Is there another life in American art to compare to Arshile Gorky's? His arc from struggle to breakthrough to tragedy is slow, then swift, then dazzling and finally devastating. In the seven or so years before he took his life in 1948, he produced some of the greatest, most explosive works of the 20th century, a synthesis of Surrealism and abstraction that unlocked voluptuous new possibilities for painting and opened the way to Abstract Expressionism. It wasn't a long life, but it was lit by fire.
Though it's been almost three decades since the last Gorky retrospective, the big new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was worth the wait. Organized by Michael R. Taylor, the museum's curator of modern art, it has final galleries so triumphant, you want to throw your hat in the air, even though you know and how could you forget? that this is a story that will end where it began, in darkness.
Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian in Khorkom, a village in Turkish Armenia. In his early 20s he adopted a new name Arshile (Russian for Achilles) Gorky (in homage to the Russian writer Maxim Gorky). He may not have known that gorky means bitter in Russian, but he was certainly acquainted with bitterness. He had arrived in New York City in 1920 as an 18-year-old refugee from the Turkish campaign of atrocities against Armenians. One year earlier, his mother had died of starvation in his arms. In adulthood, from 1926 to 1942, he obsessively reworked two haunting double portraits that showed them side by side he the tentative 10-year-old; she an impassive totem, forever out of reach beneath waves of nostalgia.
All through his 20s and 30s, Gorky devoted himself to a complete, nearly self-annihilating immersion in the work of one master after another. Cézanne, Picasso, Miró, Léger he sometimes channeled their voices like a ventriloquist's dummy, but he learned their language. His breakthrough came in the 1940s, partly by way of his contact with the Surrealists in wartime exile in New York City, especially André Breton and Roberto Matta. Gorky had been borrowing Surrealist imagery for years, and he flourished in their company. It was through Matta that he renewed his interest in the Surrealist notion of automatism, a means of relinquishing conscious control of the hand to let it discover images that flowed from the unconscious. With that, some key turned inside him, allowing him to translate impressions of nature and the body and childhood memories of Armenia into an abstract language of longing and release.
Where once there had been something congested and strenuous about Gorky's paint application, his clotted surfaces began to give way to Matta's thin washes of color. And now there's a slender, buoyant new line that darts all around the canvas, lightly defining swelling forms, with borders as thin as soap bubbles', just tight enough to create a sense of release when bursts of red or yellow pop them. You sense that this is the bouncing, eternal line of freedom and pleasure, one that traces back to the airborne arcs of those young women on swings in Fragonard.
For most of his last years, Gorky went from strength to strength, making lush, abundant pictures like The Liver Is the Cock's Comb, his 1944 masterpiece in which pools of color supply a world where turbulent figures claw the air. But once the bad times began, they never quit. In 1946 a fire in his Connecticut studio destroyed more than 20 paintings. Then came rectal cancer and a car accident that left his painting arm temporarily immobilized. Then his wife left him, taking the kids. In despair and constant pain, he hanged himself. He was only 46 a short life, but long enough to be a hinge that history turned on.
Richard Lacayo blogs daily about art and architecture at time.com/lookingaround