Sublime art transcends life of tortured genius Arshile Gorky in moving Retrospective at Tate Modern

By Kirstie Brewer | 31 March 2010
A picture of an abstract painting full of reds, blacks and yellows on an earthy brown background

(Above) Agony (1947). Oil on canvas. © 2009 The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © The estate of Arshile Gorky.

Exhibition: Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, until May 2

Gorky's work is haunted by his tragic childhood – a painful past he draws from and yet tries to stifle and obscure. Perhaps this is why he remains something of an enigma – his name doesn't bear the same weight as his contemporaries Pollock, Rothko or de Kooning, and yet he is heralded as the father of abstract expressionism.

Born Vosdanig Adoian in Armenia, probably in 1904, Gorky survived the atrocities of Turkey’s Armenian genocide and fled with his mother and three sisters into Russian-controlled territory.

His mother soon starved to death and the 15-year-old boy and his sister, Vartoosh, were left alone to begin the arduous journey to join their father in the United States.

A picture of a light abstract painting of a man and his mother standing up

The Artist and His Mother (1926-36). Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father. © the estate of Arshile Gorky

Given such an incalculably traumatic past, the work on display is testament to Gorky’s inspirational resilience.

He reinvented himself as Arshile Gorky, in tribute to the Russian proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, and even allowed people to believe they were related. The name, however contrived, brought the promise of a new kind of revolutionary, international art.

A self-made artist with little formal training, he learnt through diligently studying the modern artists he passionately admired. At first glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking Gorky's earliest works for those of Cezanne, Matisse or Picasso.

The exhibition reveals that Gorky’s road to success was a slow and uneasy one. The series of works made on cheap paper document his struggle to survive through the Depression. But they also mark an inventive turning point in his work.

A picture of an abstract painting of an abstract showing yellows, reds and blacks on a white background

Garden in Sochi (circa 1943). Oil on canvas

What is satisfying about the exhibition is the way it spans Gorky's 25-year career, charting the artist’s journey from learned apprentice to a bold Abstract Expressionist who lit the way for an entire generation of American artists. It provides an eye-opening opportunity to consider his evolving body of work as a whole.

Walking through the 12 rooms, his growing self-confidence and shift in attitude materialise in front of you. Meticulous studies and re-workings are displayed alongside final paintings, charting the artist’s struggle for perfection and the emergence of his own personality.

Gorky found resolve through art; he battled through his trauma by channelling it into something powerful and poetic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his heart- rending painting, The Artist and His Mother.

The young Gorky stands earnestly next to his beautiful, spectral mother, both of them unaware of the imminent tragedy. The painting serves as a haunting memorial to the Armenian genocide and in a cathartic way, brings his mother back from annihilation.

A picture of an abstract painting of a waterfall in pastoral yellows and dark, earthy greens

Waterfall (1943). Painting. © Tate

What sets Gorky apart from his contemporaries is his melding of an Old World sensibility with the New World. Image in Khorkom and Garden in Sochi bear witness to Gorky’s recovery of childhood memories and his confrontation with a distant Armenian heritage and mythic past.

This brave revisiting coincided with his encounter with the European Surrealists in wartime New York. Their emphasis on psychological reality rather than the external world appealed to Gorky. He forever stepped away from figuration and moved instead towards the liberated, improvisatory art form that generated his key works.

The final rooms of the exhibition celebrate Gorky’s extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity. His life was plagued throughout with tragedy and misfortune but he continued to adapt, creating some of his most acclaimed works during his darkest times.

A devastating studio fire in 1946 destroyed a whole year's worth of work just as his career was beginning to flourish, and then a diagnosis of cancer the following month left the artist too weak to paint.

A picture of an abstract painting of dripping colours with earthy green and dark yellow backgrounds

One Year the Milkweed (1944). Oil on canvas

Gorky battled on but growing depression, separation from his wife and a car crash that snapped his neck and paralysed his painting arm proved too much. He took his own life in 1948.

The exhibition is shadowed by tragedy and the work on show is undeniably struck through with the pain of Gorky’s tortured soul and displaced heart.

But his work cannot be defined by that alone. It somehow sublimely transcends all the misery, mixing Gorky's admirable strength with a softness, grace and intrigue.

Admission £10. Book online.

Programme of Events:

April 9: Life With Gorky – Director's Q&A
Tate Modern Starr Auditorium
Screening of the intimate portrait of Gorky by his granddaughter, Cosima Spender, followed by a discussion. 1pm. Admission free (no bookings taken, seats on a first-come, first-served basis).

April 10 and 17: Exploding Words
Tate Modern East Room
Voice artist Mikhail Karikis leads two workshops taking inspiration from Gorky's artistic journey. 1.30pm-5.30pm. Tickets £65/£45 (booking recommended, includes exhibition admission and refreshments), book online.

April 21: Atom Egoyan on Arshile Gorky
Tate Modern Starr Auditorium
The independent filmmaker discusses his installations and short films relating to Gorky’s life and art in relation to the Armenian massacres. 6.30pm-9pm. Admission £10/£8 (booking recommended), book online.

April 26: Matthew Spender on Gorky
In Exhibition
Gorky's son-in-law and biographer leads a tour of the show. 6.30pm-7.30pm. Admission £10/£8.50, book online.

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