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

But this is not to say that to appreciate Gorky's art one must play a game of identification; form was more important to him than the object that suggests the form. It's the whole composition as an abstraction, the interplay of forms, and the assuredness and economy of draftsmanship that seduces. In Study for Charred Beloved (1946), there isn't a wasted line or gesture, as if, in executing this delicate composition, Gorky barely removed pencil from paper.

The last drawings in the exhibit are dated 1946-47. In January 1946, a studio fire destroyed about 25 of Gorky's paintings. That March, he underwent a colostomy operation necessitated by rectal cancer. A fastidious man, Gorky was deeply embarrassed by the procedure. He also had marital problems. Still, Gorky continued to work through 1947. In 1948, his marriage collapsed, and in June, his collarbone and two neck vertebrae were broken in an auto accident. Confined by an immobilization collar and constrained from working, on July 21 Gorky wrote "Goodbye my loveds" on a wooden crate in his Connecticut studio, and then he hung himself.

Through May 9 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400. Through April 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

One Hell of a Gift

Caroline Wiess Law has been very, very good to the MFAH. An art collector and philanthropist, Law died last Christmas Eve on her 85th birthday. She left the museum a $25 million endowment and a cache of 55 artworks, with an estimated value of between $60 million and $85 million.

Law was Houston to the core. She was the daughter of Harry Wiess, co-founder of Humble Oil & Refining Co., which became Exxon. Her first husband was a partner at the law firm Vinson, Elkins, Weems & Francis; after he died, she married Theodore Newton Law, founder of Falcon Seaboard Drilling Co. Wiess's parents were founding members of the MFAH, and Law herself was an MFAH supporter for four decades. In 1998, the Watkins-Mies building was named after her.

"A Spirited Vision: Highlights of the Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" presents works from some of the major names in 20th-century art. Philip Guston's Passage (1957) is an early ab-ex-inspired work that feels incredibly fresh. Its smears and brushy smudges of color have a visceral feeling. They remind you of the hues used for those plastic models of the human body from biology class -- the rosy pink of flesh; the pale, greenish-blue of veins; the deep red of the heart; the brownish red of the liver.

Joan Miró's Painting (The Circus Horse) (1927) is especially nice, with the lush, chalky blue of the background playing host to the artist's tentatively elegant linear elements. One of the more appealing works by Hans Hoffman in the show features brushy rectangles of near-primary colors on a pale ground. It hangs especially well between two vivid works by Lucio Fontana, one an intense red and the other a powerful, almost artificial green. True to form, Fontana has interrupted their saturated monochromatic surfaces by elegantly slicing through the canvases.

There are some early, colorful works by Franz Kline that are okay, but they make you glad he switched to the black and white of his 1961 Corinthian II. Picasso's Two Women in Front of a Window(1927) was donated in 1964 but remained in Law's home until her death. It's a notable work and a definite feather in the cap for the MFAH, but there's so much Picasso in the museum world (the MFAH alone has 80), it's hard to be visually excited about it. Andy Warhol's Caroline, four 1976 portraits of Law, is also included. Warhol cranked out scads of portraits of collectors and celebrities in the '70s and '80s. This is a particularly unflattering series that gives Law the look of a not-overly-convincing transvestite. She must have really loved Warhol to keep those around.

Neither Law's upbringing nor her education predisposed her toward the modern art she came to love. When she was furnishing her home in the '50s, dealers kept showing up with impressionist paintings. According to Law, "I just couldn't get interested in those things. They didn't talk to me." Law went on to find artworks that did talk to her -- and now they're holding forth at the MFAH. - Kelly Klaasmeyr

Through April 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

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