Objects of Desire Installations. Constance Mensh for the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Arshile Gorky’s Art of Bliss Remembered



Untitled, 1944—1945
Pencil and crayon on paper
50.2 x 66.2 cm / 19 3/4 x 26 1/8 in
© 2017 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (New York Times) — Some artists you enormously admire. Others you admire and enormously love. For many people, Arshile Gorky is a loved one. And much of what makes him cherishable is distilled in “Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943-47,” an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle, at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side space.

Organized by Saskia Spender, one of the artist’s two granddaughters and president of the Arshile Gorky Foundation, it’s a large exhibition: more than 30 paintings and drawings, on loan from museums and private collections, installed on three gallery floors. Yet its time frame, roughly four years, is tight. It coincides with the beginning of the artist’s most fully developed work, ends a year before his death, and spans some of the happiest and saddest days of his short life.

That life was rarely easy. Gorky was born Vosdanik Adoian, around 1902 (the exact year is unclear) on the shores of Lake Van, in mountainous rural Armenia near the Turkish border. And for a brief time, in the beauty of that natural setting, in the closeness of his family, he experienced bliss.

Untitled, ca. 1946
Pencil on paper
27.5 x 37.7 cm / 10 7/8 x 14 7/8 in
© 2017 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As an adult, he recalled that close to “our house on the road to the spring, my father had a little garden with a few apple trees which had retired from giving fruit. There was a ground constantly giving shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots, and porcupines had made their nest. There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patterns here and there like fallen clouds.” He remembered a “Holy Tree.” He remembered “the sh-h-h-sh-h of silver leaves of the poplars.”

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These were memories he spent a lifetime revisiting, talking about, dreaming about, and trying to recover through art.

In reality, this Eden soon ended. In 1908, his father immigrated to the United States. Within a few years, his mother, whom he adored, moved the household from the country into the city of Van. Then a nightmare began. In 1915, the Turkish government initiated a genocidal slaughter of the Armenian population. Gorky’s family lived as hunted refugees, camping here and there. His mother died in his arms of starvation. Still in his teens, he escaped to America, where he took the name Gorky and turned himself into a modern artist.

Why he decided to become an artist, we don’t know, though we do know how he went about it, initially through a kind of ventriloquism of other artist’s voices and styles. He began with Cézanne, moved on to Picasso, and further on to Surrealists like Joan Miró, André Masson and Roberto Matta. He approached each model with an eye to what he could learn about color, texture, combining images and abstraction. As it happened, he was naturally gifted with an angel’s hand and his editing of sources was substantial: He pared away what he didn’t need and added his own increasingly autobiographical content.

By 1943, form and content were in sync in his art. And in his life, he was as close to a return to Eden as he would ever get. Two years earlier, this moody, outsider-minded man had, with joy, married a young woman named Agnes Magruder. Simultaneously, after decades of struggle, his career was finally starting to yield rewards. This allowed him to spend long stretches out of the city, first in Virginia, where his wife’s parents had a farm, and later in rural Connecticut, where he drew and painted for weeks outdoors and turned a barn into a studio.

All the work in the show comes from this time of return to the natural world. Not just in memory, but in reality, he could “look into the grass,” as he put it, and up into the trees.

In certain drawings from 1944, he literally seems to be down at grass level, nosing around, pencil and crayon in hand. He finds a fantastical, earthbound world of abstract forms resembling slugs, fungi, pods and bulbs, glommed together parasitically and erotically. It’s a mesmerizing vision, vivacious, but hungry and scary, the way the drawings of Samuel Palmer, that keyed-up Romantic soul, can be.

Topics: exhibit, Gorky

Then within a few years, the forms thin down, grow lighter. A 1946 drawing titled “Virginia-Summer” is an allover web of scraps: like a centerless scatter of stems, clods and hard-shell insects turned up by a rake. (This allover tactic influenced Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, for some of whom Gorky was a mentor.) Elsewhere, the view tends upward. A succulent green pastel drawing called “Apple Orchard” suggests buds and leaves on a branch, maybe one of the trees in his father’s Armenian orchard, in sudden, miraculous bloom.

And in several large pieces, Gorky appears to pull back to take in whole landscapes, as in a pair of oil paintings, both titled “Pastoral,” from around 1947. Even the messiest, most impetuous of his graphite drawings have a sense of precision and fineness of detail. But these two “Pastorals,” one dark (a field of brown-black with pink-white patches), the other light (chrome-yellow and white with green scribbles), are so loosely painted as to seem unfinished. (The yellow-white one, at least, isn’t: it’s conspicuously signed on the front.)

This effect is partly from a change in painting method, possibly learned from Matta. For most of his career Gorky had applied paint thickly and precisely, within outlines, in a way that made his forms look inorganic, overly deliberated. But in the 1940s, he started to thin his oils with turpentine to a watercolor consistency, which brought a relaxed softness and fleetness to his art.

“I prefer not to see the strength of my arm in the painting but only the poetry of my heart,” he wrote of this change. “The trouble is everyone uses their arms too much. I want to leave only the ghost of the painting to spur imagination.”

And he did produce what look like ghost-paintings. One titled “The Opaque,” from 1947, is done almost entirely in gray oil washes, with a few white elements swimming behind. It’s like a vision of nature sleepwalking, or veiled in mourning, or seen through a thick smoke haze.

By the time it was painted, Gorky’s paradise had been lost again. In January 1946, his Connecticut studio caught fire, destroying more than two dozen paintings and many drawings and books. In February, he learned he had rectal cancer and underwent debilitating surgery. He spent a recuperative working summer on the Virginia farm, then in 1947 moved permanently with his family — he had two daughters by then — to Connecticut.

A little before this, the Museum of Modern Art, which had acquired one of his paintings, asked Gorky, along with several other artists, to speculate on what single factor in their past had done most to shape their art. Without hesitation he wrote: “The fact that I was taken away from my little village when I was five years old yet all my vital memories are of these first years. These were the days when I smelled the bread, I saw my first red poppy, the moon, the innocent seeing.”

That kind of seeing — the old, original bliss — proved irrecoverable, as calamity continued to hammer Gorky down. In June 1948, in a car crash, he broke his back and lost use of his painting arm. Shortly afterward, his wife moved out with the children. In July, wrecked and unhinged, he hanged himself in his barn, after writing the words “Good-bye, my loveds” in chalk on a crate.

This farewell, among the saddest monuments in 20th century art, is well known; it’s part of why Gorky is treasured. Less familiar, I suspect, is what preceded it, the great surge of love for life, present and past, that is concentrated in his late art and that tingles with burning belief through this show.

(This review originally appeared in the New York Times on December 7, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/arts/design/arshile-gorky-hauser-wirth-review.html).