GORKY’S LIFE IN LETTERS & DOCUMENTS
The new book, Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, gives new glimpses into the life of an influential artist. An immigrant who experienced death firsthand as a child, Arshile Gorky’s life was beset by loss but liberated by art, a devoted engagement in imagination. Considering the arc of Gorky’s life by way of the various accounts and musings here, art can be seen as the means for constant reinvention of an otherwise troubled life. For Gorky, it was was a the “poetic evaluation of the object,” as he wrote in 1936, that brought the possibility of renewal. The style born of that evaluation would change American painting in the twentieth century.
Born in Ottoman Armenia in 1904 by the name Vostanig, Gorky emigrated to the U.S. in 1920 to escape the Armenian genocide, during which his mother died in his arms. This is mournfully harkened in two paintings reproduced in Plow — the double-portraits of he and his mother, based on a photo that Gorky treasured, dating from around 1910. In the first painting, completed in 1936, his mother’s face is painted with much more detail than the later version, finished in 1946. This gives the later painting the feeling of a sustained farewell, with the haunting sense of his mother’s image perpetually fading away in time.
Gorky’s own identity is dynamic. He gave himself the name of Gorky, claiming to be the cousin of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, presumably as an aid to the construction of a more glamorous identity as Artist, and to eschew a given name attached to distress, grief, displacement. Gorky’s paintings suppress specific personal, subjective events in favor of enigmas that could be made meaningful through the unique participation of each observer. It seems that this kind of restraint and imagination epitomizes postwar life: to the extent that one could reimagine life by jettisoning the past, one might find freedom. To make room for new associations can be a means to engendering new life, new analogies, through the creative act.
A reduction of subjectivity is demonstrated by Gorky’s vibrant abstract works from the mid 1930s until his death in 1948. One example, seen in The Plow, is his mural series for the Newark Airport (1936). Rather than depicting airplanes as one might expect to see in such a setting, Gorky rendered much of the series in fragments torn from the recognizable landscape. While certain panels contain what look to be machine parts, the forms bear scant resemblance to anything you’d find in the air (except for maybe clouds). Thus the “poetic elevation” persists.
Gorky seemed to have handled the past similarly, breaking it down to fragments that couldn’t be readily traced back to original events. He is said to have been taciturn, protective of his story, so as keep memories from hounding him. Gorky’s second wife, Agnes Magruder aka “Mougouch,” writes in a letter that she wasn’t permitted to be in the same room alone with his sister Vartush Mooradian. In an effort control the past, Gorky worked to shape new narratives around it.
To that end, Gorky developed a fitting creative approach. In keeping with the surrealists (though he would eventually denounce the group), he searched for the unknown within the subconscious through art: plumbing the depths to reveal the truths that lay unseen. Tending to look askance at tradition for tradition’s sake, Gorky was adored by the surrealists and is to this day mythologized as a hero outlier. He once told a reporter that “the greatest barrier to recognition of important young artists in America is the American craze for antiques.” However, his apparent individual aesthetic was also nothing without his forebears and contemporaries.
Gorky was skeptical of the idea of originality. Unencumbered by the notion of singular genius, he worked to internalize stylistic influences in order to arrive at a unique inner vision. Did he achieve this vision? To some, yes, and others no. But his short but prolific career is marked by what Andre Breton called “a most patient and rugged development.” Gorky’s body of work is on the one hand, fresh and out of the ordinary, and on the other, sprinkled with pastiche. For a time it was Ucello, Ingres and Cézanne, and then Picasso, Miro, Cézanne. To Gorky, painting was just painting, as Fairfield Porter commented in 1960: “the manipulation of the medium.”
Tragedy struck in 1946, when Gorky’s barn-turned-studio burned to the ground. Somehow, he “responded with remarkable energy” to the disaster, seeing the event as a kind of purge that would enable new beginning. “Two hours later Gorky sounded so hollow I think my heart broke,” Mougouch wrote, soon after the catastrophe. She goes on to relate that “the next morning he was wonderful — he has been wonderful ever since [sic] He says it is all inside him, the painting on his easel. […] as calamities go it has its exhilarating sides. Gorky is a most awesome phoenix.” This creative urge out of turmoil, and the constant outpouring of creativity, is emblematic of Gorky’s approach.
I hasten to add that although Gorky was adored, he was also deplored; I think this is a fact that isn’t often brought to light. Editor Matthew Spender, Gorky’s son-in-law and biographer, hides none of the less-flattering aspects of Gorky’s life: he was known to be aloof, mean, sometimes abusive. Despite the fact that his creative influence remains unquestionable, The Plow and the Song definitely tells of a troubled individual.
During 1947 when Gorky’s life apart from painting continued in decline, his work kept going, and “going well” as Spender tells it. Art was a constant occupation, a reliable process that allowed Gorky to transcend the distressing aspects of life. Making pictures consumed Gorky’s days, especially toward the end. But art alone can’t sustain a life. After the fire, a bout with cancer, having been abandoned by his family, and a debilitating car accident, Gorky took his own life in 1948.
The Plow and The Song is not all gloom, though — far from it. According to some takes within The Plow, Gorky seemed to be saying surprising things all the time. In response to a cop who had questioned Gorky (perceived as a stranger in town) out in the square with his easel, the artist quipped “why, I come from heaven just like everyone else.” In another anecdote, perhaps evincing modesty, Mougouch remembers the new couple’s cross-country drive to San Francisco, and Gorky’s denouncement of the Grand Canyon, declaring it “too big to be interesting.” By all accounts, and the book has myriad — from family members to contemporaries like Willem de Kooning — Gorky was the charming, troubled genius type who had a knack for making deeper connections to life through art.
Gorky is as revered as he is tragic, as sympathy-inspiring as he is confounding. It’s a tricky setup. Through the insight and documentation provided by Spender and others, Gorky’s successes come with life lessons by way of context. His story puts to bed the question of whether or not the troubled/troublesome artist’s work can stand apart from the conditions of its creation—however masked the self behind that work might be. “Every man,” wrote Chateaubriand, “carries with him a world which is composed of all that he has seen and loved, and to which he constantly returns, even when he is traveling through, and seems to be living in, some different world.”