Arshile Gorky, Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist Painter

arshile gorky
Gjon Mili / Getty Images

Arshile Gorky (born Vostanik Manoug Adoian; 1904-1948) was an Armenian-American artist who had a significant impact on the development of abstract expressionism. He is closely associated with his friend Willem de Kooning and the New York School of painters.

Fast Facts: Arshile Gorky

  • Full Name: Vostanik Manoug Adoian
  • Occupation: Painter
  • Style: Abstract expressionism
  • Born: April 15, 1904 in Khorgom, Ottoman Empire
  • Died: July 21, 1948 in Sherman, Connecticut
  • Spouse: Agnes Magruder
  • Children: Maro, Yalda
  • Education: New School of Design, Boston
  • Selected Works: "Organization" (1933-1936), "The Liver Is the Cock's Comb" (1944), "Agony" (1947)

Early Life and Move to America

Born in the village of Khorgom, on the shores of Lake Van in the Ottoman Empire (now part of Turkey), Arshile Gorky was part of a family of Armenian descent. His father left his family in 1908 to emigrate to the U.S. to escape the Ottoman Empire's military draft. In 1915, Gorky fled the Lake Van area with his mother and three sisters during the Armenian Genocide. They escaped into Russian-controlled territory. After his mother died of starvation in 1919, Arshile Gorky traveled to the U.S. in 1920 and reunited with his father, but they were never close.

Education and Training

Arshile Gorky was a self-trained artist when he arrived in the U.S. He enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston and studied there from 1922 to 1924. There, he encountered work by some of the world's top modernist artists for the first time. He found post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne particularly influential. Gorky's early landscapes and still lifes demonstrate this impact.

arshile gorky landscape
"Landscape" (1927-1928). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1925, Gorky moved to New York. There he explored the innovative work of Pablo Picasso and the Spanish surrealist Joan Miro. He also developed friendships with other rising artists including Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning. Cubism, expressionism, and the brightly-colored work of the Fauves all impacted Gorky's work.

In New York, the young artist changed his name from the Armenian Vostanik Adoian to Arshile Gorky. It was calculated to escape the negative reputation of Armenian refugees. Sometimes, Arshile even claimed to be a relative of Russian writer Maxim Gorky.

Rise in Public Stature

Arshile Gorky was among the artists included in the Museum of Modern Art's prestigious 1930 group show of emerging artists. The following year his first solo exhibition took place in Philadelphia. From 1935 to 1941, he worked along with Willem de Kooning for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Federal Art Project. Among the work was a set of murals for the Newark, New Jersey airport. Unfortunately, only two of a set of ten panels still exist.

A 1935 Whitney Museum of American Art show titled "Abstract Painting in America" included Gorky. In the mid-1930s, Gorky's painting shows influences from both Picasso's synthetic cubism and Joan Miro's organic forms. The painting "Organization" is a striking depiction of this stage of Gorky's work.

arshile gorky organization
"Organization" (1933-1936). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Arshile Gorky's mature style emerged by the early 1940s. It was influenced by both Surrealist painters and the abstract expressionist artists arriving from Europe. Among the recent arrivals escaping Nazi Germany were Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann.

Later Years

In 1941, Arshile Gorky married Agnes Magruder, who was 20 years younger than him. They had two daughters, but the relationship ultimately was a tragic one. In 1946, Gorky's studio in Connecticut burned to the ground. It destroyed most of his work. A month later, he received a cancer diagnosis.

While fighting cancer, Gorky found out that his wife was having an affair with fellow artist Roberto Matta. The couple separated, and the artist was involved in a car accident that hastened his physical deterioration. On July 21, 1948, Arshile Gorky committed suicide.

Despite the horrific circumstances of his personal life, the paintings from Gorky's final years are powerful. His 1944 painting "The Liver Is the Cock's Comb" is perhaps his most fully developed work. It pulls together all of his influences into a style of abstract expressionism distinctly his own. The 1947 painting "Agony" reflects the personal tragedies in striking, powerful forms.

arshile gorky the liver is the cock's comb
"The Liver Is the Cock's Comb" (1944). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Legacy

While he is most often listed as an abstract expressionist painter, a closer analysis reveals that Arshile Gorky assimilated influences from a wide range of 20th century painting movements. His early work explores post-impressionist themes championed by Paul Cezanne. In his move to complete abstraction, Gorky pulls in surrealist ideas and the influence of cubism.

arshile gorky painting in gallery
Shaun Curry / Getty Images

Gorky's legacy is also seen in the relationships he developed with other artists. Willem de Kooning's use of personal elements in his work is often credited to his friendship with Arshile Gorky. The energetic style of Gorky's painting has echoes in Jackson Pollock's drip paintings of the 1950s.

Source

  • Herrera, Hayden. Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.