ARSHILE GORKY was born Vostanik Manoog Andoyan in 1904 near Van, Turkey. He was a preeminent American Modernist artist of Armenian descent. His diverse body of was a unique conflation of the Surrealist, Cubist, and Expressionist artistic styles. His innovative stylistic fusion prepared the way for the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in its various artistic forms.
Many of Gorky’s works were also very personal in their content, reflecting on the artist’s traumatic past as a genocide survivor. As a child, the artist survived the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks. With his family displaced and dispersed en route to the Russian-controlled Armenia, his mother died of starvation in Gorky’s arms in 1919. His father, however, had escaped the Turkish military draft by moving to the United States in 1910 and settling in Providence, Rhode Island. Gorky would join his father in 1920 at the age of sixteen after leaving the war-ridden territory of the collapsed Russian Empire. The painful nostalgic sentiments for the lost homeland remained a prominent theme in Gorky’s oeuvre.
Gorky remained largely a self-taught artist before his immigration to the United States. Here he enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, which he attended from 1922 to 1924. The new land also provided for the artist’s initial exposure to the modernist artistic discourse, for which the founding fathers, such as the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, would exercise a great deal of influence. Around 1925 Gorky moved to New York where he swiftly penetrated the emerging artistic milieu and enjoyed an expansive introduction to groundbreaking innovations of Pablo Picasso as well as the early work of Joan Miró.
It was in New York where Gorky met and developed a personal and artistic friendship with such artists as Stuart Davis, John Graham, and fellow émigré Willem de Kooning. New York’s climate of constant artistic exchange proved auspicious for the formation of Gorky’s early style which relied heavily on Cézanne’s compositional method and Picasso’s Synthetic Cubist forms. The colorful palette of the Fauves and other European Expressionists, among which German-based Wassily Kandinsky proved to be a major avant-garde force, were also formative influences on the artist.
While in New York, Gorky enrolled at both the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art, where he also taught until 1931. It was also the time the artist changed his name, from Vosdanik Adoyan to Arshile Gorky, in order to divorce himself from the negative perception of the Armenian refugees in the United States. The change was also made to claim a certain connection to the Russian artistic milieu. For a while Gorky even claimed to be a relative of the prominent Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who enjoyed a considerable fame in the West.
In the 1930’s Gorky’s work began to enjoy public recognition. In 1930, he was included in the group show of the emerging artists assembled by Alfred Barr, the influential director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The year 1931 marked the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia. From 1935 to 1941, the artist worked under the WPA Federal Art Project alongside Willem de Kooning, a major government initiative to provide artists with work at the time of the Great Depression. One of the projects conceived by Gorky for the WPA was the murals at the Newark Airport in Newark, New Jersey. Also in 1935, four of Gorky’s paintings were included in the famed exhibition mounted by The Whitney Museum of American Art titled Abstract Painting in America, which attracted a growing attention to the artist from critics and public alike. In 1938 Gorky held his first solo show in New York at the Boyer Galleries.
By the 1940’s Gorky would move into an entirely new direction in his painting: an innovative technique of paint application which anticipated, if not inspired, the Action Painting method of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the following decade.
The stylistic shift in Gorky’s work is best understood through the analysis of the New York context, namely a major influx of European artists and intellectuals who moved to the city before and during the Second World War. Among these individuals were Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann who escaped Hitler’s Reich and established themselves as influential art teachers and theorists in New York; Erwin Panofsky, a founding father of the academic discipline of Art History in its modern form, who taught at New York and Princeton Universities; prominent German Surrealist painter Max Ernst and the primary theorist of Surrealist movement André Breton, who fled the occupied city of Paris; and Piet Mondrian and Ferdinand Léger, who brought their unique pictorial modes as their only luggage. The confluence of these individuals made New York an ever more boisterous and diverse artistic ground, where the iconic names of Modern painting with all its variety of styles intermingled and intertwined, preparing the way for the emergence of an inimitable New York style of painting generally known as Abstract Expressionism.
He died in Sherman, Connecticut in 1948.
Arshile Gorky : untitled, 1945, ink on paper, 8.5 x 10