Not long ago, someone brought up the painter Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) and I realized I’d always assumed he was Jewish. I was wrong; he was an Armenian Christian. But my mistake piqued my curiosity: Why did I think so? What element of his life and work spoke to me so deeply that I felt such a kinship?
I have been thinking about Gorky now because this summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at Grand Avenue will present a retrospective of the artist’s work. The show, which opens June 6 and continues through Sept. 20, will consider the artist’s full life’s work. It was curated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was recently at the Tate Modern in London.
Here are some details of Gorky’s life that may have led me astray:
1. He was a witness to genocide.
Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian around 1904 (there is some confusion about the actual date) in the village Khorkom, near Lake Van in Turkey. In 1915, Turkish troops began a pogrom of murder and forced deportations of Armenians in the community, an act of systematic and thorough ethnic cleansing that became known as “The Great Crime” — for which the term genocide was coined. Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the genocide, and the issue continues to fester. Gorky and his family were among thousands who fled to the border, and, during the winter, his mother died of starvation. In 1920, Gorky and his sister immigrated to the United States.
2. He arrived in the United States at Ellis Island, changed his name and eventually settled in New York City.
In choosing the name Arshile Gorky, he claimed to be related to the Russian author Maxim Gorky. After spending some time in Massachusetts, he settled in New York.
3. He was largely self-taught and self-invented.
Much like the Jewish pioneers of the entertainment business, Gorky taught himself to be an artist. He did so by intensive study of the works of Cezanne, Picasso, Léger and Miro. During the 1930s, he worked for the WPA and painted large-scale murals for the administration building at the Newark, N.J., airport.
4. He hung out with other refugee artists.
Gorky’s friends included many of the European artists that fled the Nazis for New York, including the Surrealists André Breton and Roberto Matta, but also the young Willem de Kooning, a future Abstract Expressionist.
5. He was Mark Rothko’s teacher.
Gorky taught at the Grand Central School of Art in New York, where Rothko (who was indeed Jewish) was one of his students.
6. One of his paintings is called “Agony.” Need I say more?
The above may seem a somewhat glib rendering of Gorky’s biography, but it reveals a certain intangible element of dislocation and longing that infuses much of Gorky’s best-loved work, and that is a familiar character among Diaspora Jews.
The Gorky retrospective includes paintings, drawings and prints, and delivers a far-reaching and detailed survey of Gorky’s work. As MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel noted in the exhibition’s press release,
“Gorky courageously reshaped European Modernism into the foundations of abstract expressionism. He inspired a generation of artists that the act of painting alone was enough to be both poetically charged and powerfully tragic.”
The show allows us to witness the full evolution of Gorky’s work, as well as his emotional currents. It is easy to see the influence of his masters, Picasso and Léger, and even his contemporaries, such as Stuart Davis, as Gorky develops his own vocabulary.
Many stunning canvases and drawings are included, from an early iconic self-portrait with the artist’s mother, to a later work on paper, a study for perhaps his best-known work, “The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb” (a work in the Surrealist style, with a Surrealist title, if ever there was one).
Gorky’s exposure to the Surrealists pushed him to explore his subconscious. Even his quasi-abstract works speak to us in a language that, albeit foreign, we can understand instinctually. These works include “Betrothal I” (1947) (from MOCA’s collection), in which anthropomorphic forms seem to dance before us, and “Dark Green Painting” (Philadelphia Museum of Art), one of his last works, which seems to express enormous psychic pain and foreshadows his eventual suicide in 1948.
Throughout the run of the exhibition, many programs will offer opportunities to get to know Gorky better, including Michael Taylor, exhibition curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, speaking about Gorky’s relation to Abstract Expressionism (June 6); Richard Hovannisian, professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at UCLA, who will speak about Gorky’s Armenian heritage (June 20); and filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who will screen his film “Ararat,” in which Gorky appears as a character, at the Pacific Design Center (June 27).
Yes, Gorky was an Armenian Christian. Yet because his work speaks so clearly of dislocation, invention and reinvention, as well as of assimilating the ways of others in order to find one’s own new identity, his story is our story. If Gorky seems like one of us, it is because he was. He just wasn’t Jewish.