Commentary: The Second Coming of Arshile Gorky

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Komitas is celebrated as an ethno-musicologist and founder of modern Armenian music. Like the time demarcation of BC and AD, there is a defining line in Armenian music cutting across like a watershed: the body of music created before and after Komitas.

Additionally, Komitas has become the symbol, or the icon, if you will, of the Armenian Genocide for the Armenians. His statues, from Yerevan to Paris and from Montreal to Detroit, symbolize the Armenian Genocide.

In recent years, the artist Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Manoog Adoian) has also emerged as the icon for the Armenian Genocide, not necessarily for any particular historic reference, but for the inadvertent controversy created about the traumatic experiences in the artist’s life, which shaped his worldview and propelled him onto the world arena.

Currently an exhibition on American Abstract Expressionism, focusing on Gorky as the dominant figure, has touched off a firestorm in the media, because the curator and the director of the Tate Gallery in London, in addition to delivering what pertains to their expertise, have chosen to redefine history, in reference to Gorky’s life, and have ranked themselves with the Genocide denialists’ camp.

But before coming to the Tate controversy, it is amazing to watch Arshile Gorky’s spectacular ascendance as an artist and the leader of American Abstract Expressionist movement. For many years, when reference was made to that movement in any book or art magazine, Gorky’s name was either mentioned last, or was never mentioned. Ironically, Mark Rothko, who was Gorky’s student, held a central place in all writings. But recent years have marked a new realignment in evaluating the luminaries of that
movement and Gorky has found his true place as the most influential of artists in the group.

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The US Postal Service has just issued a series of stamps dedicated to the artists who developed the school of Abstract Expressionism in America,  and Gorky is among Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.

Gorky’s life was marked with many tragedies, which began with the Armenian Genocide, uprooting the Vaspouragan Armenians from their ancestral land. Gorky was a native of Van, in Vaspouragan, whose nature, religious architecture, colorful miniature paintings and flavorful fruits bore into his psyche and memory, his life and his art. He lost his mother in Armenia of starvation, and on his way from Armenia in search for an elusive father in the US, he was beaten by our national hero, General Dro, when Arshile had appealed to the government for help.

“I will never forget my brother’s ear bleeding when he was kicked down the government house stairs,” recalled his sister, Vartoosh, to this writer,  before she passed away in Chicago.

Arriving in America, he was employed at Hood Rubber factory in Watertown, Mass., where he befriended Yenovk DerHagopian and Khachadour Pilibosian. At lunch breaks Yenovk used to sing Vanetzi songs, which brought tears to Gorky’s eyes. He was fired from Hood Rubber because instead of using the wood for shoe shapes, he designed Armenian ploughs, now part of the rotating exhibitions.

He was a self-made artist; he never completed an art academy, but he was invited by one to teach. De Kooning, who was the most academically trained, said that whatever he had learned in the Arts Academy Gorky already knew it, and better. Sculptor Ruben Nakian always admired Gorky as the “European master” of our artists’ group.

For a long time Gorky experienced with the Cubists, with Cezanne, Picasso, de Chirico and Miro. He went through an intense and determined period of self-education, emulating those artists consciously. His friend Julian Levy, an art dealer, always steered him towards self-expression and promised him an exhibition when Gorky became Gorky, i.e., adopted the mysterious
moniker. And he had hardly found his own path when personal tragedy struck again. Levy kept his promise, posthumously publishing one of the earliest Gorky catalogs of stature.

In his short life, Gorky endured much: he developed colon cancer and underwent surgery, a car accident broke his shoulder, and a fire in his studio scorched some 20 paintings. As if these series of tragedies were not enough, his wife, Agnes, ran away from their home, taking their two daughters, whom Gorky adored. Adding insult to injury, she had an affair with one of his artist friends, Matta Echaurren, which was quite an affront to an Armenian male from Van.

Artists are called “sacred monsters.” We don’t know what transpired in the family. Picasso was no less a monster towards his women, but at least one of the women endured for life. Gorky was not that lucky with his wife, whom he lovingly called “Mougouch;” she selfishly abandoned him with the two children during his tragedies. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Gorky committed suicide by hanging himself at the age of 48.

Some friends, who had bought his paintings for $25 as an act of charity, sold them later for millions. Today Gorky is unreachable on the art market; his widow enjoys his estate, hopefully with clear conscience.

An Armenian novelist, Sarkis Vahakn, has written a lively novel based on Gorky’s life, which provides superb material for a movie screenplay.

Gorky eventually emerged as a defining artist of the 20th century. Very recently four books were published exploring many aspects of his art, his personality and his impact on the 20th- century American artistic  movements. The (London) Times Literary Supplement has reviewed three of those books in its April 23, 2010 issue, very appropriately coinciding with the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Those books are the following: Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience, by Irving
Sandler, Arshile Gorky — A Retrospective, Tate Modern, Rethinking Arshile Gorky, by Kim. S. Theriault, Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender, editor (the late Gorky’s son-in-law).

Conspicuously missing in this series is Michael Taylor’s outstanding
catalog for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Gorky retrospective.
Perhaps that is the most comprehensive volume on the artist doing justice to his life story, his origins from the cradle of the Armenian civilization (Van). Michael Taylor’s introduction, accompanying essays, the bibliography and the serious themes of all writings are on par with Gorky’s art. But we don’t find a review in the Times Literary Supplement. However, the reviewer Kelly Grover, does not mince the words like the folks at Tate. One paragraph is enough to demonstrate the respect towards historic truth
and the artist’s legacy. Thus Grover writes: “How did America snap out its instinctive provincialism and create a new global voice in art? Among the most imaginations at work was that of an Armenian refugee who arrived as a teenager at Ellis Island in 1920 in search of his father. Born Vostanig Manoog Adoian, the gifted young draughtsman had been displaced by the century’s first recorded genocide, which claimed his mother’s life.”

The Philadelphia retrospective was hailed in the art world as an epoch-making event. The exhibition moved to Tate Gallery in London to be subjected to the British colonial arrogance and condescension over smaller nations. Indeed giving in to pressures of Turkish denialists, Tate has placed a shameful disclaimer in the catalog and the website in the following text in part: “The texts associated with the exhibition are careful to qualify the emotive term ‘genocide’ in relation to the tumultuous experiences of Arshile Gorky’s early life. We are aware that the British Government has found no pre-meditation and that, therefore, the wartime events of 1915 do not constitute a ‘genocide’ in the legal definition. However, we are also aware that other bodies, including the European Parliament, have reached a different conclusion. We recognise that the ways in which the events have been described and the histories written remain contentious, and it was for these reasons that we described them as ‘widely held to be a genocide’
in recognition of their differing reception.”

Of course many Armenians have reacted with indignation, among them celebrities like Atom Egoyan, to this outdated patronizing attitude towards one of history’s most documented tragedies.

A powerful letter was sent by the past president of the International Association of genocide Scholars Prof. Gregory Stanton to Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Gallery, and to Matthew Gale, the curator, in which he condemns the scandalous politicization of art and history in the following terms: “Contrary to the statement in your disclaimer, the British government has never stated that it has ‘found no-premeditation and that therefore, the wartime events of 1915 do not constitute a ‘genocide’ in
the legal definition.’ In fact, the House of Lords in 1915, using evidence
from a report written by Lord Bryce and the great historian
Arnold Toynbee, accused the Ottoman Empire of ‘making government
by massacre part of their political system,’ and of ‘systematically
exterminating a whole race out of their domain.’

“British Foreign Ministers Arthur Balfour and Lord Curzon, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George were instrumental in creating the tribunals that convicted the Young Turk triumvirate — Talaat, Enver and Jemal — of ‘massacres of hundreds of thousands of their own subjects’ which reduced the Armenian population ‘by well over a million.’ The trials of these ‘crimes against humanity,’ as the British government called them, proved the key charge of ‘premeditated mass murder.’ … So the statement in your disclaimer that ‘the British government has found no pre-meditation and
that, therefore, the wartime events of 1915 do not constitute a ‘genocide’ in the legal definition’ is false. The disclaimer must be removed from the exhibit.”

As we can see with the second coming of Arshile Gorky as a world class artist, controversy is also stirred because of his turbulent life, shared by the small nation, who has given birth to a true genius.

Gorky was the product of Genocide, and his work was indelibly impacted by that calamity, whether British high-brows would admit it or not.

In view of this violent firestorm, whatwould Gorky think and do, finding
his legacy shamefully adulterated by Genocide denialists?

Perhaps he would hang himself once again.

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