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Arshile Gorky

Vostanik Manuk Adoyan (Արշիլ Գորկի, Վոստանիկ Մանուկ Ադոյան)

Arshile Gorky

Vostanik Manuk Adoyan (Արշիլ Գորկի, Վոստանիկ Մանուկ Ադոյան)

Arshile Gorky was an American painter of Armenian descent who played a crucial role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Originally named Vosdanig Adoian, Gorky was born in 1904 in the small village on the eastern border of the Ottoman Empire. Gorky was only a teenager when the Ottoman forces began the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people. Even though Gorky and his family survived the Armenian genocide, his mother died of malnourishment shortly after. In 1920, Gorky immigrated with his sister to the United States. Little is known about his early years there, but the young man was determined to reinvent himself. He changed his name to Arshile Gorky, playing the role of a Russian noble and claiming to be a relative of the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky (which was impossible because Maxim Gorky was a pseudonym used by the writer Alexei Peshkov).

In 1924 Gorky settled permanently in New York. Even though he enrolled in several art classes, he was mostly self-taught, copying artworks in museums and galleries and reading art publications. Gorky paid particular attention to European modern art and was especially captivated by the paintings of Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne. His early painting Staten Island (1927) and Pears, Peaches, and Pitcher (1926-1927) demonstrated his full commitment to learning and emulating Cezanne’s style.

At the same time, Gorky began to reconnect with his past and Armenian roots. One of his most notable paintings, The Artist and His Mother (1926-1936), was based on an old photograph taken in 1912 in Armenia. The emotional portrait expressed the artist’s personal sense of loss, but it also became a symbol of the tragedy of the Armenian genocide. From the late 1920s and during the 1930s, Gorky continued his artistic development by emulating the styles of European painters, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Fernand Léger. He was often criticized for lack of originality and his tendency to become immersed in someone else’s style. However, his method eventually allowed him to synthesize all of the techniques into his own highly original art.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Gorky came into contact with several prominent members of Surrealist groups active in the New York art scene. He also developed friendships with Surrealist poet André Breton and the Chilean born artist, Roberto Matta. These connections led Gorky to further experiments with surrealist concepts and to the creation of his original abstract language.

During this time, he met and married Agnes Magruder, whom he affectionately called ‘Mougouch’. The couple spent a lot of time at her parent’s home in rural Virginia, and later they lived in Sherman, Connecticut. It was a significant turning point for Gorky: he had a chance to reconnect with nature, and many elements of the American landscape reminded him of his native home in Armenia. He channeled this energy into vibrant paintings like The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) and Water of the Flowery Mill (1944). Unfortunately, the following years were marked by turmoil: personal difficulties and health problems led Gorky to commit suicide on July 21st, 1948. Although he was only 44, his art left a profound impact, serving as a link between European modernism and American Abstract Expressionism.

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Arshile Gorky (/ˌɑːrʃiːl ˈɡɔːrkiː/; born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, Armenian: Ոստանիկ Մանուկ Ատոյեան; April 15, 1904 – July 21, 1948) was an Armenian-American painter, who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism. He spent most his life as a national of the United States. Along with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Gorky has been hailed as one of the most powerful American painters of the 20th century. As such, his works were often speculated to have been informed by the suffering and loss he experienced in the Armenian Genocide.

Gorky was born in the village of Khorgom (today's Dilkaya), situated on the shores of Lake Van in the Ottoman Empire. His date of birth is often stated as April 15, 1904; however, the year might well be 1902 or 1903. In later years he was vague about his date of birth, changing it from year to year. In 1908 his father emigrated to America to avoid the draft, leaving his family behind in the town of Van.

In 1915, Gorky fled Lake Van during the Armenian Genocide and escaped with his mother and his three sisters into Russian-controlled territory. In the aftermath of the genocide, Gorky's mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919. Arriving in America in 1920, the 16-year-old Gorky was reunited with his father, but they never grew close.

In the process of reinventing his identity, he changed his name to "Arshile Gorky", claiming to be a Georgian noble (taking the Georgian name Arshile/Archil), and even telling people he was a relative of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky.

In 1922, Gorky enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, eventually becoming a part-time instructor. During the early 1920s he was influenced by Impressionism, although later in the decade he produced works that were more postimpressionist. During this time he was living in New York and was influenced by Paul Cézanne. In 1925 he was asked by Edmund Greacen of the Grand Central Art Galleries to teach at the Grand Central School of Art; Gorky accepted and remained with them until 1931. In 1927, Gorky met Ethel Kremer Schwabacher and developed a lifelong friendship. Schwabacher was his first biographer. Gorky said:

In 1931, Gorky sent a group of works ranging in price from $100 to $450 to the Downtown Gallery in New York. (The artist's name was spelled "Archele Gorki" in the gallery's records. Most of Gorky's works from this period were unsigned.) The exact nature of their relationship is unknown. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller) purchased from the gallery a Cézannesque still life by Gorky titled Fruit. Gorky may have been introduced to the gallery owner by Stuart Davis who regularly exhibited there.

In 1933, Arshile Gorky became one of the first artists employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. This later came to include such artists as Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko.

In 1935, Gorky signed a three-year contract with the Guild Art Gallery (37 West Fifty-seventh Street, New York). Co-owned by Anna Walinska and Margaret Lefranc, but funded and directed by Lefranc, the gallery organized the artist's first solo exhibition in New York, Abstract Drawings by Arshile Gorky.

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Arshile Gorky Artworks
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