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Organized by Michael R. Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective offers the richest survey of this artist’s oeuvre in more than a quarter century. With nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures, as well as some comparative works and materials, the exhibition traces the full range of Gorky’s career and amply demonstrates his critical importance as a late Surrealist on the threshold of Abstract Expressionism.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition unfolded chronologically through ten galleries, with several rooms large enough to be divided into multiple thematic groupings. The first four galleries (titled “Early Work,” “Cubism,” “The Artist and His Mother,” and “Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia”) traced Gorky’s beginnings as a young painter rapidly assimilating the styles of other artists, including Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. These early galleries covered the period roughly between 1920, when Gorky (then Vosdanig Adoian) immigrated to the United States to escape the Turkish Armenian genocide, and the mid-1930s, culminating with two important series of Cubist-inspired works recalling his mother, Shushan, who died of starvation in 1919 in an Armenian refugee camp. One gallery included more than a dozen of the eighty or so progressively abstract works by Gorky in various media on the “Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia” theme (1931–34), along with the work that inspired them: Giorgio de Chirico’s The Fatal Temple (1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art), which contains a portrait of the Italian artist’s mother. Another small, chapel-like gallery was devoted to Gorky’s two versions of The Artist and His Mother (1926–36; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and ca. 1926–46; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) and related imagery, including the poignant 1912 photograph of Gorky and his mother, sent to his already-emigrated father in the United States as a reminder of his family back home. A fuller discussion of these works appears in the essay by Kim Servart Theriault in the exhibition catalogue. Despite the palpable solemnity informing these works, the cramped space and low ceilings of the exhibition’s opening galleries produced a somewhat distracting congestion, both in the number of pictures on the walls and museum visitors viewing them.
The next five galleries, all with much larger dimensions and ceilings twice as high as the previous rooms, allowed Gorky’s mature work of the late 1930s and early 1940s more room to breathe. In the first of these galleries, titled “Organization,” Gorky’s engagement with Picasso and Cubism became visibly inflected by mechanistic/constructivist forms adapted from Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, and the American painter Stuart Davis, a close friend. An elaborate 1935 pencil study Gorky made in preparation for the gallery’s titular work, Organization (1933–36; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), brought to mind Picabia’s Girl Born without a Mother (1916–17; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh)—an interesting, albeit historically unfounded, comparison in light of the theme of maternal absence and loss exhibited in previous rooms. Harry Cooper’s essay for the exhibition catalogue reads Organization as an elaborate painterly arrangement whose layers, lines, and textures also pay tribute to Piet Mondrian.
The subsequent large gallery was divided into two themes, “The Newark Airport Murals” and “Garden of Sochi.” Like many American artists during the Great Depression, Gorky worked for the Federal Art Project, but his Newark Airport Mural project—titled Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations—constituted a rare example of government-sponsored abstract public art. Only a few years after the installation of his ten large (7 × 12 ft.) canvas murals in 1937, though, the U.S. military took over Newark Airport and the murals were eventually concealed under fourteen layers of paint. While eight of the murals were completely destroyed, two were rediscovered during a renovation of the facility in 1973 and have since been restored (Newark Museum, on extended loan from the collection of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). Together with several surviving preparatory works and proposals for other mural projects, they demonstrate not only Gorky’s formal inventiveness and digestion of various modernist stylistic prototypes but also his stern commitment to abstraction at a time when most federal art took the form of social realism (which he disparaged as “poor art for poor people”). Jody Patterson’s essay in the exhibition catalogue explores Gorky’s federal art projects at length. In contrast to the artist’s mecanomorphic public murals, his Garden of Sochi series projects a much more private biomorphic vision, once again evoking childhood memories of Armenia—specifically his father’s garden in their hometown of Khorkom. In one of many acts of purposeful obfuscation and self-fashioning, Gorky shrouded that personal allusion with the titular reference to Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Baltic Sea. As if providing a formal clue or analogy to such camouflage, one of Gorky’s Garden of Sochi paintings (1941; Museum of Modern Art, New York) features an opaque greenish-gold paint that seems to mask most, but not all, of an underlying field of riotous color.
The next gallery, with sections titled “Gorky and Surrealism” and “Bloodflames,” was the largest of all and formed the centerpiece of the exhibition. As a way of underscoring themes addressed therein, the walls of this gallery were painted in a meandering abstract pattern reconstructing Frederick Kiesler’s design for Nicolas Calas’s Bloodflames exhibition of Surrealist art at the Hugo Gallery in New York in 1947—one of two Surrealist exhibitions of that year that included works by Gorky (the other having been organized in Paris by his friends Marcel Duchamp and André Bréton). Dominating the first two-thirds of the present exhibition gallery were works produced by Gorky between 1943 and 1945 in response to the lush outdoor environment he encountered in Virginia at the Crooked Run Farm, owned by the parents of his wife, Agnes Magruder, whom he married in 1941. According to an introductory wall text, Gorky’s experience there with his wife and new baby “helped shape his newfound interest in the natural environment after more than a decade of Cubist experimentation in New York.” As the text also observed, “The lush vegetation reminded Gorky of his rural Armenian homeland, and the freely improvised drawing that he produced in the fields surrounding the farm combined childhood memories of the orchards and wheat fields of his father’s farm in Turkish Armenia with direct observations from nature.” In other words, whereas Gorky previously had focused his assimilative powers on absorbing and adapting the work of other artists, by the mid-1940s he redirected those powers toward non-human nature, producing a kind of modernist pastoral (foreshadowing Jackson Pollock at Springs, Long Island, and his comment, “I am nature”). Although such thinking romanticizes “nature” as something primal and untainted by civilization, Gorky’s lush pictures of the mid-1940s—rich in color and practically perspiring with surface energy—almost seem to warrant it. At the same time, plenty of human culture still shines through, notably the stylistic echoes of Joan Miró and Roberto Matta.
The highlight of this gallery was Gorky’s The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), a monumental evocation of virility and violence. Despite the pastoral associations accorded many surrounding works, the label for this painting says that it “offers a menacing vision of nature, replete with claws, talons, and other spiky forms, as well as feathers, flower petals, and swollen genitalia . . . [signaling an] abrupt shift in Gorky’s vision away from the harmonious view of nature’s fecundity . . . to the dark, threatening forms” of Surrealism. That rather jarring estimation serves to link The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb to the remainder of this exhibition gallery, which included Gorky’s ominous painting Nude (1946; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC) near a display case containing various publications, pamphlets, and letters documenting his collaboration with the Surrealists.
The last three galleries of the exhibition treated the following themes: “The Plow and the Song,” featuring more works redolent with memories of Gorky’s Armenian childhood, including three miniature wooden plows carved by him; “Charred Beloved” and “Agony,” encompassing several pictures visualizing the torment of his devastating 1947 studio fire, his subsequent bout with rectal cancer, marital strife, and the paralysis of his painting arm after a car accident; and “The Limit,” a small concluding space punctuating his final works, including the so-called Last Painting (1948; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which the artist left unfinished when he took his own life on July 21, 1948. Encountering these works and related biographical information, several museum visitors reacted with audible exclamations of pity and disbelief.
Intentionally or not, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective broached the titular “retrospective” theme on a metaphorical level by affording an extended meditation on the role of memory and retrospection in modern art. The exhibition challenged viewers to reconcile Gorky’s modernism—his participation in a movement predicated upon avant-garde originality and spontaneity in confronting contemporary life—with considerable evidence of his painstaking preparatory work and irrepressible efforts to recall the past. As the exhibition was at pains to demonstrate, Gorky the modernist maintained a lifelong conversation with his own personal history as an exile from the Turkish Armenian genocide as well as with a series of powerful artistic precursors (Cézanne, Picasso, De Chirico, Miró, etc.), not to mention with his own work.
Addressing the tension between past and present in Gorky’s art, wall texts in the introductory gallery offered an explanation echoed in various forms throughout the exhibition: “Gorky’s work has been described as a series of dialogues with artists, both living and dead, whose paintings and techniques he sought to master and ultimately transcend. . . . [He] did not embrace mainstream modernism’s cult of innovation and originality, believing instead that a steadfast allegiance to another artist’s vision could be used as a means of self-creation.” Such an interpretation rightly acknowledges a certain degree of complexity in modernism as a movement that encouraged artistic dialogue, including dialogue with the past, as a path toward individual creativity and self-fashioning.
But what, if anything, does Gorky’s work demonstrate about history beyond the artist’s personal memories and aesthetic self-fashioning? To be sure, negotiating a key place in the history of modernist art as a creative response to childhood family trauma constitutes a remarkable achievement in itself—an achievement presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art with exceptional grace on a monumentally impressive scale. And yet, I came away from the exhibition wondering whether more could have been said about how Gorky’s art spoke to broader historical concerns, especially regarding World War II. Near the entrance to the largest gallery but easily missed amid the fervor of The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb was a small picture titled Hitler Invades Poland (1939, private collection), a work that Gorky produced collaboratively with Isamu Noguchi and De Hirsh Margulies as an anxious response to Nazi aggression. Gorky’s blood-red handprints cascade across the picture’s surface, succinctly expressing the significance he perceived in that historical event. Although an accompanying label briefly explained this work, World War II received almost no attention elsewhere in the exhibition, except in relation to Gorky’s painting How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944, Seattle Art Museum), which was exhibited at the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme organized by Duchamp and Breton in Paris shortly after the war. Another wall text indicates that this 1947 exhibition “was dedicated to the theme of modern myths, a familiar subject for the Surrealists both during and after World War II,” making How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron “particularly suited to the show’s theme since it expressed Gorky’s own personal mythology based upon childhood memories of his beloved mother and his lost Armenian homeland.” Was the artist’s engagement with the war really so indirect?
Taylor’s superb essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue reveals that the artist had a “longstanding interest in camouflage” (105) and even taught a class on camouflage that “had a direct impact on his work” (106). Furthermore, says Taylor, “It is surely no coincidence that Gorky created The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb during World War II, whose ‘epidemic of destruction’ [quoting Gorky himself about the war] had continued to engulf Europe and other parts of the globe in the two years since he had taught his class on camouflage at the Grand Central School of Art” (116). Nouritza Matossian’s biography Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (New York: Overlook, 2000) points out that Gorky worried about being drafted, and that, “The prospect of fighting after his war-scarred childhood and the ordeal of a medical examination, with its echoes of Ellis Island, threw him into a panic” (335). Matossian also quotes Philip Pavia, who recalled a speech given by Gorky to members of the Art Students’ League in 1939, in which, “He said the Blitzkrieg was wrong, and he didn’t like Hitler, but he said the idea of instantaneous war was exciting, and that we should make art instantaneous. That’s when Gorky started to give classes at the Grand Central Art School. He called them Blitzkrieg Classes” (289). Admittedly, art and war make discomforting bedfellows, but encountering a bit more of this historical information in the exhibition would have encouraged visitors to consider how Gorky’s “personal mythology” and recombinant formal abstraction resonated widely within his own time.
Alan C. Braddock
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Temple University
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