Arshile Gorky

About the Artist

Gorky emigrated from Ottoman Armenia to the United States in 1920, fleeing the Armenian genocide. In an attempt to assimilate with the new culture in which he found himself, Gorky changed his name and consciously assumed the persona of an avant-garde artist. After five years living under strained conditions with his family in Massachusetts, Gorky moved to New York and became absorbed into the cultural milieu of a city on the brink of modernism. Uncommitted to the political causes that engaged many of his contemporaries, Gorky busied himself with questions of artistic theory and the pursuit of a personal vision. He ardently studied European modern masters, absorbing the work of those he admired: from Paul Cézanne and Giorgio de Chirico, to Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and André Masson. This practice taught him to understand their artistic processes and eventually to surmount their techniques with his own. Gorky’s first paintings from independent efforts in the 1920s are constituted of layers of accumulated paint which was then sanded down to achieve a glass-like surface, rich in colour and employing fictionalised symbolism pertaining to his childhood on Lake Van.

Gorky’s world was permeated by his early experiences and his sense of dislocation as an immigrant to the United States; partially faithful recollections of Lake Van and the surrounding landscape emerge, dream-like, within his compositions. Sustained by a sense of nostalgia, his touching and much celebrated self-portrait, ‘The Artist and His Mother’, exemplifies the experience of an émigré reconciling his past with the construction of an American identity. Begun in 1926, this icon of the migration story now resides in a place of honour within the new Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY. The work exhibits a tenderness and innocence that Gorky believed were essential qualities for a painter to remain receptive to the outside world. After a decade of working and a period of moderate critical success, Gorky initiated a series of studies and paintings observed from his rural environment while on holiday in Connecticut, which became a crucial intermediary step in the development of his individual style. His Waterfall series from 1942 exhibits a spontaneity and free use of paint that belies the complexity of its compositional rigour. The following year, Gorky temporarily relocated to Virginia where he refocused his work on nature as primary subject matter: his drawings from this period took on a new fervour, which he later translated into some of the most evocative paintings of his career, including the highly complex, ‘The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb’ (1944), now in the collection of the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY.

In these primal responses to nature, Gorky granted as much presence to the space between the objects he observed as the objects themselves. Returning to idealised memories of his early life, Gorky incorporated fabricated elements from his childhood amongst the reality of his surroundings. In this conflation of truth and memory, the observational yields to a lyrical essence rendered in vivid, incandescent auras that reverberate within outlined forms, such as in the magnificent ‘Scent of Apricots on the Fields’ (1944). His compositions seemingly implode upon themselves, culminating in a sense that the paintings are being created from the centre outwards. Gorky’s highly personal vision was crystallised in these late works where, in his unswerving belief that art comes from within, his ‘otherness’ empowered him to carve his own art form guided by memory and imagination.

In spite of his devotion to European art, Gorky remains a profoundly American painter, and the success with which he reinvented his identity upon his arrival is a tribute to opportunities afforded by the United States. Gorky’s work is represented in museum and private collections worldwide, including: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas TX; Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge MA; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Valencia, Spain; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles CA; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; The Menil Collection, Houston TX; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY; Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia PA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco CA; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York NY; Tate, London, England; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York NY, and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven CT.

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