Larry Gagosian’s fixation on Gorky is not surprising considering the cultural and personality traits the two figures share. Both with Armenian backgrounds, both mavericks of the New York art world and ahead of their time, the portraiture show this past spring at Gagosian Uptown is the gallery’s second show in three years of the mid-century American artist.
Of the portraits that exist, dating mostly from the ’30s and early ’40s, the influences are diverse. From the exactness of Ingres (“Portrait of Frederick Kiesler” c. 1943) to the encaustic shells of Egyptian mummy portraits from the Greco-Roman period (“Portrait of Jacob Kainen,” c. 1934–37), they are an army of melancholy figures portrayed predominantly in three-quarter view.
Looking for an insight into Gorky’s artistic mentality in these paintings and drawings is difficult. They seem incongruous with the more famous abstractions that are universally known. Only one painting, “Mougouch,” c.1941–42, morphs into the thoroughly modern aesthetics of the era it was painted and even then it appears to revisit an earlier style he later abandoned. In fact, all his portraits evoke an earlier era of modernism, like an early nostalgia for the vibrant energy of turn of the century Europe.
Nostalgia, of course, was a major narrative throughout Gorky’s work. His childhood memories are always close to the surface. The intensity of the early tragedies (genocidal death marches and his mother’s starvation) emerge in the strangest places. His is a world based on actual events but imbued with artistic fantasy.
“Portrait of Myself and My Imaginary Wife,” c.1933-34, is important to their understanding. Gorky’s almost decapitated head floats in front of an idealized female bust (a blending of both his mother’s and sister’s images). It is a “mindscape” or an escape form his mind, a release from the anxiety which he experienced. The figures collide awkwardly like the shards of memory.
It is a concise exhibit of Gorky’s under-appreciated portraits culled from a wide array of public and private collections. Most impressively, Gorky’s two iconic “Artist and His Mother” paintings are exhibited along with companion sketches. The series is seminal to the history of twentieth century American art.
When Gorky exhibited one of the two “Artist and His Mother” paintings, he received two letters of praise from fellow artists, one from Raphael Soyer and the other from Yves Tanguy—a testament to the diverse coterie of artists that looked up to the strident modernist.
Soyer wrote to Gorky, “Your painting, which I saw at the Whitney of your mother and yourself, is one of the most beautiful paintings ever done in America.” Soyer said later in life that he regretted that Gorky never concentrated more on portraiture.
The ones that exist are alienated portraits, never revealing too much, and in the introductory essay to the Gagosian catalogue by David Anfam, he suggests their closest analogy would be to the photographs of Walker Evans with their pathos and formal elegance.
Evans once said about his art, “It’s the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Gorky undoubtedly knew that well. His portraits hang in stasis against fake backdrops, both modern and antique, universal and personal, eternal and ephemeral. They are a record of the loneliness of the human soul
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.