The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

Arshile Gorky 1904-1948

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944. Oil on canvas, 73 x 98 1/2 inches. Buffalo, New York, Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

On View
Ca' Pesaro | Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna
May 9 – September 22, 2019

During the 1920s and ’30s Arshile Gorky and his New York fellow painters slowly and with real difficulty worked their way through European modernism. Only in that way, they felt, could they transcend American artistic provincialism. This show reveals that he was perhaps the most gifted of these artists. His Still Life with Skull (1927-8) a skilled pastiche of Paul Cézanne; his Still Life (Composition with Vegetables) (1928-9), a good Henri Matisse appropriation; his Image in Khorkom (1936), an able Pablo Picasso-esque composition; Delicate Game (1946) is a plausible Joan Miró. And Still-Life on Table (1936-37) is a marvelous painting judged by any standard. Gorky’s great The Artist and His Mother (1926-36), his most important early painting, is not present. But we do see his Self-Portrait (1937). Then during the 1940s, Gorky made his personal breakthrough. After this more than two decade long apprenticeship, inspired in part by the presence of the exiled French modernists in America, he made highly distinctive, fully accomplished works of art. The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944) and One Year the Milkweed (1944), both here, are authentic masterpieces. So too, to cite a third, probably less familiar picture not in an American museum, Landscape-Table (The Black Monk) (1945), which belongs to the Centre Pompidou. But I don’t know what to make of his Last Painting (1948), which is daring but not easy to read. Here, as with Jackson Pollock’s last paintings, it’s hard to know what’s happening.

Gorky committed suicide in 1948, just at the moment when the various New York artists, some of whom were his long-time friends, came into their own. At this time, Willem de Kooning, Pollock, and Mark Rothko began to define Abstract Expressionism. Gorky’s achievement was as radical, but he died, sadly, too soon to capitalize artistically on his real personal innovations. Right to the end, still, he was exploring many options, which he never developed. Housed on the spacious, well-lit third floor galleries of Ca’ Pesaro, a luxurious palace on the Grand Canal, this exhibition of 38 paintings and 43 works on paper, tells the story of this remarkable development.

How should we best understand Gorky’s artistic creativity? Let us back into discussion by considering a familiar example of literary creativity. If we want to comprehend a masterpiece, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for example, then perhaps it’s best to focus on the finished book, without worrying unduly about how its author arrived at that concluding point. After all, as any writer knows, what matters are not the rough drafts, which are edited out, but the final product. Indeed Proust’s earlier writings, which are charming but modest, hardly would allow us to anticipate the success of his novel. The Pléiade edition includes Proust’s very numerous outtakes, effectively doubling the length of the novel. He even, and this to me is most surprising, considered variant versions of the famous first sentence. Alternatively, however, perhaps we cannot fully understand Proust’s creativity without looking closely at his working procedures. Maybe, that is, all of the eventually discarded drafts can and indeed should inform our experience of the final novel. In fact, the completed novel exists in its present form only because Proust died while still adding additional texts. In Search of Lost Time is thus less a finished book than the end-point of an almost open-ended creative process.

Arshile Gorky, One year the Milkweed, 1944. Oil on canvas, 37 x 46 3/4 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.

How, then, should we understand this show of Gorky, who took a very long time to find himself, and whose mature development was very cruelly cut off so quickly? One approach would be to display only his masterpieces, a few early paintings and then the best of his late work. Such an exhibition would make the best possible case for him by not distracting viewers with minor or plainly unsuccessful works. That, after all, is the procedure adopted by experienced artists for studio visits, and also, usually, by contemporary art dealers, when they show visitors just the strongest artworks. But this would be a much smaller exhibition. Alternatively, however, one might display as many of Gorky’s works as possible, showing the various false starts and the visual conceptions, which went nowhere. Only then can we fully appreciate how difficult it was for him to create masterpieces. And such an exhibition, it is arguable, offers a good test of our skills as connoisseurs, for it demands that we learn to make our own quality distinctions. This, at any rate, is the procedure adopted by Hauser & Wirth for the present exhibition.

Many of the early paintings and most of the works on paper shown here are slightly, very tentative works. A much smaller show of Gorky’s most successful works would be much more impressive. But the Gorky who emerges in the few masterpieces is heroic precisely because of this evidence of his struggle. In his renowned account of Proust, the philosopher Alexander Nehamas describes how the novel demonstrates how “unconnected chance events somehow finally enabled him to become an author.” Here, analogously, these multifarious materials allow us to see how Gorky because a modern master. Like his peers, de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, and Rothko, so the catalogue observes, Gorky was an exile. But since all of the ambitious American artists of this period, including the native-born Robert Motherwell, Pollock, and Clyfford Still, looked to Europe it’s not clear what are we to make of this fact. The essays accompanying this, the first Gorky retrospective in Italy, provide a good deal of interesting information about responses of Italian audiences to prior presentations of his art in the Venice Biennales. If you are fortunate enough to make your way to Venice this year, after spending some time in Ca’ Pesaro, do continue on to see the present Biennale. Then you will see how dramatically the art world has changed since Gorky’s time!

  1. The massive catalogue is Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948. My brief quotation of Alexander Nehamas is from his Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Harvard University Press, 1985).


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues