Arshile Gorky

By Jeremy Miles

The first major retrospective of Gorky’s work to be seen in Europe for twenty years celebrates one of the most powerful and poetic artists practicing during the first half of the 20th century.  Although long established as an American, Gorky was actually born Vosdanig Adoian in Western Armenia, probably in 1904. He  fled the massacres of 1915 and on arrival in the US some five years later set about re-inventing himself as  Arshile Gorky. He became friends with many of New York’s emerging avant-garde artists, including Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, John Graham, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith. He studied at the Grand Central School of Art, becoming a tutor there at the age of just 22.

This show examines the extraordinary contribution of this seminal figure in Abstract Expressionism. It spans Gorky’s entire 25 year career and offers a rare opportunity to see the complex and moving body of work that he produced as a whole. It includes more than 120 paintings and works on paper, many of which have never been seen in the UK before.

 What is remarkable about Gorky is that, despite having little formal academic training, he swiftly absorbed the spirit, techniques and ideals of  European Modernism through both his studies and his teaching.  He would go on to become a pivotal figure in mid-century American art. 

In New York in 1941, he encountered the exiled European Surrealists, whose leader, André Breton, welcomed him as part of their movement. His lyrical work anticipated Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in 1940s New York amongst a circle of artists like Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko, who championed individuality and  spontaneity of expression. 

Gorky’s assimilation of both European and American influences resulted in a distinctive synthesis of artistic cultures. Paralleling the Surrealists’ idea of automatism – the free flowing release of the hand from conscious control of the mind - he forged an entirely new kind of abstract painting.

 Structured around a number of significant moments in Gorky’s career and arranged broadly chronologically, the Tate exhibition reveals the evolution of his visual vocabulary. It reassesses work from the 1920s and 1930s and  throws light on the significance of early developments in his practice. Highlights include the remarkable pair of paintings The Artist and his Mother (circa 1926-36 and 1929-42) which stand as memorials to Gorky’s lost childhood, his confrontations with exile and, most poignantly, his mother herself whom he had seen die of starvation 

 The show also brings together many of the renowned works from Gorky’s artistic breakthrough in the 1940s. After his marriage in 1941, Gorky spent much of his time in the countryside. His experience of the American landscape, combined with memories of his father's farm near Lake Van, inspired lyrical works of nature-based abstraction.  

Examples from this period include Waterfall (1943),  one of Gorky’s most luscious abstractions from the landscape where biomorphic forms, rendered with thinned-out washes of paint, create veils of colour marked with gestures. 

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective also includes other key works from this period of radical development demonstrating the balance Gorky found between energy and fine control in his mature work. Highlights include Landscape Table, circa 1945  and the three paintings from The Betrothal series (1947) .

 The exhibition, already seen at Philadelphia Museum of Art, runs at London’s Tate Modern until May 3. It  will then travel on to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles where it will show from June 6 – 20 September 2010. It  is accompanied by a book by Matthew Gale.

© Jeremy Miles 2022