Permanent Loan of Works by Gorky Makes Whistler Museum a Magnet

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By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

LOWELL, Mass. — The Whistler House Museum of Art has been a gem since its founding in 1908, but it is to become a magnet as well. This small house museum (the birthplace of the American painter, James McNeill Whistler) located on a quiet side street here, has become the recipient of a collection of 28 works by the renowned Armenian-American painter, Arshile Gorky. The works, to be on permanent loan, will be officially unveiled at a reception this weekend.

For many years, the museum has had in its permanent collection a single, early painting by Gorky, “Park Street,” done in 1924 during the years he spent in Watertown. Now, it will display a significant portion of his oeuvre on permanent loan.

The collection, given by anonymous donors, includes drawings and paintings that highlight the artistic accomplishment that have led Gorky to be ranked in the roster of important abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollack, who, in the 40s, 50s and 60s, changed the way we view the world.

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The process of making the loan final has taken five years, and museum director Michael Lally and Sara Bogosian, chair of the Arshile Gorky Committee, have been involved every step of the way.
As they reviewed final proof of the catalogue, just a few days before the opening reception, they spoke nearly in unison about what it means for the museum to have this collection.

Said Lally, “It’s a great thing for the museum, the city of Lowell and really for the whole region.” Added Bogosian, “This is important for the entire arts community. These works are from a private collection and most of them have not been seen. It’s a big deal for the city and also for the Armenian community.”

Said Lally, “Having these pieces on permanent loan means that the donors retain ownership but the museum has the right to display them publicly. We will have the only existing stone sculpture by Gorky, in addition to the drawings and paintings.”

The varied works range from line drawings on paper of Mina Boehm Metzger, Gorky’s student, patron and friend (for whom this collection is named), to bold, colorful oil abstracts that show the influences on the artist of Cezanne, Picasso, Leger, Miro, Matisse, Chirico and others.

As Hayden Herrera has noted in her biography of Gorky (Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), his philosophy of working as an artist was closer to that of the apprenticeships that many European artists served under master painters. Gorky did not copy, but he studied and absorbed the influences of other artists, while developing his own unique approach to the creation of art.

Said Bogosian, “You can see him learning from the Cubists, the Impressionists, the Surrealists to establish his form of abstract Expressionism.”

Gorky was born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, in the small village of Khorkom, near Van. The date of his birth and many details of his early life have been difficult to document, but it is known that he was the only son of his mother, Shushan’s second marriage to a well-off farmer and trader. Sedrak Adoian. If there is one painting of Gorky’s with which the general public is acquainted, it is the iconic portrait of himself and his Shushan. In the painting, the two seem to look in different directions, but the intense closeness between them is clear. Before Gorky was born, his mother’s family had suffered death and destruction at the hands of Kurds, who were urged on by the Turks to attack Armenian families. Later, the Genocide killed more members of his immediate family. These events would weigh on Gorky for the rest of his life.

With his sister, Vartoosh, he came to the United States in 1920, settling first in Providence, then moving to Watertown where he spent several years. He eventually moved to New York, where he soon became part of a vibrant, bohemian community that included other artists, art critics and patrons. It was sometime in the 1920s that he changed his name from Vosdanig Adoian to Arshile Gorky, claiming that he was a cousin of the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky.

Gorky married twice, but it was his second marriage to Agnes Magruder, whom he called Mougouch, that produced two daughters, and that sustained him through recurring bouts of depression and periods of economic difficulty. In a tragic end to a brilliant career, at the culmination of which Gorky was referred to as “the Father of American Abstract Expressionism,” Gorky committed suicide in 1948, after the breakup of his marriage due to his increasing mental illness and depression.

The Whistler House Museum was chosen by the donors above four other museums that sought the collection.

Said Lally, “One institution wanted the works only for research rather than display. Many of the pieces needed cleaning and restoration, and that involved expense. We applied to the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation for a grant to fund what needed to be done.”

The works were then sent to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (connected with the Clark Museum). A contract negotiated through the donated services of a local law firm, Gallagher & Cavanagh, covered the arrangements for restoration.

Bogosian, who has served on the museum’s board for 16 years, said, “I think my being on the board helped to build trust with the donors. For me, this process has been a labor of love. Gorky, after all, is the most famous survivor of the Armenian Genocide. It has been a very personal effort for me to promote the work of this artist.”

Two other board members who have been especially supportive of the process of obtaining the collection are Anastasia Porter, who has been associated with the museum for 50 years, and Therese O’Connor.

Coincidentally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is mounting a traveling show titled “Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective,” which will go to the Tate Modern in London and then to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It opens on October 21 and includes 175 of Gorky’s works. Once it is over, the works will disperse to their owners, while the Whistler’s trove will remain in place.

The first event to mark the Whistler’s opening of “Drawings and Paintings by Arshile Gorky: Mina Boehm Metzger Collection” is the Private Preview Party to take place, Sunday, September 13, at 6 p.m. Gorky’s daughters, Maro and Natasha and son-in-law Matthew Spender will attend the opening as will Gorky’s biographer, Herrera. The event is sponsored by the Board of Trustees of the Lowell Art Association, Inc. and the museum itself. (For details, visit www.whistlerhouse.org.)

Future events planned include a reception for the public, September 19 from 2 to 4 p.m. The official opening for the public is September 16, and the show will hang in the Parker Gallery until November 7, and then be moved to the main museum building. On Saturday, September 26, at 2 p.m., there will be a reading from The Fogg by Alfred Bouchard, which includes poems about Arshile Gorky and his works. On Saturday, October 10, at 6 p.m. there will be a performance of an original play by Regina Eliot Ramsey, produced by the Image Theater about the relationship between Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.

The works by Gorky join the museum’s permanent collection that focuses on 19th- and 20th-century artists associated with New England, including William Morris Hunt, Frank Weston Benson and Aldo Hibbard amongst others.

Gorky, of course belongs in this category, thanks to his years in Providence, Watertown and Boston. But his influence reaches far beyond the New England region, and this unique collection can be expected to attract art lovers and admirers of Gorky from throughout the country and even from abroad.