Arshile Gorky, late 1920s. Portrait Unknown Photographer

The bitterness and brilliance of Arshile Gorky

The painter had a short and tragic life, but his brilliance is undisputed — as is his influence on a generation of great American artists. On the eve of his first Venice retrospective, Claire Wrathall considers his legacy

At the time of his suicide in a Connecticut barn in 1948, the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky had, wrote the critic William Feaver, ‘as good a chance as any of being singled out as the greatest living painter’ in the USA.

Subsequently hailed as the father of Abstract Expressionism, as well as the last Surrealist, Gorky had taught Mark Rothko in Boston, and those who acknowledged his influence ranged from Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler to Cy Twombly and Jack Whitten.

Yet, although Peggy Guggenheim acquired a painting of his in 1944, which hangs in her collection in Venice, Gorky has never — until this summer — had a retrospective in Italy. Featuring 80 paintings and works on paper, loaned from private collections as well as museums around the world, the survey will span his short, tragic life, beginning with his early figurative works.

Early life, influences and early works

Gorky was something of a magpie when it came to synthesising influences: ‘I like Uccello, Grünewald, Ingres; the drawings and sketches for paintings of Seurat,’ he wrote. ‘And what about Papa Cézanne? And Pablo Picasso?’ Certainly, it’s not hard to discern their impact on his early still lifes, nor that of Miró, Kandinsky and his friend the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta on his later abstracts.

But Gorky’s first great work was an affecting self-portrait, The Artist and His Mother  (circa 1926–36), now at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was based on a photograph taken in 1912, when he was about eight. (The chronology of his early life remains uncertain, but he is believed to have been born around 1904.)

Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, circa 1926-1936. Oil on canvas. Overall 60 x 50 14in. (152.4 x 127.6 cm). Gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father. Inv. N. 50.17. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo Whitney Museum of American ArtLicensed by Scala

Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, circa 1926-1936. Oil on canvas. Overall: 60 x 50 1/4in. (152.4 x 127.6 cm). Gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father. Inv. N.: 50.17. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art/Licensed by Scala

Three years after they sat for it, the Armenian genocide forced his family to flee their home on the shores of Lake Van in what was then Ottoman Turkey. ‘I was taken away from my little village,’ he wrote in a questionnaire sent out by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1945. ‘Yet all my vital memories are of these first years. These were the days when I smelled the bread, I saw my first red poppy, the moon... Since then, these memories have become iconography, the shapes, even the colours: millstone, red earth, yellow wheat field, apricots.’

They made their way on foot to Yerevan in Armenia. In 1919, still a boy, he cradled his mother as she died in his arms from starvation.

America and reinvention

By the end of 1920, however, Gorky and his younger sister Vartoosh had found their way to the USA, where their estranged father had emigrated in 1908. Here he changed his name from Vosdanig Adoian to Arshile Gorky, assuming a surname that means ‘bitter’ in Russian, after the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, and set about both reinventing his past and building a future as an artist.

By 1930, he was sufficiently established to have exhibited in a group show at MoMA and moved into a spacious studio at 36 Union Square in New York. A year later, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller bought one of his paintings.

Arshile Gorky, Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, circa 1931–32. Pen and ink on board. Dimensions 26 1⁄8 x 34 1⁄8 in (66.2 x 86.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 50th Anniversary Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin A. Bergman

Arshile Gorky, Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, circa 1931–32. Pen and ink on board. Dimensions: 26 1⁄8 x 34 1⁄8 in (66.2 x 86.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 50th Anniversary Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin A. Bergman

Still, he found neither real success nor contentment. ‘Even if I see lots of friends, even if I am among thousands of people, I always feel lonely,’ he wrote to his sister, bemoaning their ‘destiny’ and the ‘great bitterness’ that filled his heart. And it was only in the early years of his marriage to Agnes Magruder, whom he had met at a party given by de Kooning in 1941 and called ‘Mougouch’ (an approximation of ‘mighty one’ in Russian), that he began to thrive as an artist.

Bought by David Rockefeller in 1997 Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln, 1944. Oil on canvas. 30⅛ x 38  in (76.5 x 96.5  cm). Sold for $14,037,500 on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Bought by David Rockefeller in 1997: Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln, 1944. Oil on canvas. 30⅛ x 38 in (76.5 x 96.5 cm). Sold for $14,037,500 on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Two years later, by which time Agnes had given birth to their first daughter, Maro, they spent the summer at her parents’ farm in Virginia. Inspired by the landscape, Gorky made more than 100 drawings and entered his most creative phase.

Gorky’s proto-abstract expressionist paintings

‘In the forests there are big lakes and torrents with clear running water, rushing through the stones and rocks,’ he wrote. ‘And beside the torrents are enormous cypress trees as still as sentinels with their heads in the cloud. They seem to press upwards against the blue of the sky to stop the bright blue sky from one day falling down.’

Arshile Gorky, Landscape-Table, 1945. Oil on canvas. Dimensions 36 1⁄4 x 47 5⁄8 in (92 x 121 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderneCentre de création industrielle, Paris. Purchased 1971, AM 1971-151

Arshile Gorky, Landscape-Table, 1945. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 36 1⁄4 x 47 5⁄8 in (92 x 121 cm). Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Paris. Purchased 1971, AM 1971-151

There is an exhilarating freedom and vitality in the multiplicity of curves and lines and forms, and the pulsating colours of the proto-abstract expressionist paintings he made in Virginia and later Connecticut. Although they are suggestive of landscapes, their titles hint at an element of autobiography: One Year the Milkweed  (1944), How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life  (1944), and Child’s Companions  (1945), which sold at Christie’s in 2014 for $8.9 million.

‘Gorky saw things differently from other people,’ Agnes observed. ‘For him, clouds and trees were full of threatening forces... Nature was alive to him. He looked at the spaces between things as much as he looked at the object itself.’

Catastrophe, suicide and legacy

This period of comparative calm was not to last, and the final years of his life were a succession of catastrophes. In January 1946, his studio burned to the ground, destroying more than 20 paintings. As Agnes put it, ‘Everything was lost.’ A month later, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a colostomy, which led to periods of sustained depression and occasional violence.

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Dark Green Painting, circa 1948. Oil on canvas. Dimensions 43 34 x 55 12 in (111.1 x 141 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift (by exchange) of Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54-1

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Dark Green Painting, circa 1948. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in (111.1 x 141 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift (by exchange) of Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54-1

And then, in June 1948, he discovered that Agnes had had a brief affair with Roberto Matta, less than a fortnight after which he broke his neck in a car accident, temporarily losing the use of his painting arm.

He began to drink heavily, and after a row with Agnes, during which she had tumbled or been pushed downstairs, she left with the children for her parents’ house. Five days later, he hanged himself. His suicide note, scrawled in chalk on a crate, read: ‘Goodbye My Loveds.’

The New York Times, assuming he was related to the Russian writer, a fiction the artist had earlier sought to encourage (just as he had sometimes maintained that he had been taught by Kandinsky), headlined its report of his death: ‘Gorky’s cousin ends life’.

The art press was unkind. ARTnews  savaged his final show. But he was not without supporters, notably de Kooning, who sent a letter of complaint to the magazine, acknowledging Gorky’s influence on his own development as an artist. ‘When, about 15 years ago, I walked into Arshile’s studio for the first time,’ he wrote, ‘the atmosphere was so beautiful I got a little dizzy, and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately.’

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And although their marriage was brief, Agnes, who died in 2013 aged 92, did much to champion him too, both during his life and posthumously. As she tells their granddaughter, the film-maker Cosima Spender, in her compelling and brutally honest 2011 biographical film Without Gorky  (available on Netflix), ‘He was so proud and high and fine-looking. And he had a mighty paintbrush. I was smitten immediately.’

Arshile Gorky: 1904–1948 is at Ca’ Pesaro, Venice, 8 May–22 September