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.

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[*] 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.