Philadelphia Museum of Art
Through Jan. 10, 2010
Arshile Gorky’s life was a study in “self-invention,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Born into a poor Armenian family before World War I, and forced to flee Turkey following the massacre of his people, Gorky popped up in 1920s New York claiming to be a cosmopolitan Russian painter. They were all lies, of course, but “this was America. You could be what you wanted to be”—and Gorky desperately wanted to be an important artist. Surprisingly, this seeming dilettante achieved his goal. But first he climbed an “unusually long learning curve,” painstakingly imitating the styles of other artists. “He assiduously and almost selflessly emulated” first Picasso and Cézanne, then Joan Miró and other surrealists. Only in the 1940s did he develop his own mature style, creating fully abstract canvases bursting with fields of color. A new retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art “scrupulously tracks” the artistic development that led to such masterpieces as The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, painted in 1944.
Around that time his life took a tragic turn, said Edward Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer. First his studio burned. Then his wife left him. He lost the use of his painting hand, he discovered he had rectal cancer, and finally, in 1948—at the age of 46—he hanged himself. “Such a biography quickly metamorphoses into legend,” and Gorky had helped the process along by incorporating biographical elements into his increasingly surrealist paintings. The Artist and His Mother (1926–36), based on a 1912 photograph, is “a profoundly sad evocation of a fractured family and a lost culture.” Garden in Sochi (1940–43) shows a dreamscape drawn from childhood memories of his father’s garden. “His surrealism was rooted not in fantasy or dreams, like that of Salvador Dalí, but in observation tempered by memory.” Such works provide insight into Gorky’s embattled life.
“I’m sorry, but that’s wrong,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Gorky’s so-called biographical paintings can hardly be taken seriously, considering they’re “romanticizing supposed memories of a boyhood that Gorky regularly lied about.” I much prefer the paintings Gorky created before encountering surrealism. Enigmatic Combat (1936–37), “a sprightly patchwork of amoeboid and spiky shapes,” remains rivetingly original to this day. This “new, expansive, burstingly songful” style of abstraction deeply influenced artists such as Jackson Pollock. Gorky, who had imitated so many earlier masters, might have felt honored to be imitated in turn.