Arshile Gorky

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Arshile Gorky
Archives of American Art - Arshile Gorky - 3044.jpg
Arshile Gorky in December 1936
BornVostanik Manoug Adoian
(1904-04-15)April 15, 1904
Khorgom, Vilayet of Van, Ottoman Empire
Died July 21, 1948(1948-07-21) (aged 44)
Sherman, Connecticut
Nationality Armenian American
Known for Painting, Drawing
Notable workLandscape in the Manner of Cézanne (1927)
Nighttime, Enigma, Nostalgia (1930–1934)
Movement Abstract Expressionism

Arshile Gorky ( /ˌɑːrʃlˈɡɔːrk/ ; born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, Armenian : Ոստանիկ Մանուկ Ատոյեան; April 15, 1904 – July 21, 1948) was an Armenian-American painter, who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism. He spent most his life as a national of the United States. Along with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Gorky has been hailed as one of the most powerful American painters of the 20th century. As such, his works were often speculated to have been informed by the suffering and loss he experienced in the Armenian Genocide.

Armenian language Indo-European language

The Armenian language is an Indo-European language spoken primarily by Armenians. It is the official language of Armenia. Historically being spoken throughout the Armenian Highlands, today, Armenian is widely spoken throughout the Armenian diaspora. Armenian is written in its own writing system, the Armenian alphabet, introduced in 405 AD by Mesrop Mashtots.

Armenian Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have total or partial Armenian ancestry. They form the second largest community of the Armenian diaspora after Armenians in Russia. The first major wave of Armenian immigration to the United States took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thousands of Armenians settled in the United States following the Hamidian massacres of the mid-1890s, the Adana Massacre of 1909, and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. Since the 1950s many Armenians from the Middle East migrated to America as a result of political instability in the region. It accelerated in the late 1980s and has continued after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 due to socio-economic and political reasons.

Mark Rothko American painter

Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist.


Early life

Arshile Gorky's The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-1936), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. The Artist and His Mother.jpg
Arshile Gorky's The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926–1936), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.

Gorky was born in the village of Khorgom (today's Dilkaya), situated on the shores of Lake Van in the Ottoman Empire. [1] His date of birth is often stated as April 15, 1904; however, the year might well be 1902 or 1903. [2] In later years he was vague about his date of birth, changing it from year to year. In 1908 his father emigrated to America to avoid the draft, leaving his family behind in the town of Van. [3]

Lake Van largest lake in Turkey

Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey, lies in the far east of that country in the provinces of Van and Bitlis. It is a saline soda lake, receiving water from numerous small streams that descend from the surrounding mountains. Lake Van is one of the world's largest endorheic lakes —a volcanic eruption blocked the original outlet from the basin in ancient times. Although Lake Van has an altitude of 1,640 m (5,380 ft) in a region with harsh winters, its high salinity prevents most of it from freezing, and even the shallow northern section freezes only rarely.

Ottoman Empire Former empire in Asia, Europe and Africa

The Ottoman Empire, also historically known in Western Europe as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey, was a state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

Van, Turkey Metropolitan municipality in Eastern Anatolia, Turkey

Van is a city in eastern Turkey's Van Province, located on the eastern shore of Lake Van. The city has a long history as a major urban area. It has been a large city since the first millennium BC, initially as Tushpa, the capital of the kingdom of Urartu from the 9th century BC to the 6th century BC, and later as the center of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan. Today, Van has a Kurdish majority and a sizeable Turkish minority.

In 1915, Gorky fled Lake Van during the Armenian Genocide and escaped with his mother and his three sisters into Russian-controlled territory. In the aftermath of the genocide, Gorky's mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919. Arriving in America in 1920, the 16-year-old Gorky was reunited with his father, but they never grew close. [4]

Armenian Genocide systematic killing of Armenians residing in the Ottoman Empire

The Armenian Genocide, also known as the Armenian Holocaust, was the Ottoman government's systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, mostly citizens within the Ottoman Empire. The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day that Ottoman authorities rounded up, arrested, and deported from Constantinople to the region of Ankara 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, the majority of whom were eventually murdered. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases—the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. Other ethnic groups were similarly targeted for extermination in the Assyrian genocide and the Greek genocide, and their treatment is considered by some historians to be part of the same genocidal policy. Most Armenian diaspora communities around the world came into being as a direct result of the genocide.

Yerevan City in Armenia

Yerevan is the capital and largest city of Armenia as well as one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. Situated along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is the administrative, cultural, and industrial center of the country. It has been the capital since 1918, the fourteenth in the history of Armenia and the seventh located in or around the Ararat plain. The city also serves as the seat of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese; the largest diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of the oldest dioceses in the world.

In the process of reinventing his identity, he changed his name to "Arshile Gorky", claiming to be a Georgian noble [5] (taking the Georgian name Arshile/Archil), and even telling people he was a relative of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. [6]

Georgia (country) Country in the Caucasus region

Georgia is a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, it is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan. The capital and largest city is Tbilisi. Georgia covers a territory of 69,700 square kilometres (26,911 sq mi), and its 2017 population is about 3.718 million. Georgia is a unitary semi-presidential republic, with the government elected through a representative democracy.

Maxim Gorky Russian and Soviet writer

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, primarily known as Maxim Gorky, was a Russian and Soviet writer, a founder of the socialist realism literary method, and a political activist. He was also a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Around fifteen years before success as a writer, he frequently changed jobs and roamed across the Russian Empire; these experiences would later influence his writing. Gorky's most famous works were The Lower Depths (1902), Twenty-six Men and a Girl (1899), The Song of the Stormy Petrel (1901), My Childhood (1913–1914), Mother (1906), Summerfolk (1904) and Children of the Sun (1905). He had an association with fellow Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov; Gorky would later mention them in his memoirs.


Arshile Gorky's Portrait of Master Bill, 1929-1936. Oil on canvas. Master-bill.jpg
Arshile Gorky's Portrait of Master Bill, 1929–1936. Oil on canvas.

In 1922, Gorky enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, eventually becoming a part-time instructor. During the early 1920s he was influenced by Impressionism, although later in the decade he produced works that were more postimpressionist. During this time he was living in New York and was influenced by Paul Cézanne. In 1925 he was asked by Edmund Greacen of the Grand Central Art Galleries to teach at the Grand Central School of Art; Gorky accepted and remained with them until 1931. [7] In 1927, Gorky met Ethel Kremer Schwabacher and developed a lifelong friendship. Schwabacher was his first biographer. Gorky said:

Boston Capital city of Massachusetts, United States

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 685,094 in 2017, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth-largest in the United States.

Impressionism 19th-century art movement

Impressionism is a 19th-century art movement characterized by relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities, ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. Impressionism originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s.

Paul Cézanne 19th-century French painter

Paul Cézanne was a French artist and Post-Impressionist painter whose work laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th-century conception of artistic endeavor to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century. Cézanne's often repetitive, exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic and clearly recognizable. He used planes of colour and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields. The paintings convey Cézanne's intense study of his subjects.

The stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of the artist's brush. As the eye functions as the brain's sentry, I communicate my innermost perceptions through the art, my worldview. [8]

In 1931, Gorky sent a group of works ranging in price from $100 to $450 to the Downtown Gallery in New York. (The artist's name was spelled "Archele Gorki" in the gallery's records. Most of Gorky's works from this period were unsigned.) The exact nature of their relationship is unknown. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller) purchased from the gallery a Cézannesque still life by Gorky titled Fruit. Gorky may have been introduced to the gallery owner by Stuart Davis who regularly exhibited there.

In 1933, Arshile Gorky became one of the first artists employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. This later came to include such artists as Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko.

In 1935, Gorky signed a three-year contract with the Guild Art Gallery (37 West Fifty-seventh Street, New York). Co-owned by Anna Walinska and Margaret Lefranc, but funded and directed by Lefranc, the gallery organized the artist's first solo exhibition in New York, Abstract Drawings by Arshile Gorky.

Notable paintings from this time include Landscape in the Manner of Cézanne (1927) and Landscape, Staten Island (1927–1928). At the close of the 1920s and into the 1930s he experimented with cubism, eventually moving to surrealism. The painting illustrated above, The Artist and His Mother, (ca. 1926–1936) is a memorable, moving and innovative portrait. His The Artist and His Mother paintings are based on a childhood photograph taken in Van in which he is depicted standing beside his mother. Gorky made two versions; the other is in the National Gallery of Art Washington, DC.. The painting has been likened to Ingres for simplicity of line and smoothness, to Egyptian Funerary art for pose, to Cézanne for flat planar composition, to Picasso for form and color. [9]

Nighttime, Enigma, Nostalgia (1930–1934) are the series of complex works that characterize this phase of his painting. The canvas Portrait of Master Bill appears to depict Gorky's friend, Willem de Kooning. De Kooning said: "I met a lot of artists — but then I met Gorky... He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head; remarkable. So I immediately attached myself to him and we became very good friends. It was nice to be foreigners meeting in some new place." [10] [11] [12] However recent publications contradict the claim that the painting is of de Kooning but is actually a portrait of a Swedish carpenter Gorky called Master Bill who did some work for him in exchange for Gorky giving him art lessons. [13]

Arshile Gorky working on Activities on the field, one of the panels for his mural Aviation at Newark Airport, for the Federal Art Project, 1936 Archives of American Art - Arshile Gorky - 3043.jpg
Arshile Gorky working on Activities on the field, one of the panels for his mural Aviation at Newark Airport, for the Federal Art Project, 1936

When Gorky showed his new work to André Breton in the 1940s, after seeing the new paintings and in particular The Liver is the Cock's Comb, Breton declared the painting to be "one of the most important paintings made in America" and he stated that Gorky was a Surrealist, which was Breton's highest compliment. [14] The painting was shown in the Surrealists' final show at the Galérie Maeght in Paris in 1947. [15]

Michael Auping, a curator at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, saw in the work a "taut sexual drama" combined with nostalgic allusions to Gorky's Armenian past. [16] The work in 1944 shows his emergence in the 1940s from the influence of Cézanne and Picasso into his own style, and is perhaps his greatest work. [17] It is over six feet high and eight feet wide, depicting "an abstract landscape filled with watery plumes of semi-transparent color that coalesce around spiky, thorn like shapes, painted in thin, sharp black lines, as if to suggest beaks and claws." [17]

Personal life

Artist Corinne Michelle West was Gorky's muse and probably his lover, although she refused to marry him when he proposed several times. [18]

In 1941, Gorky met and married Agnes Magruder (1921–2013) daughter of Admiral John H. Magruder. He soon nicknamed her "Mougouch", an Armenian term of endearment. They had two daughters, Maro and Yalda (renamed Natasha some months later). Maro Gorky became a painter, and married the British sculptor and writer Matthew Spender, son of the poet Sir Stephen Spender. [19]

From 1946, Gorky suffered a series of crises: his studio barn burned down, he underwent a colostomy for cancer, and Mougouch had an affair with Roberto Matta. In 1948, Gorky's neck was broken and his painting arm temporarily paralyzed in a car accident, and his wife left him, taking their children with her. She was later married to British writer Xan Fielding. [20]

Gorky hanged himself in Sherman, Connecticut in 1948 at the age of 44. He is buried in North Cemetery in Sherman, Connecticut.


Arshile Gorky. The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944), oil on canvas, 73 /4 x 98" (186 x 249 cm), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. The painting represents the peak of Gorky's achievement and his individual style, after he had emerged from the influence of Cezanne and Picasso. Gorky-The-Liver.jpg
Arshile Gorky. The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944), oil on canvas, 734 × 98" (186 × 249 cm), Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. The painting represents the peak of Gorky's achievement and his individual style, after he had emerged from the influence of Cézanne and Picasso.

Gorky's contributions to American and world art are difficult to overestimate. His work as lyrical abstraction [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] was a "new language. [21] He "lit the way for two generations of American artists". [21] The painterly spontaneity of mature works like The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944), One Year the Milkweed (1944), and The Betrothal II (1947) immediately prefigured Abstract expressionism, and leaders in the New York School have acknowledged Gorky's considerable influence.

His oeuvre synthesizes Surrealism and the sensuous color and painterliness of the School of Paris with his own highly personal formal vocabulary. His paintings and drawings hang in every major American museum including the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (which maintains the Gorky Archive), and in many worldwide, including the Tate in London.[ citation needed ]

A number of English translations of letters allegedly written by Gorky in Armenian to his sisters are now considered to be fakes produced by Karlen Mooradian, a nephew of Gorky, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. [26] The letters often describe moods of melancholy, and express loneliness and emptiness, nostalgia for his country, while bitterly and vividly recalling the circumstances of his mother's death; some also express nationalistic sentiments or impart specific meanings to his paintings. The contents of the fake letters heavily influenced the authors of books written about Gorky and his art during the 1970s and 1980s.

Fifteen of Gorky's paintings and drawings were destroyed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 1 in 1962. [27]

In June 2005, the family of the artist established the Arshile Gorky Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation formed to further the public’s appreciation and understanding of the life and artistic achievements of Arshile Gorky. The foundation is working on a catalogue raisonné of the artist's entire body of work. In October 2009, the foundation relaunched its website to provide accurate information on the artist, including a biography, bibliography, exhibition history, and list of archival sources. [28]

In October 2009 the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major Arshile Gorky exhibition: Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. [29] [30] On June 6, 2010, an exhibit of the same name opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. [31]

Further reading

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  1. Kerr, Melissa (2009). "Chronology", in: Michael R. Taylor (ed.), Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. Philadelphia, Pa.: Philadelphia Museum of Art. ISBN   9780876332139. pp. 352-365; here: p. 353. Also available on the website of the Arshile Gorky Foundation. "... born in the village of Khorkom, within the Armenian province of Van, on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey".
  2. Kerr, Melissa (2009). "Chronology", in: Michael R. Taylor (ed.), Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. pp. 352-365; here: 353, 366. Also available on the website of the Arshile Gorky Foundation. Kerr gives Gorky's birth date in the chronology as "c. 1902". In a footnote she states that the often cited birth date of April 15, 1904 is the date that Gorky declared on his citizenship papers. She goes on to recount other conflicting reports of his birth date, including the fact that "his older sisters maintained that he was born in 1902 or 1903"; she finally concludes that "the 1902 birth date seems most plausible" (p. 366). What Kerr does not mention, however, is that the date that actually appears in the citizenship papers is not 1904 but 1903. Gorky's "Petition for Naturalization", filed in New York on January 18, 1939, as well as his earlier "Declaration of Intention", filed on May 7, 1936, both give the date of birth as April 15, 1903. The citizenship documents are retrievable via; the citation: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C. Petitions for Naturalization from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1897-1944, NARA Series: M1972, Roll 1173. Arshile Gorky, Petition No. 321324.
  3. Barnes, Rachel (2003). Abstract Expressionists. Chicago: Heinemann Library. p. 14. ISBN   9781588106445.
  4. Theriault, Kim. Rethinking Arshile Gorky. Penn State Press. ISBN   0271047089.
  5. Independent, 2013, Mougouch Fielding: Painter who became muse to Arshile Gorky
  6. Los Angeles Times, 2010, Arshile Gorky a Retrospective at MoCA
  8. Abstract Expressionism, by Barbara Hess, Taschen, 2005, pg 10
  9. Matossian, Nouritza. Black Angel, The Life of Arshile Gorky. Overlook Press, NY 2000, pp.214–215
  10. Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 44 ISBN   978-0-8109-1908-2
  11. de Kooning An American Master, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Alfred A. Knopf New York 2005, p.210, ISBN   1-4000-4175-9
  12. Willem de Kooning (1969) by Thomas B. Hess
  13. Haydon Herrara, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, p.299, 2005 Retrieved August 20, 2010
  14. Matossian, Nouritza. Black Angel, The Life of Arshile Gorky. Overlook Press, NY 2000, pp.352–357
  15. Feaver, William. "The mysterious art of Arshile Gorky", The Guardian , February 6, 2010. Retrieved June 10, 2010.
  16. Kimmelman, Michael. "Art view; A restless borrower, and his own man", The New York Times , May 21, 1995. Retrieved June 10, 2010.
  17. 1 2 3 "Six masterpieces", The Plain Dealer , June 13, 2004. Retrieved June 10, 2010.
  18. CHANG, RICHARD. "A woman painting in a man's world".
  19. "Matthew Spender." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2017. Retrieved via Biography in Context database, 2017-12-16.
  20. "Mougouch Fielding". Daily Telegraph.
  21. 1 2 3 Dorment, Richard. "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective at Tate Modern, review", The Daily Telegraph , 8 February 2010. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
  22. Art Daily retrieved May 24, 2010
  23. "L.A. Art Collector Caps Two Year Pursuit of Artist with Exhibition of New Work", ArtDaily. Retrieved 26 May 2010. "Lyrical Abstraction ... has been applied at times to the work of Arshile Gorky"
  24. "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective", Tate, February 9, 2010. Retrieved June 5, 2010.
  25. Van Siclen, Bill. "Art scene by Bill Van Siclen: Part-time faculty with full-time talent" Archived June 22, 2011, at the Wayback Machine ., The Providence Journal , July 10, 2003. Retrieved June 10, 2010.
  26. Ries, Martin (2010). "Arshile Gorky's Roofs, Goats, Letters, and Documents". Review of Gorky, Goats on the Roof: A Life in Letters and Documents, ed. Matthew Spender (2009). Art Criticism, vol. 25, no. 1/2. Via author's website, Retrieved December 16, 2017.
  27. "Disasters: Tragedy in Jamaica Bay". 9 March 1962 via
  28. "The Arshile Gorky Foundation".
  29. Holland Cotter, NyTimes review Retrieved October 23, 2009
  30. Michael Hunter lecture, Philadelphia Museum Retrieved June 7, 2010
  31. "Current Exhibitions" Retrieved July 11, 2010
  32. "Without Gorky". The Arshile Gorky Foundation. Retrieved December 16, 2017.
  33. "A Life in Letters and Documents". Ridinghouse. Retrieved 5 August 2012.