Considering Gorky, It’s His Portraits That Really Matter

Has there ever before been an Arshile Gorky exhibition entirely devoted to the artist’s portraits? I can’t recall one, and a quick search through the Gorky literature hasn’t turned up a single reference to such an exhibition. It’s not hard to see why. Even before Gorky’s death in 1948 at the age of 44, his principal claim to attention was taken to be his much-debated achievement as an abstract painter-as, indeed, one of the principal founders and shapers of the New York School in the 1940′s. And in the 50-odd years since the artist’s death, it is mainly as an abstract painter that he has been honored in the history books.

As Irving Sandler wrote in his widely read The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970), “The evolution of Arshile Gorky’s paintings typifies the change in sensibility of American vanguard artists from the 1930′s to the 1940′s, the shift from Abstract Cubism to Abstract Surrealism.” Abstract Surrealism led, of course, to Abstract Expressionism, and Gorky was one of the key figures in effecting this historic development in 20th-century American art.

Yet just as Gorky himself was famously a man of multiple identities, so was his pictorial oeuvre diverse in the variety of passionate interests he brought to it, and for some years-roughly from the mid-1920′s to the early 1940′s-portraiture loomed very large among those interests. A few of these portraits have even attained iconic status in the art world-notably the two versions of The Artist and His Mother (1926-36 and 1926-42) and a big Self-Portrait (circa 1937)-but most have remained unknown to the art public. It is for this reason, as well as for the superior qualities of the work itself, that the current exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery- Arshile Gorky: Portraits -is certain to be a revelation to almost everyone who gets to see it.

In my view, the best of the portrait paintings and drawings in this exhibition represent a far greater artistic achievement than any of the abstract pictures Gorky produced during his Cubist period. They are fueled by deeper emotions, and they command a more original vision. They are more beautiful in every respect. Nothing comparable to them in sheer painterly command was achieved by Gorky in his abstract paintings and drawings until he produced the work of the last five or six years of his life-the work that now enjoys a canonical place in the history of abstract art.

There was always a side of Gorky’s sensibility that remained deeply attached to the art of the museums, and it was in the portraits that he proudly made his most explicit allusions to the pictorial traditions he so much cherished. These ranged in time and style from the ancients to the moderns. As Matthew Spender reminds us in his preface to the exhibition’s catalog, “The big Self-Portrait follows Ingres; Ahko [a portrait of Gorky's elder half-sister] follows the anonymous masters of the Fayum [Egyptian funerary portraits]; Master Bill follows the Boscoreale frescoes in the Metropolitan Museum, and so on.” Allusions to the portraits of Ingres, Cézanne and pre-Cubist Picasso also make themselves felt elsewhere in the exhibition, not so much as historic prototypes to be emulated as personal memories that, like the subjects of the portraits, are evoked with tenderness and affection.

All of the portraits, including the self-portraits, have a distinctly elegiac character. “They start,” as Mr. Spender writes, “from the premise that we are all irretrievably lost.” Nowhere is this pervasive feeling of loss more poignantly or more poetically invoked than in the two painted versions of The Artist and His Mother and the many drawings related to them. Based on a photograph of Gorky and his mother from around 1912-Gorky would then have been 8 or 9 years old-they are at once memorials to his mother, who died four years after the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915, and to his own lost innocence. They are indeed among the most monumental portraits of the modern era, and the laborious refinements that Gorky lavished upon their creation and certain other portraits became something of a legend at the time, and they remain an astonishing feat to read about today.

This is how one young artist who sat for his portrait-the late Jacob Kainen-once described Gorky’s methods:

“After about four sessions (I posed once a week to allow each layer of paint to dry), Gorky sanded down the newly dried surface and applied almost identical colors. By the next week the paint was dry. Gorky would sand it down again and apply another layer of matching colors. This procedure continued until the final, eighth pose. ‘I want a smooth surface, like glahss ,’ he said. Density in a painting is very important, he told me. He believed in building up a painting layer on layer, refining the relationships of colors and shapes and implying a kind of subterranean life for each color.”

This passage is quoted in Matthew Spender’s admirable biography of the artist, From a High Place (Knopf, 1999), which is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Gorky, and Mr. Spender’s comment on the passage is also worth quoting: “The surface ‘like glass’ for which Gorky was aiming emulated the surface of Ingres, who used to go over his portraits carefully, rubbing down and obliterating the brushstrokes. Ingres thought that art was eternal. Anything which suggested the flicker of the present should be suppressed.” This certainly applied to the first version of The Artist and His Mother . Yet in certain other Gorky portraits, traces of the present-or rather, of its imminent demise-are abundantly visible, and even more so in some of the drawings.

We have waited a long time for this gathering of Gorky’s portraits, and it is a pleasure to be able to say that this exhibition of them is splendid in both the elegance of its installation and the illustrations in the accompanying catalog. The many interesting pages that Mr. Spender devoted to these portraits in his Gorky biography must have made many readers impatient for such an exhibition-and now we have it. Bravo! Arshile Gorky: Portraits remains on view at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, through April 27.