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Village Person

Arshile Gorky changed his name, but he couldn't change his painful past

Many artists have had difficult childhoods, but by any measure, Arshile Gorky's was particularly traumatic. He was born Vosdanik Adoian in the village of Khorkom in Turkish Armenia in 1904. Two years later, his father emigrated to America. Whether he left to find work or to avoid arrest for being an Armenian nationalist has never been clear, but it would be nearly 15 years before father and son met again. By then, Gorky would have experienced the loss of his village, witnessed the genocide of his people by the Turkish government, endured the refugee poverty and famine that killed his mother when he was 15, and, finally, with his younger sister Vartoosh, sailed to America, leaving behind forever his mother's grave, his homeland and his beloved village. But not his past.

That past resonates through "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings," on view at the Menil Collection. Curated by Janie C. Lee, adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition offers an intimate introduction to one of America's most influential artists.

After a few years in Providence and Boston, the young Armenian artist moved to New York City in 1924. He had already rechristened himself Arshile Gorky; the first name was a variant of an Armenian royal name, and the surname means "bitter one" in Russian. (By all accounts, Gorky was an inveterate raconteur and rarely let the facts interfere with a good story. If you wanted to believe he was related to the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky, he wouldn't disillusion you -- despite the fact that the writer's name was also an assumed one. The writer of his New York Times obituary was one such mistaken soul.) In New York, Gorky's talent was recognized almost immediately, and he managed to eke out a living teaching drawing, both academically and privately; by the early 1930s, his work began appearing in group shows.

An incessant drawer from early childhood, Gorky was essentially self-taught -- one of his sisters remembers him finding a dead fish and drawing it over and over in the sand. (Later, he would be fired from a Boston rubber factory for drawing on the molds.) His major influences were the great 19th-century French classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. As installed in the Menil, the first three galleries of the exhibit (which has been judiciously edited down from the ungainly sprawl and visual overload of the Whitney's version) show how in his early work, Gorky worked to incorporate their disparate approaches into a pictorial language of his own.

Of particular note are the drawings of his mother, especially the portrait on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. Gorky faithfully rendered his mother's face from a formal 1912 photograph of the two of them, taken to send to his father. It's a beautiful, loving portrait, intimate and yet reserved. The profound depths of her eyes are matched only by the eyes of her young son in some other drawings on display. One of the pleasures of seeing this retrospective at the Menil are the echoes that occur not only within Gorky's body of work but between it and the rest of the museum's collection. The portrait of his mother resonates with some Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits in the Menil's classical galleries (Gorky kept a reproduction of one from the Metropolitan Museum's extensive Egyptian collection in his studio).

The other series of note in these first rooms is the Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series. Composed in 1931 and 1932, the group of works demonstrates Gorky's habit of repeating forms and motifs through different mediums -- here, principally graphite or ink -- and methods, such as crosshatching and shading, to create numerous variations on a theme. The series demonstrates the countless formal possibilities of drawing (this one alone runs to more than 50 works). Inhabited by entangled biomorphic shapes of no particular provenance, the melancholy meditations of Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia compel our lingering attention. When asked what personal or symbolic significance the series' imagery held, Gorky's response was "wounded birds, poverty, and one whole week of rain." A related drawing, Image at Khorkom (1934-36), references the village of his birth.

Gorky's mature work began in the early 1940s, when he encountered the surrealists, who were here in America to escape the Nazis. He would incorporate their ideas into his own work and become the link between the surrealists and artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Of prime importance to Gorky's development was Roberto Matta, who encouraged him in the surrealist technique of automatic drawing -- the hand moving unguided by the mind. Around this time, Gorky left New York for Connecticut and began drawing from nature. The combination seems to have unleashed a torrent of creative invention in Gorky as he filtered the world he saw before him through his imagination and memory. In Drawing (1946), two figures in the lower half are clearly cows, but a foreleg of one cow ends in not a hoof but a scythelike shape. And in the lovely large drawing The Plow and the Song (1946), the sinuous vertical figure in the center suggests an Armenian plow from Gorky's childhood.

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