One of the interesting experiences at a big retrospective of an artist’s work is walking from room to room, from beginning to end, tracing a line of development from the early fledgling works, to the period of full maturity, to whatever comes after that. In most cases, there’s a point reached at which one feels quite satisfied that the artist has attained something truly distinctive, and one is more or less willing to reside in those peak galleries, looking at the undisputed masterpieces, for as long as one likes. Whether or not there is a precipitate falling off, or perhaps simply repetitions that don’t seem to go forward, there is a feeling that something glorious has occurred and that it won’t last forever.
In the case of remarkable artists, that sense that one has hit a peak can sometimes continue for room after room, as one keeps moving beyond what seemed to be the significant form the artist had been working toward to find new vistas constantly appearing.
That’s the sensation I had in walking through the retrospective of the work of the Armenian-born artist Arshile Gorky at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I went into the exhibit knowing at most a handful of Gorky’s canvases: the portrait of the artist and his mother; The Liver as Cockscomb, Agony, Dark Green Painting. I knew the basic story -- which the early paintings in the show depicted quite clearly -- of his antecedents in Cézanne, the Picasso of the 20s and 30s, and of his similarity to elements in the work of Joan Miró, André Masson, Robert Matta, and his influence on de Kooning, Pollock and others of that generation.
There’s also the story of his painful personal life -- from his mother’s death before her children were able to flee Turkish persecution in Armenia, to his cancer and declining health in the later Forties, to the fire that consumed some of his works in his studio, to the car accident that left him ailing and depressed, to his suicide at age 48 -- that the wallcards tended to play up as much as possible in an effort, I suppose, to give human meaning to the forms and figures that might otherwise elude the casual viewer, but which tended to make the art seem the melodramatic soundtrack to the ordeals of the artist’s life.
Perhaps that’s the best way to make meaning of Gorky’s canvases, but I don’t really think so. I don’t think it’s an act of inhumane formalism to look at the work as work and not as cries of passionate suffering. For some reason, beginning perhaps with Van Gogh, the fact of an artist’s suicide gets read into the work as though an artist paints to express an inner state that continues to elude viewers until, finally, the difficulty of the situation becomes unbearable and death becomes preferable to life and art. It’s a kind of cheap romanticism that places art always in the context of biography.
But what the retrospective itself shows is how art exists independent of biography, ultimately. In room after room, Gorky’s work creates a context in which the story on display is not a fight with depression or with the obstacles of life, but rather the refining and exercise of a unique talent for shapes and space. Gorky’s breakthrough is a signature style in which a background -- whether of paint or, in his drawings, charcoal -- creates a space upon which his precisely delineated but seemingly freehand shapes, or objects, are sketched.
In some cases, as with Garden in Sochi, there are three different versions, showing us how the painting functions when ‘background’ is rendered in paint so thick and undifferentiated that it overwhelms the objects and all space collapses into one ground; another, with a bright yellow background, makes the objects float in space, bold and cartoonish; the third, my preference, gives a washed white background that lets the pure line of the objects come to life. This manner gets further explored in canvas after canvas, but never simply as repetition. Gorky is always working on the relation of painting to drawing in interesting new ways.
In fact some early paintings are inferior to drawings to which they are akin. For a period in the ‘30s, Gorky seems too influenced by the monumental style of Picasso, showing the same tendency to overwhelm shapes with thickly built-up surfaces of paint in heavy colors. Gorky escapes this tendency by exploring landscapes in situ -- in Connecticut near the Housatonic River, and in Virginia. The gradual sense of painting and drawing in a struggle for dominance is what gives Cockscomb its menacing air: it’s as if both aspects of the work are taking on a life of their own and are held together in a riotous harmony only by the sheer vigor of the artist’s command of an idiosyncratic sense of shape and color.
How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life shows the strong and fluent lines of Gorky’s drawing becoming wet on wet applications that drip down the canvas, giving a sense of a melting fusion of shape and color that seems to border on gesture painting. It’s also clearly a personal painting, reflecting on the loss of his mother and the meaning she continued to have in his life as an occasion for his art.
The power of distinct shapes -- from drawings that are laid upon the canvas after being worked out in proportional arrangements -- return in the series called The Plow and the Song, evoking rural life in Armenia. The pleasure of having all three paintings hung together so one could look at them all more or less at once was a bit like listening to different arrangements of the same basic melody.
In the last room, on what I considered the last wall, were hung together two paintings that Gorky had worked on over a period of time, listed on the wallcards as 1944-47 and 1944-48, so that these were works that take us through his peak period to within the year of his death. Both were stunning to look at after all that had come before. Here drawing had been submerged utterly in paint but the paint was not the thickly masking, unyielding surface/ground that could be found even in late, much praised works such as Agony or Dark Green Painting. Instead, the surface/ground was more translucent, seeming to let light (as canvas) through,and letting the objects float and appear as ghostly presences echoing Gorky's repertoire of biomorphic shapes.
The paintings in no way struck me as last gasps or as acts of despair. Rather I had the feeling that the man Vostanik Adoyan gave up on life for personal reasons, but that the artist Arshile Gorky was moving forward at that point and that greater canvases might have remained for him to produce. He seemed to have more to say. A pity he could no longer continue.