Arshile Gorky Oeuvre: Despite Hommages, Works Were Diary

No matter how often we’re given an opportunity to revisit the paintings and drawings of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), it’s still a wonder for many people to be reminded of the time, study and imagination that a fabulously gifted artist devoted to the task of imitating the work of other artists. Gorky’s imitations of Cézanne, Picasso, Miró and other modern masters are not the work of a fledgling talent: They are the deeply pondered creations of a mature artist who felt the need to retrace the artistic course of the predecessors he most ardently admired before he could use his gifts to explore a course of his own.

This programmatic submission to the art of his predecessors is once again on display in significant portions of the retrospective exhibition of the artist’s drawings that has now been organized at the Whitney Museum of American Art. One of the earliest of Gorky’s monumental drawings- The Artist’s Mother (1926 or 1936)-is almost as much an hommage to Picasso’s classicism as it is a heartfelt memorial to Gorky’s mother, who died of starvation, a victim of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, in 1919.

There are even more explicit allusions to Picasso in Gorky’s Cubist drawings in the 1930’s. This practice of allusion and imitation (which Gorky made no effort to deny: He famously said of his own artistic development that “I was with Cezanne for a long time and now naturally I am with Picasso”) has been identified by some critics as a kind of abject self-effacement by an artist uncertain of his own powers. Critics who look to Freudian analysis as the key to every human mystery have even suggested that Cézanne, Picasso, Miró et al. were substitute father-figures for Gorky, whose actual father fled his native Armenia to avoid conscription in the Turkish Army when Gorky himself was still a child.

This is not my own view of Gorky’s imitations of the modern masters. On the contrary, I’ve come to see them as a self-defined measure of the high ambitions that Gorky set for himself as an artist-and I’m delighted to discover that Janie C. Lee takes a similar view of the matter in her essay, “Arshile Gorky: The Power of Drawing,” in the catalog of the Whitney’s retrospective. “In his own lifetime,” she writes, Gorky “was sometimes criticized for spending too much time in the style of [Cézanne and Picasso]. This is to be attributed more to his perfectionism than to a lack of creativity …. For Gorky, learning and analysis were aspects of his work as an artist, just as drawing and painting were the expression of ideas and memories.”

No painter of this period was more intensely conscious of his aesthetic relation to the Western pictorial tradition. Gorky’s protracted study of the Old Masters in the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection-and his eagerness to talk about them at length-was well-known to his circle of friends and students. For Gorky, imitation and adulation of the masters was actually a means of achieving artistic independence, however paradoxical that may sound. It was the road to becoming a master himself, and this is what he did become in the eyes of the emergent generation of Abstract Expressionist painters (of whom Willem de Kooning became Gorky’s most vocal admirer).

And yet, in another of the paradoxes that define his achievement, it was Gorky’s encounter with the art and ideas of Surrealism-a movement that prided itself on rudely challenging the tradition he venerated-that led to the triumphs of his last and greatest period. In the art of Joan Miró and in the ideas of André Breton, Gorky found the keys that unlocked a network of symbols in which to recast the triumphs and tragedies of his own troubled life.

It’s the custom to speak of the late masterpieces-the drawings as well as the paintings-as abstractions, even while acknowledging that their forms are almost everywhere derived from closely observed details of nature, weeds and flowers as well as insect life. But there’s another dimension to these late works that continues to be overlooked: what was characterized as “the hoarded intimacy of Gorky’s pictures” by Harry Rand in a brilliant book called Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols (1981). In his close study of Gorky’s oeuvre , Mr. Rand claimed that his pictures were, in effect, “a diary” that can be read as a “sequential flow paralleling and commenting on his life.” I find Mr. Rand’s reading of Gorky’s work to be very persuasive; as far as I know, it has never been refuted.

“All was judged and painted from his particular moral stance,” Mr. Rand wrote. “When his family was with him, he painted The Calendars ; to commemorate his father’s death, he painted The Orators ; in 1946-47, his cancer operation curtailing his marital sex life but not his sexuality, his marriage strained, he painted The Betrothal .” And in the most horrifying of these readings, Mr. Rand found in the central figure of the painting called Agony (1947) a preview of Gorky’s suicide. Although Mr. Rand’s audacious study is listed in the bibliography of the Whitney exhibition’s catalog, his reading of the artist’s oeuvre is nowhere acknowledged.

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Feb. 15, and will then travel to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (March 5 to May 9, 2004).