In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.
The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.
Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.
I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.
I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.
If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.