Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bitter Truth/Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern

By Jackie Wullschlager

American art’s favourite story is that of its own invention, which gives special place to Arshile Gorky. The Armenian was the hinge that swung Parisian surrealism into New York abstract expressionism, and so to US dominance of visual culture. Philadelphia Museum’s extensive, finely tuned retrospective, just arrived at Tate Modern, is therefore a full-blown, triumphal affair and, as European museums possess only half a dozen major Gorkys, a vivid, rare pleasure.
Britain’s sole example is Tate’s 1942 “Waterfall”, turpentine-thinned lush green paint coursing down a canvas iridescent with natural forms and body shapes, mimicking a cascade. Reproduction cannot convey the effect: Gorky is one of those non-cerebral artists whose agenda is inseparable from the way he applied paint to canvas. This show brings him alive as painterly painter as well as art-historical pivot, fleshing out how his impassioned, very American theme – the trauma and opportunity of exile and immigration – is drawn into his every stroke.
Mid-20th-century America was full of influential émigrés – Léger, Mondrian, Max Ernst – but they arrived middle-aged and fully formed. Gorky by contrast reached Ellis Island as a teenager, fleeing the Armenian genocide that claimed his mother (who died from starvation), and he developed as an American painter. In their free-wheeling energy, sense of space, all-over compositions and liberation from classical order, the mellifluous late abstractions here – the delicate oil and Conté crayon “Soft Night”, the lyrical grey-cream “The Limit”, the fiery “Agony” – could not have been made by a European artist burdened with modernism’s formal ancestry.
Gorky’s paradoxical love affair with this heritage opens Tate’s show. The first rooms, including Gorky’s Cézannesque “Pears, Peaches and Pitcher”, his copy of a Matisse, “Antique Cast”, and the schematised “Woman with a Palette”, recently discovered and echoing Picasso’s 1920s nudes, read like an abbreviated history lesson. Self-taught through 20 years’ absorption in the modern masters, Gorky presented himself in New York as a Paris-trained prodigy. But he never set foot in France; nor did he know Russian. Born Vosdanig Adoian, he renamed himself Gorky to camouflage his provincial roots, pretending instead glamorous kinship with the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky.
In fact, the second Gorky was unaware that the first, too, had taken the name as pseudonym, attracted by its meaning – Russian “bitter”. It fits the painter perfectly, for the bitterness of loss threads through his oeuvre. Tate acknowledges as much in the central, persuasive drama of its hang: a face-off, through arches across five galleries, between the velvet-black lines of erotic biomorphic creatures engaged in frustrated battle in “Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia”, and the flat, steely portrait “The Artist and his Mother”.
The abstract work muses on the unattainability of Armenia, and Gorky’s sense of being an outsider in the west, sexually and socially. (“I made a terrible mistake getting in with these Surrealist people,” he said. “The husbands sleep with each other’s wives. The wives sleep with each other. And the husbands sleep with each other. They’re terrible people.”) The realist one is based on a proud, rigid photograph sent by Gorky’s mother in Armenia to remind his father, long emigrated to America, of the family’s existence.
Both works showcase Gorky’s technique through the 1920s and 30s of building up then scraping away “hundreds and hundreds of layers of paint to obtain the weight of reality”. It is hard not to see these dense, pasted, smoothed-over surfaces as enactments of remembering, forgetting, attempting to recover the irretrievable. “I place the same colour or line until my soul comes out and my head aches,” Gorky said. Confident in making a mark repeatedly, he was also uncertain that it would ever be right.
Stark as a Byzantine icon, “The Artist and his Mother” illuminates this entire show. Gorky’s instinct for modernist flatness lay – like Warhol’s a generation later – in childhood exposure to hieratic styles of Orthodox Christian art. The portrait is displayed here alongside drawings dramatising how he simplified and monumentalised the composition, his mother becoming a sadder, more remote figure at each turn. In a later oil version in pallid pinks and salmons, softer and more amorphous, she seems to fade away, famished or emotionally shut down after manifold disasters.
Fixated on mother and motherland but cut off from the direct stimulus of Armenian motifs, Gorky transformed recollection into fantasy. The surrealist vocabulary of “Image in Kharkom” and “Garden In Sochi”, built around womb and breast shapes, fruits, leaves, patches of rock or sky, fabulises his mother’s nurturing presence and the fecund landscape of his father’s orchard. “How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life”, bathed in the apricot and violet hues of that rural paradise, takes flight through a new gestural spontaneity as Gorky dared improvise around these familiar elements in diluted washes of liquid oil paint. Pigments run, blur, pool to create evanescent veils of colour.
“I tell stories to myself while I paint ... often from my childhood,” Gorky explained. “My mother told me many stories while I pressed my face into her long apron with my eyes closed. Her stories and the embroidery on her apron got confused in my mind. All my life her stories and her embroidery keep unravelling pictures in my memory.”
Even when rapture with the American countryside, and brief marital happiness, intensified Gorky’s work in the 1940s, this vision remained his chief source. In the sleepy, bucolic “The Plow and the Song”, a vertical figure and female torso are entangled with hints of field, barn, haystack. Looping sexually charged forms in “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” suggest an Eden pierced with shafts of darkness, but also recall the rich abstract ornamentation of Armenian carpets.
Surrealist high priest André Breton called this “the most important picture done in America”. He told Gorky that “art must spring from a source and that people who do not have a homeland do not contribute much to culture”. Gorky, agreeing, said nothing of his own origins. That secret inner life was surely his twin strength and sacrifice. “No joy, no black despair ever wrung from him the admission that he was born Vostanig Adoian,” his wife Mougouch wrote after his suicide in 1948. “He was the painter Arshile Gorky to the very limit of his life ... his entire personality a pure creation of the will to paint.”

‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’, Tate Modern, London, to May 3, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, June 6-September 20,

Publicado en el Financial Times (Londres), 12/2/2010

Imagen: Arshile Gorky/Jardín en Sochi, 1943

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