Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 21, 2009 – January 10, 2010
“I was with Cézanne for a long time,” said Gorky, “and now naturally I am with Picasso.”
“Someday, when you are with Gorky,” I promised.
—Julien Levy, Memoir of an Art Gallery, 1977
In his 1977 memoir, dealer Julien Levy enshrined what was to be an enduring myth of painter Arshile Gorky’s career: Gorky the imitator, the apprentice who copied styles and whole works of the modern masters before breaking through, c.1943, to his own “Gorky-ness.” Like any myth, Gorky as the imitator both captures and misses the point. Levy was good on his word: he first gave the artist a one-man show at the gallery in 1945, and continued to show him up until and after his death by suicide in 1948. And there is no question that Gorky’s work attained new levels of conviction and originality at several episodes in the mid 1930s and 1940s.
But the imitation myth, with its “breakthrough” corollary, is misleading. For one thing, motifs never die out in Gorky; the contour of a sleeve in a 1930s portrait has the same bend and wiggle as an abstract arc in 1948. And even when Gorky’s debt to another artist is clear, it is by no means straightforward. The c.1930-1 “Abstraction with a Palette” is a case in point: with its harlequin pattern and jutting easel leg at bottom, it makes obvious reference to Picasso’s Harlequin figures of 1915. But it is also part of a larger web of works by Gorky that takes up the studio and easel theme, and that invokes not just “harlequin Picasso,” but 1906 Picasso (the famous “Self-Portrait with Palette”), Surrealist Picasso, and the Gorky arrangements, too. Imitation, for Gorky, seems not so much an issue of reproduction as a way of taking up images and styles in the world and reworking them, recasting them in new painterly settings.
Much of Gorky’s work operates under this principle: fixation on the one hand (a quoted style or recurring motif), and on the other the fluidity of change and chance arrangements. In the two paintings that Gorky did of “The Artist and His Mother” (1926-36; c. 1926-c. 1942), the ten-year old Gorky stands clutching a flower bouquet with mitt-like hands, his mother seated beside him. Even in their painted incarnations, the figures have the posed stiffness of an early black and white photograph—on which, in fact, they are based. The photo (a copy of which is hung in the exhibition) was taken in 1912 in Gorky’s hometown of Van, Armenia, and sent to his father in the United States. Subtle shifts occur between the two paintings: scumbled reds and pinks replace flat grays in the background; facial expressions are altered; areas of negative space are activated into new fields of color.
Seven years after the photo was taken, Gorky’s mother died of starvation on a forced march during the Armenian genocide; it was another six or seven years at least before Gorky, having arrived with his sister in the States in 1920, retrieved the photo from his father’s house in New York. Gorky worked on these paintings over several decades, and the built-up alterations in each—dry brush scribbled over matte surfaces, whiting out and repainting of faces—speak to a kind of memorial recovery, a persistent and patient refiguring of an image that remains out of reach.
That sense of suspension and pause marks Gorky’s best paintings, regardless of style. “One Year the Milkweed” (1944), a lush, color-flooded web of eye-shapes and protuberances, hangs its fervid abstractions in the air with all the flapping ceremony of wet laundry out to dry. Its forms, criss-crossed by drips and thin painted lines, are contorted but frozen, like poured molasses or stirred-up concrete hardened in place. In earlier works, like “Painting” (1936-7), Gorky paints over the thick black contours of his shapes so that they alternately emerge and disappear, or shrink to a thin hairline at the border; in the excellent “Garden in Sochi” from 1941, Gorky carves out bulb and polyp forms by painting around them, coating the rest of the underlying design with textured green. But with “Milkweed” and other paintings from 1944, Gorky lets wash and line loose as one, dripping torrent.
These are not Pollock’s drips, though. And while Surrealism is clearly a large influence in the 1940s works (Roberto Matta’s smoky skeins; Joan Mirò’s tail-like wisps and toothy genitalia), Gorky’s paintings here are not truly “automatic” either. (One fascinating aspect of the show is its pairing of finished paintings with Gorky’s careful studies, almost always gridded for transfer to the canvas.) The drips are rather part of the works’ in-betweeness, their particular suspension between finished states. They make and unmake the paintings, stitch together and unravel their overall effect. Gorky’s wife often read to him while he painted, and there is a story-making quality to his work throughout the 1940s, an active and ongoing energy that shifts before the viewer.
Perhaps the appeal of the imitation myth is that Gorky’s paintings speak to origin and memory: they are about myth. Not the primitivist-inflected myth of Ab- Exers like Rothko or Newman, or even Breton’s Surrealist call for new myths (though that context likely spurred Gorky on his way). They are personal myths, stories of doing and undoing, of opening up (the eye-shapes, the spots of white canvas) and painting over (the layers of paint, the drips that both outline and veil). The master painters were myths, too, to be tried on and worked through with all the seriousness and humor as were warranted by the outside world, photographs, and memory.
Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.