Arshile Gorky, (April 15, 1904 – July 21, 1948) born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan; was an Armenian-born American painter who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism.
orky was born in the village of Khorgom, situated on the shores of Lake Van. It is not known exactly when he was born: it was sometime between 1902 and 1905. (In later years Gorky was vague about even the date of his birth, changing it from year to year.) In 1910 his father emigrated to America to avoid the draft, leaving his family behind in the town of Van.
Gorky fled Van in 1915 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. Gorky was reunited with his father when he arrived in America in 1920, aged 16, but they never grew close. At age 31, Gorky married. He changed his name to Arshile Gorky, in the process reinventing his identity (he even told people he was a relative of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky). The paintings of Armenian-American Arshile Gorky, a seminal figure of Abstract Expressionism, were often speculated to have been informed by the suffering and loss of the period. 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.
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. He also accepted a teaching position at the Grand Central School of Art. In 1927, Gorky met Ethel Kremer Schwabacher and developed a life lasting friendship.
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. 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. Nighttime, Enigma, Nostalgia (1930-1934) is a series of complex works that characterize this phase of his painting. The canvas below Portrait of Master Bill depicts 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.
In English translations of letters allegedly written by Gorky in Armenian to his sisters he often described moods of melancholy, and expressed loneliness and emptiness, nostalgia for his country, and bitterly and vividly recalled the circumstances of his mother's death. Most of these translations (especially those expressing nationalistic sentiments or imparting specific meanings to his paintings) are now considered to be fakes produced by Karlen Mooradian (a nephew of Gorky) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, the contents of the fake letters heavily influenced the authors of books written about Gorky and his art during the 1970s and 80s.
Gorky's later years were filled with immense pain and heartbreak. His studio barn burned down, he underwent a colostomy for cancer, his neck was broken and his painting arm temporarily paralyzed in a car accident, and his wife of seven years left him, taking their children with her. Gorky hanged himself in Sherman, Connecticut, in 1948, at the age of 44. He is buried in North Cemetery in Sherman, Connecticut.
Even after death, misfortune followed him: a plane crash in 1962 took 95 lives and 15 of his paintings and drawings.
His daughter, the painter Maro Gorky, married Matthew Spender, son of the British writer Sir Stephen Spender.
Gorky's contributions to American and world art are difficult to overestimate. The painterly spontaneity of mature works like "The Liver is the Cock's Comb". "The Betrothal II", and "One Year the Milkweed" immediately prefigured Abstract expressionism, and leaders in the New York School have acknowledged Gorky's considerable influence. 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 is a Surrealist, which was Breton's highest compliment. But his oeuvre is a phenomenal achievement in its own right, synthesizing 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 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.