The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

Gorky in Venice

Arshile Gorky, Landscape-Table, 1945. Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre de création industrielle.

On View
Ca' Pesaro | Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna
May 9 – September 22, 2019

For decades art historians have worried over whether Arshile Gorky was the last Surrealist or the first Abstract Expressionist. They need not have done. The artist was, of course, always his own man. However, that man was also a pictorial chameleon or ventriloquist, someone who deliberately stood the modernist concept of originality–Harold Rosenberg’s “tradition of the new”–on its head. As such, Gorky prophesied postmodernism’s decentered self. He was at once deeply steeped in tradition and, in hindsight, an avatar of far more contemporary trends such as appropriation and the formless.

According to this postmodernist notion there is nothing new under the sun, only a constant reinvention of the past, a kaleidoscopic process that blurs boundaries and stable forms. Hence metamorphosis is key. Gorky’s unstated motto might have been Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is another” because his entire creative trajectory amounted to a search catalyzed by the loss of his beloved native Armenia, which he had been forced to leave in 1920 after the Turkish genocide and his mother’s death from starvation. In human terms, loss spells a vacuum that only other things can fill. For Gorky, these “others” were first the panoply of artists and artworks that he admired—ranging from medieval manuscripts to Renaissance and modern masters such as Uccello, Ingres, Cézanne, Miró, and Picasso. In effect, they became a proxy family. (The best documentation of Gorky’s personal world and ideas remains Matthew Spender’s biography and his more recent Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song. A Life in Letters and Documents.) Secondly and late in his prematurely short career, nature filled Gorky’s yearning for the sense of vanished belonging. The current exhibition amply chronicles both sides of this existential coin.

At the outset, a series of portraits underscore Gorky’s preoccupation with alienation. Repeatedly, figures gaze away from the viewer, as in the Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937) and toward a world elsewhere (to recall the title of my 2008 show of Abstract Expressionism at Haunch of Venison New York). Or else there are staring eyes wide shut, so to speak, exemplified by the Portrait of Vartoosh from the same date. Here trauma, the corollary to exile, comes into play. Remember the so-called “thousand-yard stare” familiar from shell-shocked WWII soldiers. In a beautiful pencil drawing begun around 1926 the artist’s mother stares at us with that kind of blankness. Its faintness suggests both temporal and geographical distance, like a vision conjured from memory. In the equivalent paintings pallor reigns. The obvious parallel is with Rothko’s contemporaneous subway pictures and, in Europe, Massimo Campigli (some of whose compositions bear an uncanny yet probably coincidental resemblance Rothko’s in the late 1930s). Nor does the parallel with Rothko end there.

Arshile Gorky, Portrait of Master Bill, ca. 1937. Oil on canvas, 52 x 40 inches. Private collection.

Despite an excellent, concise essay by Saskia Spender and an exhaustive historiography of Gorky’s reception in Italy, the catalogue fails to make enough of Gorky’s relationship to Abstract Expressionism (or “Ab Ex”, as I now always abbreviate it). For example, Gorky’s faces look almost invariably masklike (a commonly cited source is Fayum mummy portraits). The mask represents a façade. The connection to Rothko is obvious. Namely, in the masklike physiognomies of his Greek myth-inspired fantasias of the early 1940s and then the classic abstractions from 1950 onward that the artist himself termed “façades.” Common to Rothko and Gorky too were their mutual, lifelong unease at being wrenched from European homelands. This may be why both held European art in such high regard&—made clear by the Rothko show recently at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Similarly, Clyfford Still shared Gorky’s encyclopedic knowledge of art history (both also esteemed Ingres). And the former’s obsession with hands during the 1930s echoes those the latter depicted as though covered in outsize bandages (another trauma trait?).

A whole wall in the Ca’ Pesaro’s spacious installation makes a vivid contrast with the portraits. Color now comes to the fore as the antithesis to the pallid, frozen figures. Perhaps Gorky felt able to imbue inanimate things with the life that had drained from his people. Certainly, he was a profoundly original colorist from the start, conjuring exotic tints of violet, lemon, sap green, and orange that look forward to the explosive chromatic lushness of his final works, both on canvas and paper. Another aspect to this painterly liveliness stems from the sheer volitivity to Gorky’s morphological inventiveness. Typified by Image in Khorkom and cognate early 1940s compositions, everything seems to be in transition, camouflaged or ambiguous—by turns organic, vegetal or zoomorphic. Again, the link is to another Abstract Expressionist. Namely, de Kooning, the “slipping glimpser” for whom no presence ever stood pictorially still.

Ca’ Pesaro, though, provided a further sightline to the present. In short, Barry X. Ball’s “Medardo Rosso Project” which adjoins the exhibition. There the mutable, almost liquid veils and convolutions flooding One Year the Milkweed and other iconic canvases from Gorky’s full maturity find their contemporary apotheosis. What Gorky achieved in fluent, oil pigment Ball transfers to the exotically hued marbles, onyx and other dazzling stones that he cuts with computer-generated precision and virtuosity. Linking Gorky and Ball is their reciprocal fascination with formlessness (pushed sometimes to the brink of abjection as though matter were decomposing) and veiling (a modern mode from Rosso to Rothko and beyond). In Gorky’s Last Painting (1948), to paraphrase W. B. Yeats, things fall apart as though the center cannot hold.

The exhibition climaxes and closes with an impressive array of loans, including such trophies as the Albright-Knox’s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (doubtless its scale and convulsiveness was a response to Pollock’s Mural done the year before) and Landscape-Table from the Pompidou in Paris. Fuelled by the uber-gallery Hauser & Wirth, this multifarious display again illustrates dealers acting at the quality level of museums. Even the name of co-curator Edith Devaney—better known as the organizer of the Summer Exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy—lends a tactic regal seal of approval to the whole.


David Anfam

David Anfam is the author of Abstract Expressionism (Thames & Hudson, 1990; second edition 2015) and curated the survey of the same name at The Royal Academy of Arts, London (2016–2017).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues