The Armenian-born artist best known for his tragic life, has his pioneering work showcased at the Tate Modern next month
BY MARK HUDSON
From the Times Online
In February 1948, the American magazine Life ran a photospread on the Glass House, a modernist farmhouse conversion in rural Connecticut. Sitting hunched by one of the wide windows is a male figure, his dark hair rather long for the period, face averted — referred to in the caption simply as the house’s tenant, “Arshile Gorky, an artist”. To anyone even slightly acquainted with American art, that figure will be of infinitely greater interest than the house.
Yet the evasive posture is significant. A vivid presence on the New York art scene for nearly three decades, Gorky has remained elusive in death as he was in life. The question of whether he was the progenitor of the great age of American painting — which gave the world Pollock and Rothko — or simply an imitative quasi-surrealist or even a misplaced Eurasian folk artist remains open. What isn’t in dispute is his status as one of the most tragic artists of the 20th century. Five months after this photograph was taken, he hanged himself in a nearby shed.
“Gorky saw things differently from other people,” says his widow, Mougouch, pointing to a vigorous semi-abstract drawing on her sitting room wall. “For him, clouds and trees were full of threatening forces. As you walked around with him, you realised what you were seeing was completely different to what he was seeing.” In another drawing, hanging in a corner of the room, is the pale, almost ghostly image of the other great female presence in Gorky’s life, her placid, wide-eyed features framed by a headscarf — his mother.
The image is one of many Gorky produced from a photograph he kept close to him at all times. It shows the artist’s 12-year-old self looking gravely out at us from his mother’s side. In some of these images, the mother appears serene; in others, there’s a sense of barely concealed anxiety. The greatest of them, large paintings hanging in the Whitney Museum, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, are considered American masterpieces, icons of the immigrant experience. Yet Gorky never talked about the circumstances surrounding them.
On arriving in New York in the early 1920s, Gorky let it be understood that he was Russian, a cousin of the writer Maxim Gorky, and that he had studied under Kandinsky in Paris. To the end of his life, many of his closest friends were uncertain about his origins. In fact, he was born Vostanig Manuk Adoian in an Armenian village in eastern Turkey, circa 1900. The stories Gorky told of an idyllic village childhood — of bread baking in village ovens, brilliant red poppies, incandescent moons — weren’t entirely fabricated, but they referred only to his earliest years, before he and his mother and sisters moved to the local capital, Van.
He never discussed the fact that he was present during the siege of Van in the early stages of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, in which between 1m and 2m people were killed; that, at the age of 15, he walked, along with the rest of the city’s Armenian population, to Yerevan, in Russian Armenia, with many dying on the eight-day march; or that his mother subsequently died of malnutrition during a famine that killed a third of the city’s population.
Gorky and his sister Vartush made their way to America, where Gorky set about turning himself into an artist, educating himself piecemeal at various institutions in New York and Boston while taking menial jobs. He used the pseudonym Arshile Gorky for the first time in 1924.
Tall, with a drooping moustache — “walking back and forth with intricate dance steps, telling long, fanciful tales of his boyhood in Russia”, as one former student remembered him — Gorky was widely considered phoney, but in that city of immigrants and self-invention, it hardly mattered.
His early work was painfully derivative of other artists: first, Cézanne, then Picasso, Léger and Miro. By the 1930s, however, Gorky had had some commercial success in an art scene that still looked to Europe for leadership, where the artists who would make New York the global art capital two decades later — the Pollocks and Rothkos — were footling around with provincial variants on surrealism and social realism. “De Kooning was just an inarticulate guy who cleaned Arshile Gorky’s brushes,” one observer claimed.
Yet Gorky evaded every attempt to pin down his ideas and intentions, even discouraging his students from taking notes in class. “He may have felt that clarifications and explanations would lead back to the truth about his past,” says his son-in-law and biographer, Matthew Spender. “And since he felt nobody else could understand what he’d been through, that was something he could never discuss.”
Gorky’s brief first marriage and subsequent relationships foundered on his simultaneous obsession with work and morbid fear of betrayal. Then, in 1941, he met a striking 19-year-old art student, Agnes Magruder, an admiral’s daughter and former debutante, who was to become his wife and partner for the rest of his life. He named her Mougouch, an Armenian term of endearment.
“We met at a party,” she recalls. “I’d been warned that he’d sing and dance and take the whole place over. But this tall, dark man came and sat beside me, and said absolutely nothing. Then, at the end of the evening, he asked me if I’d have coffee with him.”
A slight but well-preserved 86-year-old, she pulls ruminatively on a roll-up as she looks back nearly 70 years. “I’d been trying to paint myself, and he encouraged me to continue. But I realised I had nothing to say. What he was doing seemed infinitely more interesting than anything I could ever do.”
The couple’s meeting coincided with a new unleashing of energy in Gorky’s work. At last, he had found his own path, in passionate responses to the New England woods and fields, seen on his in-laws’ farm, which echoed in some way the Armenian landscapes in his mind — captured in luscious, lyrical and apparently completely abstract paintings. This sense of liberation was the result, at least in part, of the influence of the Chilean artist Roberto Matta. A charismatic self-publicist, one of a wave of European modernists who had arrived in New York on the outbreak of war, Matta became a close friend of Gorky, introducing him to the surrealist technique of “automatic” or completely spontaneous painting. “He told Gorky not to try so hard,” Mougouch says. “He told him, just do it. Let yourself go.”
Yet things were never easy. There was constant worrying about money, a continual moving between the houses of wealthier friends and Gorky’s New York studio, which wasn’t big enough to contain the couple and the two daughters who arrived in quick succession.
It was in early 1946, however, that the sense of disaster began to escalate. First, Gorky’s studio burnt down, with the loss of about 20 important paintings; then he was diagnosed with cancer, and underwent an immediate colostomy. Physically weakened, he went on painting furiously, though he feared he was being left behind by a changing art world.
“American art was coming into its own,” Spender says. “America had won the war, and it wanted to show something completely new to the world. The New York artists were staking out their territories in this new dispensation. Gorky couldn’t do that. He was incapable of politicking and intrigue.”
His mood swings became more severe. “He got irritated with me,” Mougouch says. “He adored the children, but he got irritated with the noise they made. He was growing weaker, and he was frightened.” Unable to discuss his Armenian background, even when his father died, inhibited in discussing his ideas by what he saw as his lack of formal education, but with a free-spirited wife, 20 years his junior, and two boisterous children dependent on him, Gorky felt frustrated and humiliated at every turn.
On June 17, 1948, while Gorky was working in New York, Mougouch left the children with a childminder and spent several days with Matta, who lived only 40 miles from the Glass House. When Gorky learnt of their fling, he summoned Matta to a meeting in Central Park and threatened him physically. Matta managed to calm Gorky, but his artistic standing was permanently harmed by the disclosure of the affair.
A week later, Gorky broke his neck in a car accident. The driver, his dealer, Julian Levy, was apparently drunk. Forced to wear a cumbersome neck brace, which restricted his painting arm, Gorky was now suicidal.
In mid-July 1948, Mougouch departed with the children for her parents’ house in Virginia, writing to a friend that “the situation is untenable, and I can no longer hold on”. Gorky’s body was found a week later, hanging in a shed near the house. On a beam, he had written: “Goodbye My Loveds.”
What one critic referred to disparagingly as the “canonisation” of Gorky by the New York art world began almost immediately. The sustained invention of his final years, maintained through every adversity, can be seen as one of the transcendent achievements of 20th-century art. Yet his status and significance have remained uncertain, particularly in Britain, which has never, Spender claims, quite taken to Gorky. This situation will be rectified by the Tate’s spectacular show, in which Mougouch has been closely involved. “When I think of Gorky, I think about my life beginning,” she says. “I rarely think of my life before then. For me, it all began with Gorky.”
Arshile Gorky, Tate Modern, SE1, February 10-May 3
Mark Hudson is the author of Titian, the Last Days (Bloomsbury)