Describing Arshile Gorky’s painstaking apprenticeship from afar to Picasso, Harold Rosenberg wrote, “From Picasso Gorky learned: above all, keep at it. If you have no ideas, draw the model. If you have no model, copy reproductions. If you are depressed, draw; if you get drunk, go home and start a picture. If there is shooting outside the window, go on drawing. For the artist, there is only one real situation, and only one salvation: art.”
Gorky never had any chance for salvation except through art. It was the only way he could keep the memories of his horrific childhood at bay. If any artist had a right to be an expressionist, it was Gorky. Few painters have been so thoroughly traumatized at such an early age. Fewer still have transformed this trauma and channeled their tortured Beethoven souls into such pure Mozartian lyricism.
Born Vosdanik Adoian in Armenia in 1904, Gorky saw his mother starve to death in 1919 because of the Turkish genocide. Not speaking a word of English, the 16-year-old Adoian came to America with his younger sister the following year, settled in Boston, and moved to New York in 1924. There he assumed the name Arshile Gorky, claiming to be a Georgian prince and cousin of Maxim Gorky, and took October 25, Picasso’s birth date, as his own. His last years were nightmarish. In January 1946, a fire in his studio destroyed 27 paintings; in March of that year, he was diagnosed with cancer and had a colostomy; in June 1948, he fractured two vertebrae in his neck in a car accident that also left his painting arm temporarily paralyzed. Then, his long-suffering wife, Mougouch, had a two-day affair with his best friend, the painter Roberto Matta. (“The affair ruined my life in one zip,” she wrote.) A month later, Gorky hung himself from the rafters of a small shed in Connecticut, leaving a scribbled note on a crate that read simply, “Goodbye my loveds.”
A totally self-made artist, Gorky haunted museums. De Kooning called him “a Geiger counter of art.” Although he called Cézanne “the greatest artist that has lived,” it was Picasso who “showed the way.” In the early decades of the 20th century, Picasso posed a gigantic problem for younger artists: how to get past him. Most tried unsuccessfully to go around him. Gorky took the more dangerous way: directly though him. For more than a decade Gorky was a virtual aesthetic slave of Picasso. At times his work is almost indistinguishable from the Spaniard’s. De Kooning remembered showing Gorky his own paintings in 1934 and being rebuked: “Aha, so you have ideas of your own.” “Somehow,” de Kooning said dryly, “that didn’t seem so good.” That same year someone teased Gorky, “Just when you’ve gotten Picasso’s clean edge, he starts dripping.” Gorky shot back, “If he drips, I drip.” Ridiculed as “too Picassoid” by his future dealer, Julian Levy, Gorky retorted, “I was with Cézanne for a long time. Now I am with Picasso.” These and quotes like “I painted so intensely that my knees trembled” and “I must have been born to suffer for art” make you understand that when Gorky was with anyone it was intense. Pollock remarked, “The guy always did talk too much.” Maybe, but he was the first American to make his way through Picasso and arrive at something extraordinary and original.
Proof of Gorky’s intensity and persistence permeate the large retrospective organized by Melvin Lader and Janie Lee at the Whitney. At 140 drawings, there is something intoxicating and exhausting about this voluptuous show. It’s shocking to see a wall text in only the second gallery that reads, “Late Drawings” (nearly half of this exhibition is devoted to work from 1946 and 1947). Observe how many of the drawings vary only a little bit from one another, there being only tiny crucial changes between them, a curve here, a notch there, a color adjustment. And notice how he weighed what should be kept, discarded, made heavier or more ethereal. All this leads you to conclude that any one of these drawings, if looked at long enough, will yield pay dirt. That’s how great Gorky is.
I revere Gorky’s work. Yet sadly, I know this is not his time. His forms look erotic to me, or otherworldly in very real ways. And his touch is scintillating. Yet to younger artists these days, Gorky comes off as relentlessly abstract, too rigorous, serious, pure, and formal. Nowadays, his hard-won surfaces and meticulous shapes strike people as labored or too idealistic. His phantasmagoria comes off more platonic than it is.
Relentless, daunting, formal or not, this is an exhibition that every young artist should see and be humbled by. Not just because it is astoundingly beautiful or because Gorky was, with de Kooning, perhaps the most talented draftsman in the history of American art. The ultimate lesson of this survey is: True originality can take time. Eventually, of course, Gorky got to new. He provided the first glimpse of what would later be called “The Triumph of American Painting.” Seeing this happen through his drawing is astonishing. It makes you understand that Gorky drew his way to greatness.