(1904 - 1948)
Arshile Gorky formed an important bridge between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expression. In the 1940’s “the interaction between Surrealist-inspired automatism and direct sensuous experience” (Finkelstein, p. 44) yielded Gorky’s most significant work which “is neither surrealist nor abstract expressionist but epitomizes this transitional period”(Schimmel, p. 19). In these highly fertile and most mature years, Gorky turned in large part to drawing, asserting it as the very basis of his art. Through his highly personal abstract idiom, Gorky looked to nature more than any other time in his career. “Whether representing psychological landscapes, still lifes, or natural scenes, his drawings combine forms without regard to scale or specific indications of foreground, middle ground, and background. They are at once intimate and expansive in their incorporation of microscopic detail in a broad, landscape-inspired view” (Schimmel, p. 20). Consistent with these traits, Untitled, ca. 1946 stands as a striking exponent of Gorky’s endeavors. There is a physicality of line and gesture tempered by a rigorous restraint and focus. The imagery is at once specific and allusive, evoking references that we feel and yet cannot fully articulate. He keeps us in an abstract place that we experience as highly concrete. To Untitled, ca. 1946, as with all of Gorky’s strongest works, we can apply the following: “there is an energy and a mood created by that counterpoint of scribble against delicate linear shapes, setting forth an immediacy and a revelation of the process of thought and feeling that are emblematic of Arshile Gorky’s major contribution to the history of art” (Bowman, p. 68)
Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanig Manoug Atoian, in Turkey around 1902. He immigrated to the United States in 1920. In America, Gorky studied and taught at several schools: Boston’s New School of Design and Illustration, and in New York, the New School of Design, National Academy of Design, and Grand Central School of Art. Gorky was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930, with fellow artists under thirty-five. Countless other exhibitions ensued, including a retrospective of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Menil Collection in Houston, in 2003, and another in 2009 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, traveling to the Tate Modern in London, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Gorky’s work is in numerous museum collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. In a decade characterized by personal tragedy, Gorky took his own life in Sherman, Connecticut, in 1948. The Arshile Gorky Foundation was established by the artist’s family in 2005, with a mission to further develop and shape his lasting influence.
Though his life was tragically-short, Arshile Gorky is recognized as an essential bridge between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expression. A strong visual education enabled quick and intelligent transitions in working style. Gorky is most-recognizable in mature works that employ the Surrealist technique of “automatic drawing,” where pen or pencil marks are made without preconception and the creations are interpreted as subconscious thought. Works from the early 1920s show an influence of Cézanne, while works from the end of the decade address the European avant-garde and Cubism, particularly Braque, Matisse, Picasso and Miró. Many artists, particularly those of the 1950s New York School, have credited Gorky as a major source of inspiration. During his mature period in the 1940s, Gorky’s abstract vocabulary embraced a language of biomorphic forms, charged with great energy. His innovative style combined childhood memories – the gardens, orchards and wheat fields – with direct observations from his American life. The resultant works are both specific and allusive, generating symbols that are both stirring and relatable, but cannot be fully articulated.
Schimmel, Paul, et al.; Bowman, Ruth. The interpretive Link, Abstract Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism, works on paper 1938-1949. Newport Harbor Museum: Newport Harbor, CA. 1986.
Finkelstein, Louis. "Becoming is Meaning," Art News 68, December 1969, p. 44.