The magical beauty of Arshile Gorky’s paintings and drawings is inseparable from biographical legend. Abstract psychological landscapes like Garden in Sochi and The Betrothal yearn to reclaim childhood and homeland lost to genocidal campaigns in Gorky’s native Armenia. The visual source for The Artist and his Mother is a personal artifact: a coveted photograph of Shushan Adoian and her young son Vosdanig Adoian—Gorky’s given name.
Vosdanig emigrated to the United States in 1920; by 1924 he had begun to reinvent himself, adopting the pseudonym Arshile Gorky. In New York, his immense intelligence as a painter and ability to navigate the possibilities of abstract modernism energized colleagues who, in turn, transformed American art. Counterbalancing such brilliance, however, were crushing personal tragedies that ultimately suffocated Gorky’s artistic output and cut short his life.
On the evening of June 24, 1948 Gorky was returning to the Glass House, his home in Sherman, Connecticut; his dealer, Julien Levy, was behind the wheel. Levy lost control of his car, and the ensuing crash left Gorky unable to use his right arm—his painting arm—and bound within an uncomfortable iron and leather neck brace. As the extant traffic citation perfunctorily notes, Levy most likely was speeding as he failed to negotiate a curve on a wet Route 67, in New Milford. Like so many elements that comprise Gorky’s biography, however, the actual circumstances remain unclear. Levy, in a later memoir, would invoke the specter of Gorky’s absent and increasingly estranged wife, Mougouch (Agnes) as a dark and extenuating force. Levy’s wife Muriel, in the car but uninjured recalled,”Oh God, Julien was the world’s worst driver and he’d had a lot to drink that day.”1
Struggling without the immediate presence of his family and without the ability to engage in painting as a palliative, Gorky ended his life not long after the crash. Words from an interview conducted earlier that year presaged his fate:
I don’t like that word “finish.” When something is finished, that mean’s it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it for a while. I like painting because it’s something I can never come to the end of
[. . .] The thing to do is to always keep starting to paint, never finish painting.2
- Hayden Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 591
- ibid, p. 578
Verbatim is sponsored by the Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.