‘A most awesome phoenix’: how Arshile Gorky rose from the ashes to create a masterpiece

Painted in the wake of the Armenian-American artist’s devastating studio fire, Charred Beloved I defined his signature style

‘Gorky is a most awesome phoenix…’ Agnes ‘Magouch’ Gorky wrote of her husband, the Armenian-born painter Arshile Gorky, to Jeanne Reynal in late January 1946. Gorky’s brief, brilliant life was one of constant reinvention and resilience, often in the face of tragedy. Just days before the letter, on 16 January, his barn studio in Sherman, Connecticut, had burned to the ground. With it, 20 new paintings, three years of drawings and countless supplies were destroyed, including his beloved ‘Golgatha’ of an easel, as Magouch called it.

Wasting no time, by the end of the month, Gorky was in a new studio. From a loaned ballroom on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he began again. The resulting works were nothing short of a rebirth, in which the artist established his unique place in 20th-century art. Among them were three related canvases under the title Charred Beloved. As described in Nouritza Matossian’s Gorky biography, Charred Beloved ‘emerges from a snow-white feather shroud with the natural sinuousness of a living organism.’


Arshile Gorky (1904–1948), Charred Beloved I, 1946. Oil on canvas. 53½ x 39¾ in (135.9 x 101 cm). Sold for $23,410,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November 2023 at Christie's in New York

On 9 November Christie’s will offer Gorky’s Charred Beloved I (1946) from the collection of David Geffen as part of the 20th Century Evening Sale in New York. Marked by bold biomorphic forms at once suggestive and enigmatic, the canvas captures a pivotal moment at which, through great personal trial, the artist came into his defining style. Widely recognised as the last Surrealist and a proto-Abstract Expressionist, Gorky paved the way for a new American artform.

First exhibited in 1953 at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery, the canvas has since appeared in major museum shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. One of the related canvases, Charred Beloved II, is held in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The 1946 fire was a devastating blow, but it was not the first time Gorky was forced to start anew. The artist was a survivor of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and he emigrated to the United States as a teenage refugee in 1920.

Born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, he rechristened himself Arshile Gorky in his adopted country, claiming relation to the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky and a colourful backstory to match. Rather than regretting having never studied in Paris with the masters, he simply claimed he had. Meanwhile, he undertook a rigorous regimen of self-guided study. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, he produced numerous works in the style of the artists he idolised — first Cezanne, then Picasso, among other masters.


Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926-1942. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2023 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: National Gallery of Art

A frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Manhattan’s galleries, Gorky developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of painting, from Poussin to the present. He taught art at New York institutions including the Grand Central School of Art and the Parsons School of Art and Design, where Mark Rothko was his student.

Willem de Kooning, whom Gorky met in 1929, became an important friend throughout the 30s, and the two would go on to become seminal figures of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning once reflected that while the self-taught Gorky never had the same formal training in art that he himself had, Gorky ‘knew lots more about painting, and art, he just knew it by nature — things I was supposed to know and feel and understand — he really did it better.’

Gorky was also heavily inspired by the Surrealists. In the late 1920s he studied their work from afar. He would later meet many members of the group who fled to the United States during the Second World War. In 1944, Gorky’s friends Isamu Noguchi and Jeanne Reynal introduced the painter to founder André Breton, who became a key supporter and collaborator.


Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning in Gorky's studio, c. 1937. Photo: Oliver Baker / Rudi Blesh papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

In the leadup to the Sherman studio fire, Gorky had just begun to ascend to a new level of success. In 1945, Gorky’s Diary of a Seducer made an impression at the Whitney. Young painters like Paul Resicka and critics including Harold Rosenberg took note. Gorky was coming into his own style, one that was wildly inventive, in which striking, burgeoning forms walked the line between Surrealism and abstraction.

The following year, rising from the ashes of his ruined studio, Charred Beloved marked a definitive turning point that cemented his distinctive visual language. In the work on offer, sharp black outlines of biomorphic forms mark the canvas’s pale surface. Scumbled swaths of yellow, sienna and black suggest flames, smoke and ash. On the floor of the composition, a pool of red emanates at the centre of a loosely rendered recumbent figure.


Arshile Gorky, Charred Beloved II, 1946. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © 2023 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gorky, who at the time of painting suffered from chronic abdominal pain, would learn later that year that he had cancer and undergo a life-altering colostomy surgery. Charred Beloved I reflects the artist’s endurance and continued creative pursuit in the face of challenge, its pale canvas conferring what Matossian calls a ‘downy optimism’ not seen in the related canvases.

‘No matter what blow, he turned it around,’ Noguchi said of Gorky during this period. From Caravaggio to Van Gogh, Gorky was among some of history’s greatest artists who have led lives marred by tragedy. His final years were punctuated by a debilitating car wreck and the dissolution of his tumultuous marriage with Magouch. He took his own life in 1948.

After earlier critical reviews of Gorky’s work, Clement Greenberg called the artist’s 1946 show at Julian Levy Gallery, featuring works made in the aftermath of the studio fire, ‘some of the best modern painting ever turned out by an American.’ Charred Beloved I documents the development of a uniquely American style of painting, one that would shift the art world’s attention from the Parisian milieu Gorky once dreamed of joining to the New York scene where he came into his own.

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