Whitney Museum of American Art
The Whitney Museum’s recent show of Arshile Gorky drawings deteriorated into too much of a glorious thing. There were so many drawings from 1941 until Gorky’s death in 1948 that they became a blur and only the specialist or one obsessed could keep them in focus. Half their number would have made this excellent show a triumph.
Over the past decade there has been great interest in Gorky’s life. Two full-scale biographies have been published: one by Matthew Spender, the son-in-law Gorky never knew, and the recent life and art biography by Hayden Herrera, a member of Gorky’s extended family. From the tragedy of his Armenian childhood ending in genocide at the hands of the Turks and his escape to America, to the painful last years—pain he gave and pain he received—ending in his suicide at 48, Gorky’s life is a terrific story. The facts of his life played a significant part in the Whitney show, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gorky may have had more talent than any American artist of his generation, including his friend de Kooning who acknowledged Gorky as his master. He was a great mimic. This was visible in the way Gorky could make a myriad of Picasso moves his own. Gorky imitated in order to learn, and once he commanded a given stroke, he moved on to use it to further his ends. One of the great drawings—great as mimicry—in the show is a portrait drawing on green paper of de Kooning in which Gorky aped the fine line Picasso used in his portraits of the dealer Vollard, Juan Gris, and Igor Stravinsky dating from the teens and early twenties. This line resurfaces in Gorky’s 1940s drawings, turned and twisted, loose and souped-up, no longer owing a thing to Picasso but now a force of nature.
The Whitney exhibition divided Gorky’s career into roughly three parts: early drawings including his portraits of family, self, and friends; mural drawings reflecting his absorption in Joan Miró’s work; and the 1940s drawings from nature. No American artist of quality so devoured Picasso as Gorky did. This has not been looked at as an original act, but that’s the way it looks today. From the vantage point of Gorky’s late drawings, it is evident that to get to the full flowering of his talent Gorky had to give himself completely to artists whose work held him in thrall. He did not fight shy of influence; he embraced it. His early drawings stand alone on their force and lucidity, but they wouldn’t exist without their models.
This is also true of his portrait drawings, but here, the point is that he knew and honored the western tradition of drawing. Like de Kooning—think of "Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother"—Gorky could bring the breath-of-life to paper. He had, as jazzmen say, great chops. In the drawings of his mother and of his wife Mougouch, this great technique is in the service of strong emotion. The result is drawings whose delicacy is a sort firm restraint. Feelings are held back so that, paradoxically, they are more apparent for not being directly stated. The eyes of Gorky’s beloved mother look at the viewer with all the love he had for her, and Mougouch’s softness suggests that her loveliness is an apparition, the very breath of beauty.
The second room at the Whitney held Gorky’s drawings for the murals he did during the 1930s that are now lost. Hayden Herrera sees Ferdinand Léger as Gorky’s inspiration in these, pointing to his magisterial painting "The City" from which Gorky adapted Léger’s rounded vertical forms. These drawings can be diagrammed like sentences, one element relates to the next in a symmetry that is coherent if somewhat airless. Then Miró appears as a force in Gorky’s work and so does Matta, albeit you need to know that he entered Gorky’s life in 1941 the same year that de Kooning introduced Gorky to Agnes Magruder (Mougouch).
For the seven years of life left to him, Gorky became a very different artist than he had been previously. He can be tagged a Surrealist—André Breton so anointed him—or be grouped with those venturing into abstraction, but all attempts at such record keep wagging a tail of "yes, but." Gorky is, in a word, free. Free to draw what his eyes see without his conscious mind interfering. He is like a basketball player "in the zone" shooting from all over the court, or like a hitter in baseball who is hot. Mindless? Not at all. This is mind in action, visible in the forms it makes with the accomplice of a free hand.
My feeling is that two things set him off. First, his love for Mougouch. There is so much sex, so much fertile flowering in the drawings of the 1940s that it must spring, in part, from his life’s great romantic passion. Second, Gorky spent many summer months at the Virginia farm of Mougouch’s family in the fields as if he were a farmer. He went out day after day, looked hard at what he saw in front of him—not at landscape but at the various flowers and grasses in the fields—and he let loose his pencil, pens, crayons, and watercolors. It becomes impossible to tell where the observation leaves off and the art begins. The drawings are excited outbursts of things taken apart. Sentences are inadequate, too linear and orderly, to describe these drawings. Perhaps a way to register the powerful life force of the drawings is through the words that I wrote in my notebook as I stood before one after another: "pears, feet, seeds, ears, spiky gourds, floppy matter, intestines/flowers-all manner, tight, loose petals, flares, bladders, looking into the guts of nature, the organ in organic, tendrils, feathers, twigs, winged tits, cunts, sails, stalks, spears, in the process of transformation, amorphous unnamable matter, hearts and buttocks, hair, thorns."
A way to say it is that Gorky rendered unclassifiable matter in lines and color on paper. In other words, his art is also nature, generative, growing beyond description even as it describes itself in forms for which we have words and lines to convey. There is a great amidst-ness in these drawings, a wholeness that in the words of the poet Clark Coolidge "excludes nothing." However we name this, it is free beyond what the word freedom seeks to contain. No wonder Gorky returned every day to those fields and came home with new drawings—he could not get enough of doing it.
Did Gorky make some sort of ultimate art? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I think what he did do is beyond theory. Or any aesthetic presumption that does not begin and end in lines on paper. He answered his spirit’s call and that may be message enough for artists and viewers if it is messages they need. The drawings themselves are unforgettable, a world that one can step out of but never leave.
WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet who has written books on the painters Philip Guston, Albert York, and Stuart Williams. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn.