Arshile Gorky, widely regarded as one of the most pivotal artists in the development of 20th century American art, after absorbing lessons of Post-Impressionism, Analytic Cubism and especially Surrealism, began creating works in his own unique visual language. After moving to the United States from Armenia in 1920, he became a lightning rod for other artists in the late 1920s and early 1930s, sparking the genesis of what was to become the "New York School" and setting the course of modern art in America. His synthesis of modernism's many inventions, combined with his passionate embrace of nature, created a new vision for painting that would inform the work of his fellow artists of the 1940s and 1950s, from de Kooning to Still. In the late 1930s, Gorky, having already assimilated the pictorial innovations of Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro and the Surrealists, embarked on a new territory. Critic Donald Kuspit wrote in his 1998 essay "Arshile Gorky in the Thirties," that in works from this period we see the beginning of this pure, autonomous, highly fluid, unpredictable line which begins in nature and ends in pure expression-- as Abstract Expression.
Although he had arrived in America as an adolescent, Gorky felt intimately related to his homeland Armenia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. In a letter dated September 26, 1939, he wrote to his sister Vartoosh: "I wish that we were together now so that we could speak of the homeland. I long for it exceedingly, especially at this time of year" (M. Auping, ed., Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years, New York, 1995, p. 79. And also, in a letter from 1942, "loving memories of our garden in Armenia's Khorkom haunt me frequently. ... Beloved sister, in my art I often draw our garden and recreate its precious greenery and life. Can a son forget the soil which sires him?" ("A Special Issue on Arshile Gorky", Ararat, Fall 1971, p. 28).
Born in a country that suffered two terrible massacres (in 1895-96 and 1915-16) in which hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities-- Christian Armenians-- were killed by Ottoman Turks, Gorky idealized the country of his childhood. Armenia, the province of Van, his hometown of Khorkom, and his childhood garden were all the wellspring of Gorky's imagination; the forms, rhythms, lines, colors and creatures of his vision are all interwoven throughout the pictorial and stylistic vocabulary of the paintings of 1938 to 1948, his last and most important decade.
The language he used when discussing his identity was often the language of myth. He was born Vostanig Adoian, but presented himself as Gorky, inventing the fact that his uncle was famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, himself Georgian. His denial of Armenian identity in his public persona-- which was criticized by many Armenians-- speaks to Arshile Gorky's traumatic and ambivalent relationship to his heritage. At the same time, his works show the need to transcend the lament about the loss he and his family suffered (many of his relatives were killed, and his mother died of starvation in 1919). As a young man, he reinvented and rechristened himself in America, choosing the role of artist, and demonstrating that a strong creative impulse can result from the trauma of dislocation.
Gorky's late preoccupation with his Armenian origins, visible in the published letters of his last decade, prompted many iconographical interpretations of the new painterly forms that he established in the late 1930s. His insistence of "going beyond realism" can be traced in his letter of 1939: "Art is more than mere chronicle. It must mirror the intellect and the emotion, for anyone, even a commercial artist or illustrator, can portray realism. The mind's eye in its infinity of radiations and not optical vision of necessity holds the key to truth. It is left for the artist to forge the new metal, to resurrect his ancient role as the uncoverer and interpreter, but never the recorder, of life's secrets" (Arshile Gorky quoted in Ibid, p. 79).
Traces of Cubist still life can be glimpsed in Gorky's paintings of the 1930s, including the present work, Khorkom, where certain forms, such as a slice of apple, a palette, and the profile of a bird are vaguely identifiable amid the composition. But Surrealist imagery gave the crucial impetus for the expression of Gorky's "living dream"-- an intriguing hybrid imagery of description, memory and pure abstraction. The painting Khorkom belongs to the most important family of his works of the later 1930s/early 1940s, such as Image in Khorkom, and Garden of Sochi, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. In fact, the collector Wolfgang S. Schwabacher, recognizing early on Gorky's uniqueness, purchased the painting the year it was made and presented it to the Museum of Modern Art in 1941.
Influenced by Joan Miró, Gorky integrates figure and ground, expressing his sense of fantasy in abstracted forms that exist as a cosmos amid a vast expanse. Unlike Miró, however, Gorky's shapes remain relatively flat without any sense of modeling or spatial illusionism. In Khorkom, the moon-shaped yellow, soft grey and pink palette, the red and green wedges that anchor the swirling green center, the black eye in profile are all suspended within in a thickly-painted, flat white plane, which is linked by an alternatingly looping or insistent black line that threads the forms together.
Writing for a catalogue of Gorky's works in 1945, Surrealist writer André Breton succinctly described the ambiguity of the painter's hybrid forms: "By 'hybrids' I mean the resultants provoked in an observer contemplating a natural spectacle with extreme concentration, the resultants being a combination of the spectacle and a flux of childhood and other memories, and the observer being gifted to a rare degree with the grace of emotion" (A. Breton, "The Eye-Spring: Arshile Gorky," Arshile Gorky, exh. cat., Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1945).
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Gorky' (on the reverse)
San Francisco Museum of Art, Loan Exhibition of Arshile Gorky: Painting, August, 1941 (titled Painting).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and San Francisco Museum of Art, Arshile Gorky Memorial Exhibition, January-July 1951, pp. 19-20, no. 20.
Princeton University Art Museum, Arshile Gorky: a Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, October 1952, no. 5.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Paintings by Arshile Gorky from 1929 to 1948, February-March 1962, no. 8 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art and Washington, D.C., Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Arshile Gorky: Paintings, Drawings, Studies, December 1962-March 1963, no. 31 (illustrated).
London, Tate Gallery and Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, Arshile Gorky Paintings and Drawings, April-June 1965, no. 31.
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Arshile Gorky Schilderijen en Tekeningen, July-September 1965, no. 41.
New York, Xavier Fourcade Gallery, Arshile Gorky: Important Paintings and Drawings, April 1979 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Arshile Gorky 1904-1948, A Retrospective, April-July 1981, no. 100, pl. 100 (illustrated in color).
Madrid, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundación Caja de Pensiones and London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Arshile Gorky, October 1989-March 1990, p. 91, no. 23 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Arshile Gorky: Paintings and Drawings 1929-1942, October 1998-January 1999, p. 38 (illustrated).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
40 x 52 in. (101.6 x 132.1 cm.)
A. H. Barr, ed., Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1942, p. 43, no. 243.
E. Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1957, p. 55.
H. Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky: The Man, The Time, The Idea, New York, 1962, p. 121.
J. Levy, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1966, pl. 65 (illustrated).
K. Mooradian, "The Man from Van," Arara, vol. 12, Fall 1971, p. 7. J. Jordan and R. Goldwater, The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue, New York, 1982, pp. 257-259, no. 212 (illustrated).
M. Lader, Arshile Gorky, New York, 1985, p. 47, no. 39 (illustrated).
D. Kuspit, Arshile Gorky in the Thirties, New York, 1998, p. 38.
Acquired from the artist
Wolfgang S. Schwabacher, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941, gift from the above
Estate of Arshile Gorky, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2000, lot 32
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner