Arshile Gorky
Biography and Paintings of Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist.

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The Artist and His Mother (1926-9)
Whitney Museum, New York

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Arshile Gorky (1904-48)

Armenian-born artist, Arshile Gorky, along with Mark Rothko (1903-70), Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem de Kooning (1904–97), was a member of the New York School and one of the most influential abstract painters of the 20th century, and a seminal figure in the formation of Abstract Expressionism. His life was marred by tragedy, beginning with the death in his arms of his beloved mother from starvation. Gorky found his way to America in 1920 as a refugee, and remained there for the rest of his life. Studying at the Grand Central School of Art in New York, his early works are imitations of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). His most recognised work is his The Artist and His Mother (1926-9, Whitney Museum, New York), one of the most powerful portraits of the 20th century. As his career developed, he moved away from representational work and switched to abstract art, being greatly influenced by the abstract paintings of Joan Miro (1893–1983). His compositions became more colourful and the forms biomorphic. Tragically, Gorky's life was cut short by a series of personal tragedies: a studio fire, cancer diagnosis and car accident. He committed suicide in 1948, at the height of his success.

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Early Life

Gorky was born sometime between 1902 and 1905, in a small village in Armenia. He was born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, it was only in 1935 that he adopted the more Westernized pseudonym Arshile Gorky. The name was derived from the Greek hero Achilles and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Gorky's father emigrated to America in 1910 to avoid military service, and in 1915 Gorky's mother fled with Arshile and his sister Vartoosh to escape persecution from the Turks. She died of starvation and exhaustion in 1919, and all her son had to remember her by in later years was a worn black and white photo. A beautiful woman she urged her son to be 'special' in life, something like a poet. In 1920 Gorky was reunited with his father in America, but they were never to grow close.


New York

In 1925 he moved to New York where he first studied and then taught at the Grand Central School of Art. He was a popular teacher, sometimes hiring a violinist to play in class, to encourage his students to put emotion into their work. His early painting was strongly influenced by the Impressionist Paul Cezanne, whom he called the 'greatest artist that has ever lived'. Paintings from this period include Landscape in the Manner of Cezanne (1927) and Landscape, Staten Island (1927–1928). He also fell under the spell of Cubism and Pablo Picasso. With his painting Artist and His Mother (1926-9), Gorky demonstrated that he could integrate lessons from the European Masters with his own individual style. The painting was based on the only photo he had of his mother. A young Gorky stands next to her like a bridegroom, clasping a flower. She sits erect, her eyes are huge, and her face is gaunt hinting at her tragic death.

Abstraction: 1930s

During the 1930s Gorky spent much of his time trying to synthesize the flatness of Cubism with the energy of Surrealism. Picasso's influence is still clear, fused with Armenian art. Although Gorky escaped his home country, its colours and shapes remained part of his iconography. At this time, he became friends with the Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist and gesturalist Willem de Kooning, who stated: "I met a lot of artists - but then I met Gorky... He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head; remarkable. So I immediately attached myself to him and we became very good friends. It was nice to be foreigners meeting in some new place".

In 1935 Gorky became involved with the Federal Arts Project, painting 10 murals on the theme of aviation. These murals were in the manner of the early US modernist Stuart Davis (1892–1964) and French Cubist Fernand Leger (1881–1955). However, the public thought the works were too abstract and today only 2 survive. As the 1930s progressed, Gorky’s oil painting became looser and hovered between abstraction and representation. He came under the influence of the emigre surrealists Joan Miro and Surrealist Andre Masson (1896-1987), and his themes became more personal and his abstract imagery more organic. This period coincided with spending summer months at his wife's family farm, where he was able to sketch the surrounding countryside, plants and animals.

Finding His Individual Style: 1940s

In the last decade of his life, Gorky's style emerged from under the influence of Picasso and Cezanne, as he established his own abstract expressionist idiom. In The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944, Albright-Knox Gallery, NY), Breton said it "one of the most important paintings made in America" and declared Gorky a Surrealist, which was Breton's highest compliment. The painting was exhibited at the Surrealists' final show at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947. In 2010, the US Postal Service unveiled a new set of stamps featuring 10 examples of Abstract Expressionist painting: The Liver is the Cock’s Comb was one of them. Another important painting from this period is Agony (1947, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Also, during his last years he worked on a series called The Plough and the Song, two symbols he considered integral to Armenian culture.

Just as Gorky's work reached its peak, he was hit by a series of personal tragedies. In 1946, his studio burned down, destroying many of his paintings. In the same year he was diagnosed with, and operated on for, cancer. In 1948 he broke his neck in a car accident and when his wife left him shortly afterwards, he hanged himself. It had taken him nearly 20 years to move through the Masters, Cezanne and Picasso, and just when he found his own personal style, he died. In 2009 the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major Retrospective, followed by the Tate Modern in London and, in 2010, by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.


A man of several differing cultures, Arshile Gorky helped to integrate European Surrealism with American Abstract Expressionism. (He is often referred to as the last Surrealist and first Abstract Expressionist.) His influence on the De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko generation was very significant but tragically short-lived.

Paintings by Arshile Gorky can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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