Books, Essays

Excerpt from Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song: A Life in Letters and Documents

Excerpt of Hauser & Wirth Publishers book edited by Matthew Spender

Arshile Gorky in his atelier, Sherman CT, 1948

  • May 1, 2018
  • Matthew Spender (ed.) Hauser & Wirth Publishers 2018

In 1941 Jeanne Reynal, a recent friend and patron of Gorky’s, arranged through private contacts a one-man show for him at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Gorky and Mougouch traveled across America as passengers in the car of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was driving to the West Coast in search of portrait commissions. It was the first time Gorky had left New York for an extended period since 1925.

When they arrived in San Francisco, they found that the exhibition he had been promised was in jeopardy. For a moment it looked as if it might be canceled. Anxious about the delay, without a place to work, and frantic at Mougouch’s apparent reluctance to marry him, Gorky did his best to stay calm. In the end the exhibition opened on schedule. The reviews were mixed but on the whole encouraging. On September 15 Gorky and Mougouch were married. They traveled back to New York by bus, stopping in Chicago, where Gorky introduced his wife to Vartush. Years later, Mougouch realized that Gorky had never left her alone with his sister. He did not want his wife to hear alternative accounts of their early life on Lake Van from Vartush. Her memories were tragic, and they would have led to further questions from his new wife. He was not prepared to discuss the past with her, except on his own terms. - Matthew Spender

Gorky’s second wife, 'Mougouch,' in a photograph taken shortly before she met Gorky

ARSHILE GORKY: Letter to Vartush Mooradian [36 Union Square, New York] June 23 1941 New York City My dearest ones, Some days ago I received the letter you sent which made me very sad because of Karlen’s illness. But I hope he is better by now. Dear Vartush, next Tuesday, together with some friends, I am going to San Francisco by car. A few days ago one of my dear and kind friends came here, an artist, and my paintings pleased her a great deal, and she bought one and immediately gave me 500 dollars. And she invited all of us out there, to paint there this summer [1]. It would really be wonderful, it’s been sixteen years since I’ve been out of New York, and as you know my friends here have no longer given me 25–50 dollars for a painting Thus [even] if I succeed in selling a painting, with that amount I won’t be able to paint another because the materials are so expensive. Two weeks ago I turned to Mrs Metzger who for fourteen years has been wanting to buy a painting, and when I begged her saying that I needed the money she told me that we are all in the same condition. All my friends tell me that such a change is very important for an artist, so I’d like to hear about this from you as well; so write immediately. Agnes will also be coming [with me] because her father will be there in his ship [2]. I’ll bring with me the letters of recommendation from the Modern Museum. I wanted to pass by you to see you but Nguchin [Isamu Noguchi], who [is taking] us in his car together with his and two other people, they’ve chosen another route. So Agnes and I will be delighted to come there this summer [3]. As I said, my friends here, when they buy a painting, pay 50 dollars and I can’t sell one every week or [even] every month. But, you see, someone who is a stranger comes from a new city and after speaking to me twice pays me 500 dollars. I’d like to rent my studio to someone for four or five months. I’ll put in this letter a photo of Agnes that we took on Fourteenth Street. Agnes and I speak every day about you. And we kiss you with warm nostalgic kisses. Give a kiss to Karlen and Murad for me, and [I hope that] Karlen gets better in order to go back to his studies, and on our way back we’ll stay there [in Chicago] for two weeks. with kisses, your brother Gorgi

One of two works bought by Jeanne Reynal. The painting is the darkest and heaviest of the Khorkom series. Image in Khorkom, ca. 1934–36. Oil on canvas, 33 x 43 in. (83.8 x 109.2 cm). Private collection

MOUGOUCH GORKY: Remembering the Drive to San Francisco January 3, 1994 On our way to San Francisco, we went to see Oliver La Farge, Peggy’s brother, who lived in Santa Fe [4]. He took us to visit an Indian Reservation near there. Gorky was thrilled that the Indians built ovens of adobe and clay like Armenian ovens he’d known in his childhood. When we got to the Grand Canyon, Gorky and Isamu turned their backs on it. They declared it was too big to be interesting. I was longing to go for a walk down into it, but they wouldn’t. Isamu had a very different style from Gorky. In the back of the car he had bound volumes of photographs of his own work. Well, he had to. He was going out West to make some portraits, and these were the ‘samplers’ of his wares. Gorky felt Isamu’s portraits were a waste of his time and unworthy of him. The abstract sculptures were marvelous—but of course Isamu couldn’t sell those at the time. Isamu was worldly-wise in a way that Gorky never was. Isamu talked a lot about Gestalt psychology on the drive, to which he’d just been introduced by Bucky Fuller [5]. So when Gorky said ‘Oh, look at those clouds! They are like the horsemen of Paolo Uccello in the Battle of San Romano,’ Isamu replied, ‘Why can’t you just see the clouds as clouds?’ Meaning that not everything in the world has to be animated by associations with art. Indeed, always to insist on such associations was to deprive them of their own identity as clouds. This ended up in a major row, just as we were crossing the Mississippi. It is all very well to say that Gorky was a gentle man, but he very nearly threw me off the bridge and into the river. Gorky hated the boredom of travel in the United States. Always the same motel, the same gasoline station, for hundreds and hundreds of miles. He came from a part of the world where the accent, if not the landscape, changed every ten or fifteen miles. Not to speak of the cooking, the taste of bread. What Europeans think of as culture—or any rate, an essential part of it. So Gorky would talk about his memories, or how things that were far away were better than what lay outside the window. And if Isamu or I ever said ‘Oh, look at that beautiful mountain,’ Gorky would reply, ‘That mountain? Pouf! You should see the mountains in the Caucasus.’ This got to be so predictable that Isamu and I would repeat the compliment about another mountain ten miles further along, and we’d both have the giggles when Gorky fell for it, time after time.

ARSHILE GORKY: Letter to Vartush Mooradian [San Francisco] July 20 1941 Dear Vartush and Murad, Today is the fourth day that I am in San Francisco and perhaps I am going mad, because my friends told me that when I arrived here they would have taken me to their farm and I would have painted there for about three months, etc etc. Afterwards there would have been an exhibition, but I think this is [not] going to happen. It seems that I have to pay for all the expenses, and therefore there is an expense of 250 dollars just for the transport from New York to here. This was a mistake and I have never made such a mistake in all my life, it seems that my dear friends wanted to come here [anyway] and to lessen their travel expenses they took me with them. And they have only just told me this [6]. I don’t know what to do. I’ll wait for a few weeks and then I think I’ll go back to New York. I don’t know what I’ll find there. The only good thing is that I didn’t give up my studio. I wish I could write something positive about this region, except for this nature of mine. Since I left New York, I have not slept either night or day and I am painting everything: yes! the hills, the moon, the mountains, etc etc. My dearest ones, Mr Selian had given me many drawings and books to compose a book; I wanted to return them to him but I didn’t have his address. All [are] in one place—the package is in my studio. He [Selian] should go and ask the superintendent. He has the key and as the front door opens, there in the hall is a large cabinet; it’s in it, on its left side [7]. Dear Murad, please tell him this. Let him take [the package], etc etc. If something good comes of this, that I sell some paintings here, I’ll stop there [Chicago] on my way back. It is now six in the morning, every morning in this city it seems it rains, but after lunch the sun comes out. I am trying to find a place to live but it seems that everything is expensive. I’ll write [to you] very soon, with my warm nostalgic kisses to the three of you, maybe next week I’ll write you a better letter. Kisses to Karlen from me, I know that now he is completely cured. Gorgi

Taken at an amusement park on the beach in San Francisco shortly before his marriage. As a proof of love, Mougouch had asked Gorky to shave off his moustache, but he grew it back when they returned to New York.

ARSHILE GORKY: Letter to Vartush Mooradian [San Francisco] August 4 1941 My dearest ones, Though my last letter was very desperate, I suppose everything is better now, and I have met a lot of people and they have introduced me here to many [others] who are working for me and for my success. Agnes is also here and her father and mother know lots of people at this place, with whose help I think everything will be all right. She is really working hard so that my exhibition will be successful, which will open on the 9 of this month. After this supper is over Agnes and I will go to the museum where I am having this exhibition. We have not written for this long that is to say a week and a half, because every day we were running this way and that in order to see the people we wanted. This city has beautiful views and the temperature is very cool. You would think that it is [like] the climate of our country, and the temperature is like the that in the months of April and May. Did you write to Mister Selian to go and collect the books and pictures that he gave me? The other day you wrote me that Davis is also coming there. How is Murad’s business and is Karlen well or not? What happens after supper I’ll write to you next Wednesday. Don’t worry about us. Agnes is very skilful, and as for me, as I come to know this city better, I’ll be able to do something. When I first got here everything looked very bad and different, and our friend, that is Miss Rainal [Jeanne Reynal], who bought a painting of mine in New York, is also here and with all her might and with all her heart she is working so that I succeed. Dear Vartush. Agnes is really good, and asks after you always and wants me to send you her love and her greetings. She’s always wants to discuss how it would be wonderful if on the way back to Chicago we stay there for two weeks, and she is working to see if we can take this exhibition also to Los Angeles and Chicago. So, my dear ones, don’t worry, everything will be fine, and embraces and kisses to you three. Gorgi (these are from Mougouch XXX) And Mouguch will also come and we’ll go to meet these new acquaintances, etc. Dear Vartush what do you think of this war? And what about Soviet Russia? Please tell me what you both think about it. I forgot to say that we’ve rented a beautiful house which is surrounded on three sides by trees and the other side is the sea [8].

Gorky with Jeanne (left) taken at an amusement park on the beach in San Francisco shortly before his marriage

Gorky with Mougouch (right) taken at an amusement park on the beach in San Francisco shortly before his marriage.

EMILIA HODEL: Review of Gorky’s Exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art San Francisco News, August 17, 1941 This is one of those rare times at the San Francisco Museum of Art when superb major shows overflow into the smaller rooms and the secondary shows are above the average. Piece de resistance at present is the Fernand Leger exhibition in the rotunda; the Gorky oils in the north gallery are almost equally as stimulating; the American primitives still hold forth in rich splendor; the Berkeley trio of James MacCray, Dorothy Grover and Mary Dumas remain interesting in spite of the competition, and the delicate Mine Okuba temperas in the Art Association Gallery still hold up flatteringly well against the opulent and turbulent Gorkies next door . . . ‘Electric’ might be the term for the show of Gorky abstracts in the far gallery of the museum. For although this Russian-American employs a very formal vocabulary in his painting, he still gives us the artist, mystic, earthy, vital. Arshile Gorky is technically part abstractionist, partly expressionist. He relates his paintings in the arbitrary idioms of the Picasso school. But the things he says with these idioms are personal, lively and assured. Certain canvases are lushly tactile. (He paints with a bucket of color apparently). There is an exotic quality, a fluidity of design, spontaneity of movement, surprisingly enough. To paint the ‘common, uncommonly’ is what Gorky wants.

ARSHILE GORKY: Letter to Vartush Mooradian September 12 1941 My Dear Ones, This morning Agnes and I will be going with two local friends to Daj [Dodge] City. We will get married tomorrow morning. We are very happy and I know that you will be happy too, and in a week we will return to New York and we will live in the same studio. Dear Vartoo, you will like her a lot. I will write to you when we return from Daj City, where we’ll stay for a few days, and if we can manage it we’ll stay there for a few days—and I’ll write to you about my exhibition. I sure that you had a nice time during your vacation. I long to see you and Karlen whom I haven’t seen for a long time. just now our two friends came in, and, my dearest ones, we must leave. Greetings from both of us and fond kisses to all of you Agnes & Gorgi

All images © 2018 The Arshile Gorky Foundation [1] The purchaser of these two paintings was the mosaicist Jeanne Reynal (1903–1983). Born in White Plains, New York, from the late 1920s she lived in Paris, where she worked as the assistant of the Russian mosaicist Boris Anrep. At this point she had returned from France to find that she had just inherited a large sum from her father’s estate. Having assumed she had been disinherited, she bought these works by Gorky as a way of celebrating her luck. [2] Admiral Magruder was in fact on the East Coast. Gorky is reassuring Vartush that his relationship with Mougouch has her father’s approval. [3] Noguchi could not delay the trip by passing through Chicago. Mougouch and Gorky saw Vartush briefly on their way back from San Francisco. [4] Oliver La Farge (1901–1963) was a distinguished anthropologist and author who devoted much of his life to protecting and promoting the interests of Native Americans. For several years he was the President of the Association of American Indian Affairs. [5] Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) was an architect and polymath, and a remarkable teacher. He may have met Gorky at Romany Marie’s in the late twenties. In 1941 he arranged a commission for Gorky at Fortune Magazine, and he may have been behind another commission for murals in a bar where Gorky and de Kooning collaborated. Nothing is known of these murals except a few memories. [6] Gorky’s San Francisco exhibition depended on the relationship of Jeanne Reynal with Fred Thomson, brother of the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Unfortunately, just as Noguchi and the others were leaving New York, Jeanne fell in love with someone else. It took time for Fred Thomson’s irritation to subside. [7] It seems that Mr. Selian wanted Gorky to illustrate his translation of David of Sassoun. His remarks to Vartush do not seem positive, and there is no evidence that Gorky ever collaborated with the project. [8] This letter was written five weeks after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, when the Soviet armies were in full retreat.