Visual Arts: Through the eyes of a child

American immigrant Arshile Gorky was sidelined by Abstract Expressionis m. Time for a reassessment?
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The Independent Culture
Arshile Gorky is one of the great enigmas of 20th century art. His influence has been vast and yet his name does not carry the weight of his contemporaries - Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. Born in 1902, he was raised in a provincial farming community in Western Armenia, and emigrated to America in 1920, where he later flourished in New York's bohemian circle, evolving into a brilliantly dynamic painter.

He survived the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1920 when the Ottoman Turks murdered, tortured and uprooted two million Armenians, raping their lands and destroying their culture. In New York he kept his past a secret to stifle its pain, and took the name of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, whom he admired. His real name was Manoug Adoian.

Nouritza Matossian has written a profoundly moving, illuminating biography of the painter she spent 15 years researching. She is the only biographer of Gorky's who has had intimate access to his relatives and culture, having undertaken a pilgrimage to the site of his birthplace, now in present day Eastern Turkey.

Her visceral prose in Black Angel - A Life of Arshile Gorky conveys the magical, otherworldly aura of the village of Van where he grew up. She provides an intricate historical framework for the circumstances of his early life and the genocide. After bringing Gorky and his sister to safety their mother died of starvation during the famine that gripped Armenia in 1919. His work forever after paid tribute to her memory, in the most haunting way.

"The genocide shattered everything - it took away his mother, his home, his family. His way of dealing with it was by creating a new identity. He felt an immense debt to his mother because she was his greatest teacher and inspiration - not because she taught him art, but because of the way she looked at the world and made him sensitive to objects, nature and encouraged him to paint and draw. His sister Vartoosh told me how, after he'd finished it, he showed her the double portrait of The Artist and his Mother and said: `Here's mum - you can talk to her now.' It was as if he was bringing her back to life."

Various commentators have discerned the influence of Picasso, Uccello, Ingres, and Miro in The Artist and his Mother, seeing it as a work of eclectic elegance. Matossian argues audaciously that the central inspirations were the frescoes of the Virgin and saints in the Church of the Holy Cross that were situated near to Gorky's childhood village.

"In addition to informing his work, the sacred art he had been saturated in as a boy made him reject the concept of commercial art. This ascetic seriousness struck a lot of the people around him, including de Kooning, who was very devoted to him and Rothko, whom Gorky taught for a short period.

"De Kooning always said that Gorky was the master. He delved back into the molten core of his memories and recast them via modern Western techniques."

His lofty, moral view of art relates to the sense that emerges from the book of Gorky's self-imposed mission to vindicate the victims of the genocide. While some of the mature paintings are conceived within its devastating orbit, others embody Gorky's life-affirming character and come close to being works of sheer exuberance. Colours dance, and shapes and structures appear to be in a state of motion as he captures the flux of experience in associative, kaleidoscopic webs. But the purity of Gorky's approach to art was to consign him to neglect.

"He didn't care about selling things; he gave away paintings very readily. He tried to get a dealer, but it wasn't what was important to him. And because he died young there was no one around to promote his work. No one was really pushing him and making sure the exhibitions were going ahead. The other reason he isn't more well known was because a lot of people thought that Abstract Expressionism necessarily led to the kind of work that Pollock and others ended up doing. Gorky didn't go down the same route, so people thought he was stuck in the past. I think this is a completely erroneous view. He was pursuing his own culturally authentic agenda; and there is a sensitivity and finesse in his work that is totally original in American art. No one else painted in the way Gorky did."

Towards the end, Gorky's life was prised apart by misfortunes that seemed eerily to link with the traumas of his childhood. A fire destroyed many of his paintings; he lost his wife to the Chilean artist Matta Echurren; his body was decimated by cancer. In the end, at the age of 46, he gave up the struggle, and took his own life.

Despite the darkness of Gorky's life Matossian's account is paradoxically enlivening as she tells his story with an almost novelistic intensity. Her book finally leaves us with the image of a man of monumental will and spirit, who embraced life with every fibre, and whose sufferings never undermined his integrity either as a man or as an artist.

`Black Angel - A Life of Arshile Gorky' is published by Chatto and Windus, pounds 25.