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“Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years”

The best parts of my education happened when I wasn’t doing my work. (This remains true—to this day, virtually all the time I spend looking at or thinking and reading and writing about art is stolen from more respectable pursuits.) I was lucky enough to realize this while still in school, and I began to seek these moments out. Such was the motivation behind several experiments with acetone. Acetone is wonderful stuff, volatile and flammable, and fair-smelling as organic solvents go. You can also draw with it.

I would get a goosenecked squirt bottle and run trails of acetone around on the desk, watching for the few seconds it took them to disappear. I got more adventurous. With another disaffected student, I’d lock the door to the Modern Physics lab, turn out the lights, and rush around the room, playing out a continuous stream—down the aisle between the workbenches, up their wooden sides, across the soapstone slabs of their tops, in circles around the beakers and flasks, and back down into pools on the brown linoleum. Then we’d set it alight. It was a race between the burning line and the air that sucked it out of existence. And it was over before anything could be touched by it.

At his best, Arshile Gorky got that sort of tension—between line and space, between the edges of things and the air that surrounds them, between burning and not being—and held it. He put it down on canvas, unfixed, fluxing, evanescent, but there. It is strange to look at a picture like One Year the Milkweed or Water of the Flowery Mill (both 1944) and find that it isn’t going away, that such a feel for flow can be captured in a medium that is, by nature, permanent and static. Most remarkable is that this isn’t just about line and color, space and light; Gorky’s pictures conformed not only to his ambitions as a painter, but also to those of his soul.

An Armenian refugee from Turkish persecution who emigrated to the United States in 1920, the young Gorky (born Vosdanik Adoian) had been abandoned by a father fleeing conscription in the Turkish army, forced from his home, and bereaved of his mother by starvation. Throughout his life he was obsessed with childhood memories of his native country. In his painting, this became a fascination with its landscape—eroticized, inspirited, and always ultimately unattainable.

While Armenia remained distant, Gorky’s passion for it was fueled, after his second marriage in 1941, by visits from his New York studio to his in-laws’ Loudoun County farm. As plein-air abstractionist, he would sit and sketch for hours, merging the forms he saw with those contrived from study of his modernist precursors. This renewed familiarity with the landscape joined with the encouragement he received from European expatriate artists arriving in New York to foster what the organizers of this show of 41 paintings and drawings from the ’40s have termed a “breakthrough.”

One may rankle at the term, a word positively militant with publicity, at its implication that the period covered constitutes the culmination of a logical progression, a great leap forward in the march of an artist applying himself with diligence and pluck. But the pictures chosen do demand to be set apart somehow, not only from Gorky’s previous work, but from that of his contemporaries. In the second gallery, the heart of the show, is evidence more of a breakaway than a breakthrough.

The 1943 Drawing, discomfiting and perhaps unrealized, shows best what Gorky wanted and just how badly he wanted it. A central band of heavily outlined forms looks like it could have been traced around shapes cut from stiff paper. Flickering “plumes” of color appear like flames burning through the back of the sheet. Smoke streaming up from them, they threaten to consume the landscape. These vaginal plumes are holes to fall into, passages through another person that merge into nature, into memory. Gorky is drawing not of but through what he’s seeing, and thinks that drawing can get him there.

This desire is fed by an honest nostalgia—for the time when his mother was alive and his family was together and his home was safe because he was too young to remember the massacres that had already occurred—and by the need to be somewhere ahead of forgetting. Gorky recalled his mother telling him stories as he pressed his face into her apron: “Her stories and the embroidery on her apron got confused in my mind with my eyes closed. All my life her stories and her embroidery keep unraveling pictures in my memory.” But memory itself unravels. When he painted this tapestry of story, memory, and maternal love as How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (pictured, 1944), he let the washes of pigment run as if they were being rinsed away and left large patches blank to represent the parts of it that were already irretrievable.

These fluid effects were attained by thinning his paints with turpentine. This allowed the smears of color in 1944’s Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln to shrink from the lines that bound them, like puddles drying after a summer rain. It also made possible the liquid play of form and light in Water of the Flowery Mill, whose title was inspired by the reabsorption of an abandoned flour mill into the landscape by a net of vines and flowers.

The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (also 1944—it was a good year) is the show’s centerpiece, and it is a marvel. Even through their nostalgia, the other canvases in the room bask in creation’s glow, but Liver revels in it, replacing longing with consummation, melancholy with ragged assurance. It is a natural factory for the human beast. Into its primordial soup are thrown all the wonderful, horrible things we’re made of—whipped cream and thorns, entrails, excrement, and skulls, chicken’s eggs, dew, grass and pumice and butter-cream frosting, and Plasticine the color of brains. It shines with shafts and cushions of light, pumps with muscle, and undulates with raw sex.

In 1945, Willem de Kooning, a former sign painter himself, introduced Gorky to a “liner,” a thin brush used for lettering. He tells of his friend “[sitting] around all day in an ecstasy painting long beautiful lines.” And with that, Gorky’s work passed from the passionate, all-encompassing clash of form and color that characterized Liver to the restrained, graceful dance of the slim, wiry line that winds through such pictures as The Beginning and The Plow and the Song. (The change was perhaps not quite so abrupt, but most of the work from 1945 was lost to fire.)

It was a sort of retreat, gaining control at the expense of sheer brilliance. In 1947’s The Beginning, Liver‘s orgiastic creation myth appears virtually domesticated, as the forms take on the shape of household fixtures. Indeed, the clean line limns several comfy biomorphs not unsuitable to the furnishing of hip living rooms. In Soft Night (1947), there is a delicate tussle between line and color, but the picture never considers not being true to its name, which, like others from this period, is rather tame, showing none of the heady surrealist poetry of Gorky’s earlier titles.

Although Michael Auping in his catalog essay compares Liver to Miró’s Carnival of Harlequin, that picture’s semi-illusionistic space has more in common with some of Gorky’s drawings from this time. Virginia—Summer and two works called Study for Summation (all 1946) show forms spread through a receding plazalike space as if they are architect’s plans for a futuristic World’s Fair. In the former, the Trylon and Perisphere would hardly seem out of place. Order reigns. The painter who had once written, “A bad painter cannot draw. But a good drawer can always paint,” now finds himself at the mercy of his elegant line.

Even Agony (1947) is reined in by sweeping, springy lines. Glowing pigment tries to heat them up, but they refuse to melt, incandescing instead, casting the paint into radiant halos. And this is as heated as the argument gets. In The Plow and the Song (1947), line, color, and light are in as perfect agreement concerning their proper stations as the characters at the end of a Jane Austen novel.

Though subject to the rages and melancholy of his self-consciously “artistic” temper, Gorky was not a suicide waiting to happen. It took a lot to force his hand. In January 1946, a fire in the Sherman, Conn., studio he had just moved into destroyed every painting and drawing still in his possession, as well as all of his books. In February, he underwent surgery for colon cancer. He became impotent, his marriage strained. (In February 1948, Life magazine ran a story about the recent renovation of his house—“Master bedroom occupies all of what was third floor attic. From it the Gorkys lie in bed mornings and watch the sun come up over Connecticut’s hills”—that in retrospect seems gruesomely ironic.) In June 1948, a car crash broke Gorky’s neck and paralyzed his painting arm. After he was released from the hospital, his wife took the children and left.

Less than a month later, he hanged himself. In his pictures, particularly those from 1942-44, you can see everything he had lost—before the sweet-sad never-quite of sex and seeing was supplanted by the loveless not-at-all of a future he couldn’t bear.