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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.

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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