to other European painters as they came to New York: Léger, Miró, Matta. Gorky achieved a reputation among the Europe-loving New York avant-garde, a tiny world jammed with big talents largely ignored or ridiculed in the mainstream, but eventually launched there with the help of generous angels such as Peggy Guggenheim.

The other aspect of emphatically American art with which Gorky had nothing to do was the political. In the 1930s, painters such as Ben Shahn were taking up public issues in their pictures, which had to be realistic enough to carry the message. Gorky, by contrast, seemed more and more determined to avoid specific figuration, his message increasingly aimed only at those who could see and feel it rather than read it. He was, however, a staunch, lifelong Stalinist, only because he felt that Georgians and Armenians were kindred souls, and that Soviet Armenians should be grateful for what Stalin the Georgian had done for them.

During the Depression, artists could hope for support from the US government’s various Works Progress Administration projects for decorating public buildings, begun in 1935. The present exhibition includes one of Gorky’s ten gouache renderings for murals made in 1936-37 for the administration building at Newark Airport. Only two of the murals now survive, much restored. The gouaches are composed of clear-edged, brightly coloured abstract shapes in the cheerful Stuart Davis manner, all suggesting aspects of aviation. Herrera quotes from the Newark Ledger’s mercilessly philistine coverage of the opening on 9 June 1937. The paper’s reporter says of ‘the Cubistic brain children of Arshile Gorky the WPA maestro’: ‘It was a frightening assortment of multi-coloured angles and planes with something that looked like a silhouette of Popeye the sailor on his back eating two telephone poles.’ Those installing the panels, he reports, couldn’t tell top from bottom, but that was all right because the foreign ‘maestro’ told them ‘no difference it makes!’ And visitors, ‘walking around in a daze’, could only agree. This was the note commonly struck at the time, in print as at parties. Herrera says that ‘it makes understandable the bitterness that American abstract artists felt at the public’s indifference to their art.’

By the early 1940s, abstract art had become something to appreciate rather than to misunderstand for comic effect, and Gorky was doing his most beautiful work: landscapes and other scenes which show him conjuring the past and creating new form, beginning to let colour float separately from shape-defining line. Since September 1941, he had been happily married to an American thoroughbred named Agnes Magruder – he called her Mougouch – with whom he had two daughters in 1943 and 1945. Work was harder with babies around and money was always scarce; but these beautiful paintings have no agony in them, as his work began to do in 1946.

Gorky was always compelled to jeopardise his success. He couldn’t contain the obsessiveness he needed as a painter, and allowed it to damage his relationships with his family and with professional contacts. He became a more obviously haunted, demon-driven man, as scenes from his childhood came back to him and inspired the inventive abstract forms which triumphantly replaced the borrowed fantasies of Picasso and Miró. His own private Armenia flowed into the work: the relations between shape and colour took on a new dynamism, and the ‘biomorphic’ shapes became more and more suggestive without being representationally specific.

At the same time his behaviour became more infantile, more self-consciously histrionic; at parties he danced and sang and cooked, built fires that were too big, drank too much and insulted people; at home he was more demanding and jealous and more prone to violent tantrums, less able to bear being thwarted or even contradicted. After 1946 the demons began to take over. Perhaps the plan to die had been made long before; he had tried to drown himself in his youth, but stopped when he thought of painting. The amount of work he did in 1946 and 1947 is staggering, most of it drawings, many shown in the present exhibition and its catalogue, all full of pain. Many are done with pencil and crayon, like children’s drawings, and are full of strong colour; but the most extreme are done in traditional ink and wash, with colours of great subtlety. By 1948 he had allowed a studio fire to destroy much of his work; he had had an operation for cancer and then a car accident, which left him with humiliating physical difficulties; his devoted wife was finally frightened into leaving him. He had been creating at high speed, forcing a better world into existence; but he could not transform himself. He hanged himself on the morning of 21 July 1948.

Herrera has a striking sequence of self-portraits made between 1923 and 1937, showing how Gorky gradually transformed his own image. He first appears as a portrait by Manet or perhaps Sargent, shifts into a Cézanne or two, then a Matisse, followed by several versions of Picasso. In the last of these he gives himself the same blobby hands he gave his mother in the double portrait where he appears as a boy, looking much like Picasso’s self-portrait of 1906. He also made an imaginary self-portrait in 1927 of himself at the age of nine, where he looks like young Marcel painted by young Cézanne, with no resemblance at all to young Vosdanik in the photograph.

The thoroughgoing character of Herrera’s biography is its greatest virtue, dealing as it does with a subject so volatile and so easy to romanticise. She leaves nothing out, no simple, prosaic or dismal fact; corrects every misperception and myth; and about all events and circumstances gives an array of points of view, drawing on letters, articles, books, and many years’ worth of interviews, all scrupulously cited and dated. She is always sympathetic to her characters: to Gorky himself and his family, both the difficult elders and sisters and the valiant wife and daughters, the devoted and patient friends, the patrons and colleagues, the students and writers, the early girlfriends and the short-term first wife. Medical, sexual and psychological details are precisely gone into, along with technical details about Gorky’s way of working in various media, and practical details about the arrangement of his studios and of the places where he lived. All of this is welcome, to anchor the inescapably extreme drama of Gorky’s life.

His short life wasn’t quite as short if we accept Herrera’s carefully-arrived-at date of 1900 for the year of his birth, which he variously gave as 1902, 1903, 1904 and 1905. Born in the village of Khorkom in Turkey, he later claimed Kazan, Tiflis and Nizhni-Novgorod as specific birthplaces, as well as Georgia and the Caucasus in general. His hatred of facts, evident in his false but always advantageous dating of his own pictures and in other truth-bending devices he would use, is a constant theme. Another is his immense physical charm and compelling presence, which drew others to him and made him a mesmerising speaker and teacher. Herrera’s photographs show how striking he was – 6'2", dark and graceful, gazing at us out of what she aptly calls his ‘orphan eyes’. Near the end of the book, she reveals that one source of her sympathy for Gorky – as well as a source of much of her material – is her own familial link to him. Some time after Gorky’s death his widow Mougouch, nowadays called Magouche, married the author’s father.

The catalogue contains essays by Melvin Lader and Janie Lee on the sources, function and qualities of the drawings, accompanied by reproductions on a larger scale than Herrera could show. Works by Poussin, Vermeer and others are reproduced and then discussed, to give exact indications of what in them had an effect on Gorky’s eye and thought. Other illustrations show Gorky’s effect on later painters such as Helen Frankenthaler and de Kooning, and his affinity with earlier ones such as Kandinsky. The exhibition offers the drawings spread out in their long sequences, showing how Gorky worked over the same material again and again and again – adding and subtracting, shrinking and swelling, shifting, scraping, washing – before finally incorporating it in a painting, which he would then rework and rework in the same way. His studio was pristine; he cleaned it constantly. He took the same degree of care, it seems, over everything he did.

[*] Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings opened in November at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and transferred to the Menil Collection in Houston on 5 March.