Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003
Hayden Herrera’s Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work is the latest in a long line of biographies of the artist. This biography’s weaknesses are necessary for its strengths: it is lengthy, the narrative is often dry, and it suffers from a lack of formal analysis of the art. Herrera is the step-daughter and god-daughter of Gorky’s widow, Agnes Magruder, named Mougouch by Gorky, and Mougouch is quoted extensively throughout the book. Herrera’s approach is twofold: she juxtaposes exhaustive descriptions of every facet of Gorky’s outer life with detailed descriptions of the work he was creating at each step of the way, and throughout she threads a subtle analysis of Gorky’s psychology, informed in great part by Mougouch’s recollections and point of view. This approach provides a clear and direct channel through which to view Gorky’s art, and it allows the author to offer invaluable insights into the man himself.
Gorky’s childhood in Armenia coincided with the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks (1915-1918). Woven into Herrera’s narration of the horrific historical events of this period is the saga of Gorky’s family’s, the Adoians, suffering—murder, rape, famine, and their flight into Russia. Gorky’s father emigrated to America in 1906, abandoning his wife and three children when Gorky was five or six years old. Herrera portrays Gorky’s mother, Shushan, as the embodiment of suffering (her first husband had been brutally murdered by the Turks and one of her two daughters from that marriage would be killed during the genocide). But she also emphasizes Shushan’s spirituality and love of nature, and the beauty and poetry which infused Gorky’s childhood before the genocide. Herrera describes, for instance, the way in which Gorky and his friends would jump on the backs of large turtles on the banks of Lake Van and beat on their shells in order to make them lay eggs so that they could bring them home to their mothers (who believed that turtle eggs would make their hair silky). She evokes the exquisite beauty of the orchards and mountains around Lake Van in which Gorky would collect apricots for his grandfather, as well as the awe which Gorky felt for the medieval carvings he and friends would find in the grass near ancient shrines. Gorky drew and whittled avidly from a very early age. Family lore had it that Gorky did not speak until he was five or six years old, but Herrera implies that he began drawing long before he could speak.
Gorky’s mother died of starvation in Russia in 1919. Two months later, relatives arranged for Gorky and his sister Vartoosh’s emigration to Boston, where they joined their older sister and half-sister. Gorky was very close to his sisters, especially Vartoosh, throughout the ’20s and ’30s, but he and his father, who lived in Providence, remained estranged. As Herrera recounts Gorky’s early years in America, she describes his growing drive and commitment to his art, and also his struggles with poverty and loneliness. After he moved to New York, Vartoosh would often send him $5 or $10 so that he could eat. Gorky’s formal training consisted of two to three years at the New School of Design in Boston and two years at the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School in New York. Later in life Gorky would tell Mougouch that while still in Boston he swam out into the Charles River intending to drown himself, but then mid-river had the thought “What about painting?” and swam back to shore as quickly as he could.
From his first days in America Gorky was a master of disguise when it came to his personal history. He changed his name from Manouk Adoian and falsely claimed to be related to the writer Maxim Gorky—much better to be Russian intellectual aristocracy than an Armenian refugee—and though he never set foot in France, he maintained that he had studied with Kandinsky in Paris. Herrera presents Gorky’s efforts at hiding the true nature of his past as a calculation for advancement, but also as a sign of his need to keep the traumatic aspects of his childhood private.
Herrera also details all of Gorky’s early intimate relationships with women, which one after the other failed despite passionate beginnings. Gorky held his partners up to an impossibly high ideal that he had created out of veneration for his mother and the traditional role of a peasant woman in Armenia. He expected his partners to be totally devoted and subservient. When they could not fulfill this role, Gorky would turn violent and the relationship would crumble, but Gorky would suffer from great loneliness and despair afterwards. Gorky’s mother’s presence suffused his adult life also in an even more personal way. She came from a family of spiritual leaders in the Armenian church and she had expected that Gorky would also become a great teacher and master. In the person of his mother, Gorky was haunted by a simultaneous call to greatness and suffering.
Herrera follows Gorky through his successive apprenticeships to the Impressionists, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Miro (and always Ingres and Uccello), apprenticeships that took place in his studio with books and periodicals and in the galleries and museums. By the 1930s Gorky had become well-known and respected as an exceptionally talented follower of Picasso’s synthetic cubist period. But his connoisseurship, coupled with Gorky’s lengthy apprenticeships, also earned him criticism for a lack of originality by many artists and critics. And this reputation would follow him well into his mature style.
Herrera shows that throughout the 1930s Gorky was slowly preparing the way into his late work, not just in developing his mastery of material and plastic language, but also in nurturing his content. Gorky’s involvement with surrealist ideas began as early as 1931 when, in an article about Stuart Davis for Creative Art, he wrote that great modernists “take us to the supernatural world behind reality where once the great centuries danced.” Her analysis of the great painting “The Artist and his Mother” (1926-1936) reveals the ways in which Gorky departed not just from classical portraiture but also from his beloved Cubism in order to imbue this poignant image with the lyricism that would flourish in his late work In his “Khorkom” series (1933-1936) Herrera discerns allusions to both rape and proud motherhood—Khorkom was the town in Armenia in which Gorky was born. She also points out that the many versions of this image mark an important shift in Gorky’s approach: he departed from the planar analysis of Cubism to a more organic, sensuous and ultimately aerated form, while maintaining the shallow and shifting space of his cubist work.
Gorky’s artistic breakthrough coincided with the first years of his and Mougouch’s married life and the birth of their first child. It was at this point that Gorky embraced the surreal tendencies in his art. Herrera makes it clear that he used Surrealism to his own ends, never abandoning his intense workmanship nor his spirituality. Yet Surrealism inspired a loosening of the inhibitions that had restricted Gorky up to this period. During the first summer of their marriage, Gorky drew from a waterfall while the couple visited friends in Connecticut. He later worked these drawings into paintings that are the earliest of his mature style. The Gorkys spent three of the next four summers at Mougouch’s family’s farm in Virginia. This was the first time that Gorky lived for an extended period of time in the countryside since his childhood in Armenia, and Herrera recounts many anecdotes that illustrate his joy at being reconnected with nature. He drew in and from the fields surrounding the farmhouse for hours every day. His delight coupled with his inspired use of automatism resulted in a reawakening and transformation of his childhood sensibility. “Some 1944 drawings are wildly rococo,” Herrera writes, “full of soft sfumato and curling shapes that turn into Disneyesque creatures as Gorky’s metamorphic imagination turns itself loose on cumulus clouds and feathery trees.”
Gorky’s friendship with Andre Breton, whom he met in 1944, was vital to Gorky’s development. It seems that Breton, more than anyone else, recognized and embraced Gorky’s spirit. After having Breton to dinner early on in his and Gorky’s friendship, Mougouch wrote that “Breton gave without measure, and this was what Gorky needed; Breton didn’t, as Gorky said, ‘Miss the point.’ He understood about all these childhood memories, all the mythology of Gorky’s childhood, he didn’t laugh or look embarrassed but instead made sympathetic noises and had tears in his eyes and was exquisitely polite, and Gorky and I nearly went up to heaven and there was happiness.”
Herrera discerns an at first infinitesimal frustration in Mougouch’s letters, but frustration eventually grew into unhappiness. Mougouch yearned increasingly for her own means of expression. She was caught between her desire for Gorky’s success and her own need for autonomy, and she was influenced by the Surrealists’ call to sexual freedom. Their second summer in Virginia was marred by both Mougouch’s increasing unhappiness and literal bad weather. Gorky’s paintings from the second summer are sparer but still essentially idyllic and lyrical. The following winter Gorky secured a gallery (with Julien Levy) and with it a greatly needed stipend. His first one man show with Julien Levy gave critics the opportunity to assess his new work and many reviews, most notably Clement Greenberg’s, were negative. De Kooning spoke of Gorky’s lack of recognition: “That’s why he had such a sad time, somehow, because he could have gotten something out of it. I don’t mean that he ought to get rich, but he could have come to the state of mind that he was very much appreciated.” But it was also the occasion for which Breton wrote his poetic essay on Gorky, “The Eye’s Spring,” one of the few pieces of writing about his own work that pleased Gorky.
In 1945 the Gorkys moved from New York to Connecticut. During Gorky’s first year there he painted the first versions of “The Plough and the Song,” about a later version of which Herrera writes: “It seems to picture the fertile earth as a metaphor for human procreation—perhaps even as a parallel to artistic creation. Yet, just as Gorky would have wished, the imagery has baffled everyone who has studied it.” Tragically, a studio fire destroyed these and a great deal of Gorky’s work in 1946. But he quickly overcame this loss, treating it as a liberation, and in a borrowed studio in Manhattan created a series of paintings, including three versions of “Charred Beloved.”
Just months after Gorky’s studio burnt down he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and the operation which removed the cancer left him having to use a colostomy bag. This was extremely difficult for Gorky. He had always prided himself on his strength and was also extremely fastidious in his personal hygiene. Gorky spent his third summer drawing in the fields of Virginia in 1946. Herrera discerns a more violent nature in these drawings: “His fast-moving hand left marks that seem driven by inner crisis… As the viewer’s eye travels over a drawing’s surface, the terrain it covers is no longer seductive, soft or feathery. Instead it is full of shapes that might prick, little points that look cruel instead of playful or sprightly.” Some of these drawings were drawn in the evening sitting with Mougouch in the farmhouse (the “Fireplace in Virginia” series), but most of them were drawn in the fields, and together they formed the studies for his last great harvest of paintings.
Herrera’s description of Gorky’s final years is excruciating. Gorky was slowly overwhelmed by feelings of despair and paranoia; his relationships fell victim to the darkness one by one. In the summer of 1947 Mougouch and the children left Gorky alone in the city to work and, tortured but driven, he produced a large group of astounding paintings (in a letter to Mougouch he wrote “I am beginning to see the promised land”) including “Betrothal,” “The Plough and the Song,” “Summation,” “The Calendars,” “The Limit” and “Agony.” When they returned to Connecticut in the fall, Gorky sank into a deep depression. Herrera quotes Mougouch: “He walked with me for hours, looking for a subject in nature. Every day he asked me for a subject. He was desperate to be in contact with something, no matter what.” By the following spring Mougouch and Matta began an affair (according to Herrera it was brief and Mougouch intended to stay with Gorky), and when Gorky found out he was devastated. Then Gorky’s neck was broken and his arm temporarily paralyzed in a car accident, and the already weakened man did not have the strength to fight the darkness that descended. Herrera quotes Mougouch’s recollection of Gorky’s response to nurses cajoling him to be brave during his last stay in the hospital: “Why on earth should I be brave? I’ve spent my whole life making myself tremble like a leaf at whatever happens, and now you want me to be like an unpeeled onion. I have no more skins.” Out of the hospital, Gorky’s behavior grew increasingly violent and bordered on insanity. For their children’s sake, Mougouch felt she had to leave him. Five days later Gorky hung himself.
Gorky’s soul was one with the forces of suffering and transcendence. Though this gave him terrific sensitivity and insight, it also demanded great sacrifice. Whether he was singing and crying with the angels or pillaging with the demons, Gorky was working beyond the domain of his ego with the primal forces of generation and destruction. It was with an incredible inner strength that he managed to transform his traumatic experiences into some of the most poetic paintings of the twentieth century. We cannot describe the drama in Gorky’s art in any literal way, but we can feel it to a degree that is both exhilarating and excruciating. Herrera’s biography rises to the task. She lays both the man and the work bare for us to experience. It is not hard for me to imagine her taking her cue from Gorky himself, for whom the act of laying bare was a calling. This is the crux of Herrera’s contribution.
Deirdre Swords is an artist (painter and sculptor) living and working in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She has shown her work recently in group shows at Sideshow Gallery and Diamantina Gallery (both in Brooklyn). She also teaches sculpture and drawing at Haverford College.