Art review: ‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’ @ MOCA

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Arshile Gorky was an essential pivot in Modern abstract art -- a critical hinge between rarefied European aesthetics before World War II and a more muscular, thoroughly American variety that emerged after, in the late 1940s and 1950s. That’s the way he still comes off in the rich, not-to-be-missed retrospective that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

A slight difference, though, distinguishes this show from the Guggenheim Museum’s 1981 Gorky retrospective -- the last time the Armenian-born immigrant’s art was surveyed in comparable depth. (MOCA’s beautifully installed show has 73 paintings, 49 drawings and three small, carved sculptures.) Today the context is different.


We know a lot more about Gorky and his work, thanks to a proliferation of smaller, more focused exhibitions since then. Museum and gallery shows have looked closely at his portraits, his great series on the theme of ‘Betrothal,’ his final paintings and especially his drawings. His once-sketchy biography, distorted by a sheaf of letters now known to have been forged by a nephew, is fully fleshed out in the catalog’s detailed chronology.

We also know a lot more about the early stirrings of postwar American abstraction. The old story, which had Abstract Expressionism springing forth like Athena from the head of Surrealism’s Zeus among a heroic band of downtown New York artists, has long since collapsed.

Instead, its germination came from a much broader impulse, evident in art made from coast to coast. Gorky, who worked in rural Connecticut and Virginia and whose first museum solo was held in San Francisco in 1941, helps illuminate this bigger picture.

Around 1943 he began to make paintings with a carefully wrought, Surrealist-inspired under-drawing. Luminous sheets of layered, liquid color pour from these dispersed fields of organic, often prickly, sometimes erotically suggestive shapes. The surface web of color transforms the canvas into a visual membrane, a delicate tissue through which a strong, underlying structure is fleetingly glimpsed.

Like Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist whose late-19th century work in the South of France Gorky revered, he forged a singular bridge to an artistically prolific future. After you see the show, dip into MOCA’s gorgeous installation of Mark Rothko’s big paintings of vaporous color to see what one master did with another, shorter-lived master’s revelations.

Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian in the tiny village of Khorkom, Turkish Armenia, probably in 1902. His father left for Rhode Island before the start of World War I, occasionally sending money home; his mother died in 1918, starving in the Armenian genocide. With his sister, the 16-year-old boy traveled half way across the world, first to Massachusetts and then to Providence. At 21 he moved to New York, planning to become an artist.

Gorky inventively introduced himself as a cousin of writer Maxim Gorky, the Russian political activist -- apparently unaware that the author, similarly orphaned, used a pseudonym. But this anecdote about naming is, in its way, profoundly American -- identity as a personally meaningful fabrication, tied to dreams of glory.

As a painter, Gorky was mostly self-taught. He enrolled in numerous schools but never stayed long. Instead, he looked at art in museums and gallery exhibitions.

The first MOCA room encapsulates most of his enthusiasms -- Impressionism, Cézanne, De Chirico’s metaphysical dream-spaces and, most enduringly, Picasso’s Cubism. All were made between 1924 and 1928, but their artistic sources date from the 1870s to the 1910s. Learning to paint, Gorky immersed himself in recent history.

His Cézanne pastiches, for example, assemble familiar objects -- apples, skull, jug, crumpled tapestry, etc. Their linear patterns of short, parallel brush strokes creating shallow optical space are derivative, yet the brushwork is distinctive. Paint is fluid, its application thinner and almost gestural. He’s learning from Cézanne but using a different handwriting.

Looking at early Gorky is like seeing Cézanne or Picasso through a scrim of memory. Later, elements of Joan Miró would be added -- especially his radiant, atmospheric veils of color, the formal element of the Catalan artist’s work most powerful for postwar American abstraction.

In the paintings Gorky made from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s, Modern art’s recent history is an episodic narrative. His personal history, especially memories of his mother, entwines with it.

The show features three important rooms. The first unites four paintings and five drawings in his series, ‘The Artist and his Mother,’ based on a faded photograph enlarged to life-size, but with the figures simplified. Gorky worked intermittently for a decade on the best of these.

Its surface is part structured architecture, part elaborate sketch, midway between coalescing and dissolving. Areas are polished, the surface shaved smooth with a razor blade, as if imitating the look of a religious icon. The hands of mother and son are soft, round, unformed mitts, unable to utilize their given sense of touch. The work’s variegated tactile paint articulates what the represented figures cannot manage.

It’s a poignant image. And it sets up amazing later abstractions, such as ‘How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life.’

This mature painting is wholly abstract, a commotion of whiplash lines and disjointed runs of fluid color stitching together organic forms. Elusive memory wrestles with the immediacy of touch -- the loaded brush pressing and releasing as it moved across the canvas, meant to recall what a young child sees as his head cradles and tosses in his mother’s apron-clad lap.

No wonder Willem de Kooning thought Gorky was the greatest.

Unfortunately, the second of the show’s three great rooms falters. Missing is arguably Gorky’s greatest painting, ‘The Liver is the Cock’s Comb’ (1944), at 6-by-8-feet certainly his most monumental effort. Los Angeles now claims the nation’s largest Armenian community, for whom Gorky is a hero; but Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, citing condition concerns, would only lend its painting to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, primary organizer of the show, where it had its debut in October.

It’s a pity, especially as MOCA also owns the finished drawing for the work.
The third great room has four ‘Betrothal’ works from 1947, the year before Gorky’s suicide after an extended period of physical ailments, emotional upheaval and tragic personal events; it includes MOCA’s own masterpiece, ‘Betrothal I.’ Slits, flowery claws, phallic forms, bursting pods, spiny shapes and other fantasies of organic regeneration proliferate within a thin, wholly independent cloud of soft ocher, punctuated with pale blue, violet, green and yellow.

A large charcoal and crayon drawing shows the degree to which these paintings’ compositions were not spontaneous but carefully planned. (He learned a lot from Chilean émigré Roberto Matta.) Gorky turns Surrealism into something less impulsive and instinctive and more reasoned, if no less psychologically fraught. But the response to it is not in your head. It happens in your kinesthetic sense, where the strain and disconnect fumbles in your muscles.

-- Christopher Knight

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Sept. 20. Closed Tue. and Wed. Admission: $10.