Essay

Speak to Me about Big Things, Now about Small Things

Arshile Gorky: A Study with Titles

Arshile Gorky with Maro Gorky shortly before his operation for cancer, Washington Square, New York, early 1946. Photo: Agnes Magruder Gorky. Estate of Agnes Fielding, courtesy The Arshile Gorky Foundation

  • Dec 15, 2023
  • Issue 9
  • By Jessica Eisenthal

Composition

Organization

Still Life

Objects

Painting

Self Portrait

The Artist and His Mother

Image in Khorkom

Xhorkom

Head Composition

My Sister, Ahko

Garden in Sochi

In the spring of 1924, Vosdanig Manuk Adoian signed his pseudonym, Arshile Gorky, to a painting for the first time. That May, Congress passed an immigration act with ethnic quotas that would cut off large-scale immigration for decades, restricting entry from southern and eastern Europe, through which Gorky had arrived four years prior.

In the century since the artist fashioned his name, many details of his biography have been revealed and obscured, almost in equal measure. Magnetic, histrionic and remarkably earnest, Gorky was an active participant—the main accomplice—in his own mythmaking.

Art history, like all history, is filled with hagiography masquerading as biography. Just as Van Gogh’s severed ear or Jackson Pollock’s alcoholic machismo have been swept up in the pull of sacrifices to modernism, so the tragic end to Gorky’s life in 1948 further mythologized the existing layers of his biographical mystery.

Arshile Gorky, Image in Khorkom, ca. 1934–36. Oil on canvas, 33 × 43 in. (83.8 × 109.2 cm). Private collection. Photo: Peter Schälchli. © The Arshile Gorky Foundation

The New York art world of the mid-1920s, as Gorky found it on his arrival, was still busy looking to the historical canon of European masters. “The greatest barrier to recognition of important young artists in America is the American craze for antiques,” he told a reporter for the New York Evening Post in 1926. “In Paris and in Germany, a painting done this year is exhibited this year. There are museums and exhibitions given over to the progress of the living, modern, growing art, but in America you ask ‘How old is it?’ or ‘Do I know the name who signed it?’ before it has a chance.”

The truth of Gorky’s observations would, in large part, persist into the 1930s, with interest in American abstract art slow to gain traction. In addition to airing Gorky’s disappointment over the general indifference to living modern artists in the U.S., the Post article is among the first to have widely circulated his fictions of Russian heritage and relation to the Russian-born writer Maxim Gorky. The ubiquity of these falsehoods would follow the artist to his grave. As late as the 1950s, Gorky’s sister had to petition the staff of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to change the artist’s nationality from Russian to Armenian on a wall label. (The complexity of identity attribution endures. In February 2023, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would revise the wall text for three Ukrainian artists formerly attributed as Russian, yet within days of the announcement, one of the three was identified as Armenian, not Ukrainian.)

Gorky’s year of birth has most often been cited, by him and others, as 1904, yet recent scholarship suggests that 1902 may be more plausible. Born in Khorkom, a village in eastern Anatolia, at a moment and place of relative calm during the decades-long persecution of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Gorky not only survived the Genocide himself, but he was also the child of survivors.

While all accounts point to his having had a contented childhood of rural adventure, surrounded by extended family and steeped in tradition, he was also born into profound intergenerational trauma. His parents, both of whose first spouses had been killed in the Hamidian massacres of 1896, had an unhappy arranged marriage. By 1908, his father had left the family to immigrate to the United States and live with the children from his previous marriage. Among Gorky’s best-known paintings, The Artist and His Mother (1926–36; 1926–42) derive from a photograph of the two that his mother commissioned and sent to his father in America as a reminder of the family he had left behind and promised to help. Years later, Gorky found the picture, which had by that point taken on a Barthesian quality, stuffed in a drawer in his father’s house.

Gorky and his sister Vartush arrived in the United States through Ellis Island in 1920, a year after their mother died from starvation as a result of the genocide. Gorky’s first years in the country were spent with family as part of the sizeable Armenian communities in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. While familiar, this was also alienating to him, and he ultimately refused a life of factory jobs and insular cultural trappings, causing irreconcilable conflict and estrangement from his father. To avoid being considered a “starving Armenian,” as Armenian refugees were commonly viewed at the time, and above all driven by a strong desire to be an artist, Gorky buried his origins and began to construct a new reality and idea of himself.

Arshile Gorky, Xhorkom, 1936. Oil on canvas, 36 × 48 in. (91.4 × 121.9 cm). Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund and Partial Gift of David K. Anderson to the Martha Jackson Collection at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, 1999 (1999:8). © The Arshile Gorky Foundation

For several years, he experimented with the spelling of his chosen name (Archele, Archel or Arshile), toying with Achilles from Greek mythology and Archie Gunn or Archie Colt, names possibly concocted from his love of Westerns. Gorky took his surname from Maxim Gorky, who was revered among Armenians for his work with the Armenian Relief Organization and translations of Armenian poetry. Unbeknownst to many—including his wife, Agnes, who learned his real name only after reading a 1957 biography by a mutual friend—Gorky kept his given name legally for his entire life.

Over the years, he alternately claimed to have been born in Nizhni-Novgorod, in Kazan or in Tiflis, most often in 1903 or 1904, on October 25, or on April 15, and said that he had come to the U.S. in 1911, 1920 or 1921. Sometimes he said he had studied engineering at Brown University or with the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky or in Paris under Albert Paul Laurens. Gorky wrote to curator Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942: “My biography is very short and in fact I would prefer to omit the references to Paris and Mr. Kandinsky as such brief periods that mention of them is out of proportion to the actuality. I was born in Tiflis, Caucasus, South Russia, October 25, 1904.” Since his early days in the U.S., Gorky was known to say he was Russian, and when called out for not speaking the language, he would claim to be Georgian.

Yet amid such fictionalizing, there are many indications that complete rejection of his background was not his goal either— numerous anecdotes tell of Gorky performing traditional Armenian dances and songs at parties. Much of what we know of his private life before 1941, when he met and married Agnes Magruder (or “Mougouch,” as he called her, an Armenian term of affection), is from the prolific correspondence between him and his sister, which continued until his death. Here, we learn that Gorky took Mougouch to an Armenian restaurant on their first date, and that once they were married, he boasted of Mougouch’s progress learning phrases in Armenian. But Gorky’s omissions and outright untruths indelibly shaped his story, both for the public and for his own family. As Mougouch said: “I was a beautiful blank book that he could write anything he wanted in.” When asked by her granddaughter, Cosima Spender, why her grandfather had to invent so many stories about himself, Agnes replied poignantly, “What was the point of telling people about a place they had no idea existed?”

As an artist in New York City of the 1930s and 1940s, having fled violence and persecution abroad, Gorky was far from alone. While these exoduses and arrivals can be described in broad strokes, essential differences marked the immigration stories of this generation and the experiences, education and degrees of privilege and trauma they brought with them. Many endured the displacement of successive relocations on the way to the U.S., including Jews who fled antisemitism and arrived well before World War II, Americanizing their names (Mark Rothko, b. Marcus Rothkowitz; Louise Nevelson, b. Leah Berliawsky; Milton Resnick, b. Rachmiel Resnick). There were those who fled Nazi-occupied Europe (Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, Piet Mondrian, Kurt Seligmann, Andre Bréton), some of whom were World War I veterans (Max Ernst, André Masson, Fernand Léger) and were scarred by their time in the service. The exiled Ukrainian-Polish aristocrat John Graham immigrated to New York in 1920 and changed his name from Ivan Dombrowski. De Kooning also came in the 1920s, like Gorky, Graham and those born in America (often, like Isamu Noguchi, Lee Krasner and William Baziotes, to immigrant parents), what they lacked in firsthand knowledge of the avant-garde movements in Europe they made up for in studiousness and curiosity.

For some of these artists, including Gorky, arrival in the United States was quickly followed by the Great Depression and then World War II, complicating cultural perceptions of the specific ordeals they had suffered previously. In a special issue of the Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, a collection of interviews with eleven émigré artists reveals both a distinctly heterogeneous experience of exile and an indication of the societal imperative to adapt. Several spoke freely about their mythic notions of America; few said much regarding personal hardship, at most describing a general sense of cultural out-of-placeness.

Arshile Gorky, Painting, ca. 1937–38. Oil on canvas, 40 × 52 in. (101.6 × 132.1 cm). Private collection. © The Arshile Gorky Foundation

In the 1930s, as Gorky was working out compositional strategies, his titling practices did not rigidly follow pictorial concerns. For iterations of related imagery during this period, Gorky experimented with both titles that referenced specific places (Khorkom, Sochi) and those that conformed to the modernist agnosticism of broad association. Titles such as Composition (1936–37), Painting (1936–37) and Organization No.2 (1936–37) aligned him with the latter and with those whom he had studied carefully, including Miró, Kandinsky and Mondrian.

The nearly identical compositions of Image in Khorkom (1934–36), Xhorkom (1936) and Painting (1937–38) tempt connotation through titling, elusively. Garden in Sochi (1941) purposely transplants the location of his father’s garden in Khorkom, which, as Gorky wrote in a description for the Museum of Modern Art shortly after the institution acquired the painting in 1942, contained old apple trees, wild carrots and nesting porcupines. The work stands in as an apt analogy for Gorky’s modes of abstraction and figuration, of the autonomy of image and title, of his refusal to illustrate while at the same time inviting association. If there were ever an Armenian subject explicitly referenced, it is in Gorky’s titles.

Gorky was not included in exhibitions of exiled or European artists, defined as such; rather, he was often identified as an American artist, even before he was naturalized in 1939. Yet his influences and knowledge suggested a more expansive picture. His desire to be recognized as an American painter would later be undermined by his connection to the Surrealists in New York, leading critics like Clement Greenberg to refer to Gorky’s “French-ness.”

Much emphasis has been placed on the ways in which Gorky’s early stylistic imitations hindered his advancement in the New York art world. It took Julien Levy, who would become Gorky’s dealer in late 1944, more than ten years to agree to represent him. In fact, it was only at André Breton’s insistence that Levy eventually drafted a contract, stipulating that Breton was required to write an introduction for the catalogue to his first solo show with the gallery in March 1945.

Gorky did not downplay his affinities. In Elaine de Kooning’s words, he “picked freely (and without covering up his tracks).” Indeed, the thread of influence from Cezanne to Picasso (via Ingres) to Léger, Miró and Matta is evident throughout Gorky’s work. At a certain point, though, it begins to feel as if each influence is elbowing out the other for space on his studied canvases and also as if his attitude toward influence itself, namely a skepticism regarding the ideal of originality, anticipates essential aspects of postmodernism.

Levy and others were right to view the mid-1940s as the period in which Gorky began to embody his most personal idiom, but they were wrong that his earlier paintings contained nothing of the personal. Such misjudgments left his work in an awkward relationship vis-à-vis modernism’s narrow core values, and the assumption of self-effacement in the early paintings muddied the way in which Gorky, who shared only some of those values, was seen.

In 1940, more than one reference given in support of Gorky’s proposal to study “sources of American cultural traditions” for a Guggenheim Fellowship spoke of him as an important abstract painter but one prone to imitation, in need of liberation from “foreign influences.” (“He needs Americanization,” as one reference bluntly put it.) Gorky’s application does mention freedom from “foreign influences,” yet he did not mean this for himself personally and did not ascribe to the essentially xenophobic phrasing above. Instead, he believed it was a common necessity for the advancement of American abstract art.

Anatomical Blackboard

The Horns of the Landscape

One Year the Milkweed

The Liver is the Coxcomb

The Leaf of the Artichoke is an Owl

They Will Take My Island

The Sun, the Dervish in the Tree

The Love of a New Gun

Water of the Flowery Mill

How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life

Diary of a Seducer

Good Hope Road

In July 1941, Gorky, Agnes and Isamu Noguchi drove across the country to San Francisco, where Gorky was scheduled to prepare his first solo museum exhibition. Agnes recalls:

We went to see the Grand Canyon and Isamu and Gorky both turned their backs unimpressed, saying it looked like a postcard. In Santa Fe we … visited the Navajo on their reservations … the round breast-like ovens where they cooked their bread reminded him [Gorky] of home…. We drove up to Big Sur. It was all so beautiful, but he wasn’t stunned—he only liked things he could get close to; he liked hills he could walk over. The mountains were not as big as those in the Caucasus and the people and their houses had no relationship with the landscape.

As much as the trip seemed to underwhelm Gorky, it moved him upon his return to New York that fall to undertake a number of paintings inspired by the landscape of the West, sparked by associations he found with the environment of his childhood. The work visibly began to negotiate a feeling of suspension between worlds. The following summer, Gorky began spending time in rural Connecticut and the year after that in Virginia at Mougouch’s family farm. By mid-decade, the effect of his extended immersion in nature and his friendships with the Surrealists in New York—namely, Breton and Matta—would be magnified many times over in his work

Arshile Gorky, How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life, 1944. Oil on canvas, 40 × 45 1/16 in. (101.6 × 114.5 cm). Seattle Art Museum. Gift of the Virginia Bagley Wright Collection (74.40). © The Arshile Gorky Foundation

As the urban-grounded Gorky of the 1930s gave way to the nature-grounded Gorky of the 1940s, his trajectory intersected with Surrealist interest in the natural and metaphysical worlds, as seen in the biomorphic abstractions and fantastical landscapes of Ernst, Masson and Matta, of which Gorky was well aware. “The country was a great inspiration to G,” his wife remembered. “He was again a small child…. He was able to discover himself and what he has done is to create a world of his own but a world equal to nature with the infinite complexities of nature….” The notion of constructing a personal universe through nature but not of it chimed with the mythic idea of American rebirth that the group of exiled Surrealist artists sought.

Encouraged to experiment with Surrealism’s automatic practices, Gorky indulged in a process that brought him closer to his earliest longings and recollections. During a visit in February 1943, Léger prompted Gorky to talk about aspects of his childhood that had compelled him to paint. The next year, Breton inquired about Gorky’s origins and family mythology as a way to jump-start a collaboration on the titling of Gorky’s paintings. Both intuitively and cautiously, Gorky allowed Surrealism’s influence to expand his previous commitments to other forms of abstraction. Frederick Kiesler was the first to point out that his paintings may appear to be abstractions but are never abstract. This was never truer than in 1944.

To read Surrealism in Gorky is to understand that, more than anything, it freed him to explore the relationship between internal and external, between his innermost self and his canvases. Years later, Julien Levy described Gorky’s engagement with automatism as a “redemption,” suggesting that his repressed emotions were central to his creative drive. Whether or not it would have been true, it is appealing to think that, as Mougouch believed, he “would have found what he needed in the Surrealists whether they were in New York or not.”

Between visits and dinners at Gorky’s studio and in the Connecticut countryside, Breton and Gorky titled the canvases that were included in the artist’s debut solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in 1945. Theirs was a process of free association and translation in which Gorky would stare at his paintings and ramble off a train of thought in English while his wife translated into French for Breton. Breton would then choose a phrase from Agnes’s translation, which she would then translate back into English for Gorky. This stacked rupture of non-native languages represented a kind of Surrealist game in itself, in which words were a site for estrangement, play and formation all at once. The result of these collaborative exercises are titles that function not as descriptions but as evocations of memory and perception. A “hybrid,” as Breton referred to it, of you and it, of direct observation and access to past impressions. The titles compose absurdist analogies (The Leaf of the Artichoke is an Owl; The Liver is the Coxcomb); personify nature (The Horns of the Landscape); and stem from word play (Water of the Flowery Mill—flour/flower) and reminiscence (One Year the Milkweed; How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life). This last title summons Gorky’s early childhood memories of his face pressed to his mother’s apron, and of the patterned frock captured in the photograph of the two, which he omitted from his painted portraits.

In the mid-1940s, his work became more improvisational, both in his titling and the ways in which he grew less constrained by multilayered painting and the laborious routine of transferring well-developed preparatory drawings to canvas. It was a recurring joke that Gorky would dare visitors to his studio to lift his canvases, which were impossibly heavy with paint. As part of the paperwork for MoMA’s acquisition of his painting Argula (1938), he defined his technique as “hundreds and hundreds of layers of paint to obtain the weight of reality.” The sheer quantity of expensive material required to support his impasto technique in the depths of his personal poverty during the Depression was a source of both wonder and worry to many of those around him.

Gorky’s layering seemed motivated in part, paradoxically, by a fear that the war would cut off his art supplies from Europe, as well as by a seemingly pathological need to make the object more real. Perhaps the shift from impasto to diluted paint washes in the mid-1940s signaled a process of release. In any event, the loosening of technique and approach had astonishing confluences with the events that unraveled during the last two years of Gorky’s life.

Arshile Gorky and his mother, Shushan Der Marderosian Adoian, Van, Ottoman Empire, ca. 1912. Unknown photographer (likely Hovhannes Avedaghayan). Courtesy Dr. Bruce Berberian and the Arshile Gorky Foundation.

Charred Beloved

Delicate Game

The Calendars

The Plow and the Song

The Limit

The Beginning

Agony

The Orator

The Betrothal

4 P.M.

The Opaque

Soft Night

Myths beget myths, and Gorky was a magnet for them. Even his final painting—the canvas on his easel the day he committed suicide—is a source of debate. Julien Levy maintained that it was Last Painting (1948), whereas the friends who found him reported that the painting on the easel had a slash through it, which Last Painting never did.

Posthumously titled, this piece has also been referred to as Last Painting (The Black Monk), as it is thought to have been inspired by Anton Chekhov’s 1894 short story of that name. In his memoir, Levy quotes the final lines of the story, which the art historian and Gorky scholar Harry Rand later understood as a suicide note: “[T]he Black Monk whispered to him that he was a genius, and he died only because his feeble, mortal body had lost its balance, and could no longer serve as the covering of genius.”

Gorky’s suicide was preceded by two grueling years that added up to a perfect storm of misfortune and heartbreak: A fire in his studio destroyed many of his paintings; cancer treatment necessitated a colostomy; his father died; his wife had an affair with Roberto Matta and a drunk-driving accident with Julien Levy left Gorky injured and unable to paint.

Amid all this, Gorky’s work edged toward psychological interiority in 1946 and 1947, with his titles following suit. Delicate Game, The Calendars, The Limit, The Beginning, Agony and The Opaque are mysterious and foreboding, marking time and internal space in vague, poetic terms but also suggesting specific events such as the studio fire, in Charred Beloved, or a retreat to childhood memory, in The Plow and the Song.

Often referred to as “the last Surrealist and the first Abstract Expressionist,” Gorky evaded neat categorization both in his lifetime and after his death. Breton’s perceptive use of the word “hybrid” in 1945 foreshadowed the terms of Gorky’s canonization—split between worlds, identities, names, movements and continents. Gorky’s proximity to Surrealism clashed with AbEx’s demands for pure abstraction, and the foregrounding of his personal iconography similarly went against modernism’s disdain for the biographical—an enduring tangle reflected throughout the writing about his work.

In the 1970s and 1980s, that literature was disrupted when Gorky’s nephew, Karlen Mooradian (named for Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin), published fabricated letters from Gorky to Vartush, Mooradian’s mother. Karlen claimed to have translated the correspondence himself and never allowed the letters to be seen in their original language during his lifetime. As elsewhere in the Gorky story, much is revealed only posthumously. After Karlen’s death in 1990, writers Nouritza Matossian and Matthew Spender (Gorky’s son-in-law, whom he never met) were finally able to compare his translations to the original cache of letters safeguarded by his mother and confirm their suspicions of inauthenticity.

Mooradian’s embellished correspondence contained falsely illuminating details not only about Gorky’s aesthetic philosophies but also about Armenian nationalism and the importance of heritage to his work. On neither of the latter subjects was Gorky known to be demonstrative. Yet the forgeries were readily accepted and seemed to whet an appetite among critics and historians to read Gorky’s work in terms of a consistent biographical imperative, set against traumatic beginnings, displacement and the Genocide. Rand wrote that the paintings not only “came to resemble a diary” but functioned as a “secretive editorialism.” Hilton Kramer agreed, “The congruence of image and experience is traced with breathtaking precision.”

After Gorky’s death, his fictions were peeled away and he became known as ethnically Armenian and a survivor of the Genocide. But Mooradian’s correspondence once again clouded the biography with fabrication, incorrectly portraying Gorky as a nationalist and sowing mistruths about his Armenian identity as essentialist. While it is tempting to condemn Mooradian, he, like many secondgeneration survivors, was left in the complicated situation of needing to reconcile one generation’s choices of erasure and silence with a succeeding generation’s feelings of pride, anguish, anger and guilt. What was for Gorky an affirmation of existence, even a method of survival, was perceived by Mooradian as an act of denial and injustice. It’s perhaps possible only now, so many years later—through and even because of Mooradian’s obfuscations and Gorky’s own—to see the true depths of Gorky’s complexity in relief: a man seeking equilibrium for a divided self and as an artist performing both authenticity and masquerade with remarkable dexterity.

In a moving film made by Cosima Spender in 2011, three generations of family drama plays out in and around Gorky. After thumbing through a photo album and squabbling with her mother, Agnes, over dates, names and places, Gorky’s daughter Maro says: “It’s far worse not to remember than to remember…. Knowledge is healing. The worst thing is not knowing.”

Maro turns to her own daughter and says: “You’ve stirred the muddy waters.”

A version of Jessica Eisenthal’s essay with citations can be obtained by contacting Ursula’s editorial offices. A complete compendium of Gorky’s titles can be found in the Arshile Gorky Catalogue Raisonné. (ed. Eileen Costello, 2021), available on the Arshile Gorky Foundation website.

Jessica Eisenthal is an art historian and curator based in Brooklyn and Saratoga Springs, New York. She earned a PhD from the Courtauld Institute in London and has conducted curatorial research projects at the Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs; the Los Angeles County Museum; and Tate Modern, London. Her most recent writing was published in Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards (2021), the first survey of Kelly’s postcard collage practice.