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Late Bloomer? Gorky the Magnificent…

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Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Liver is the Cock's Comb, oil on canvas (1944)

The Armenian artist Arshile Gorky (1904-48) has a terrific, also terrifying back story and the triumphs are all present in this major reassessment, which goes on to the Tate Modern when it closes Jan. 10. (After that L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.)

Gorky’s work was always accomplished but until recent biographical studies, underrated. The influences were clear and the largely self taught artist never underestimated his debt to mentors. “I was with Cezanne,” he said, “then I was with Picasso.” (Also Leger.) The work was still exceptional.

And then, during the 1940s, he finds his voice. Surely happiness factors in. We musn’t discount happiness. Gorky marries for the second time. Moves to his wife’s farm in Virginia which reminds of his Armenian countryside. Begins painting, surreal landscapes (Most titled “Untitled”). “Where are the trees?” his wife asks. “I paint what I see between the trees?” he says.

Curator Michael Taylor’s retrospective is Major, caps intended. You must not miss this one. If you have little time or a lot don’t skip the audio tour which will make stops at many paintings but a pivotal one (two actually are and an archival photograph) The Artist and His Mother (1936) which pivot forward so much of his later work. You will enjoy the WPA Newark Airport Mechanics of Flying murals. There are fascinating aerial studies for them here, quite beautiful. Only two survive of many. They were up for only a few years; discovered under 14 layers of house paint.

The exhibit’s gasp factor: during the last half dozen years Gorky found his voice. The work, prodigious, bold, surreal, as the images dance their way into abstraction. The individuality begins with a set of Untitled Virginia Landscapes. They are fluid as music. They express only Gorky. From there to The Waterfall. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb most riveting of all. The Song and the Plow series has exhibited alongside the wood plows Gorky crafted as inspiration. Do not pass the austere The Limit. painted the year before he would take his own life. The painting ‘floats.’ The medium as the increasingly reduced abstraction points the artist in a new direction. Oil on paper, mounted on canvas.

Curator Michael Taylor’s chronological approach has finesse: pared so that each room points up Gorky’s changes. The audio tour is a hit. The ebullient curator talks; so do Gorky’s friends – Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, among others. They speak about the obsessions, the sorrows, the happiness, the way this complicated human could not know enough art.

Artists reinvent themselves. None more so than Gorky. He took the name of his favorite writer (Maxim Gorky, a supporter of Armenia). He took his time letting his own voice out.
Then he bloomed.

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Written by Lesley Valdes

November 12, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Posted in 1, Art

2 Responses

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  1. I’ll definitely see it when it’s here in LA. Thanks for pointing out the fine audio tour, too. I often skip those but won’t this time.

    Victoria C

    November 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm


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