Arshile Gorkyborn Vostanik Manoug Adoian, Armenian: April 15, 1904 – July 21, 1948) was an Armenian-American painter who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism. He spent most his life as a national of the United States. Along with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Gorky has been hailed as one of the most powerful American painters of the 20th century. As such, his works were often speculated to have been informed by the suffering and loss he experienced in the Armenian Genocide.
Gorky was born in the village of Khorgom (today’s Dilkaya), situated on the shores of Lake Van in the Ottoman Empire. His date of birth is often stated as April 15, 1904; however, the year might well be 1902 or 1903. In later years he was vague about his date of birth, changing it from year to year. In 1908 his father emigrated to America to avoid the draft, leaving his family behind in the town of Van.
In 1915, Gorky fled Lake Van during the Armenian Genocide and escaped with his mother and his three sisters into Russian-controlled territory. In the aftermath of the genocide, Gorky’s mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919. Arriving in America in 1920, the 16-year-old Gorky was reunited with his father, but they never grew close.
In the process of reinventing his identity, he changed his name to “Arshile Gorky”, claiming to be a Georgian noble (taking the Georgian name Arshile/Archil), and even telling people he was a relative of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
In 1922, Gorky enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, eventually becoming a part-time instructor. During the early 1920s he was influenced by Impressionism, although later in the decade he produced works that were more postimpressionist. During this time he was living in New York and was influenced by Paul Cézanne. In 1925 he was asked by Edmund Greacen of the Grand Central Art Galleries to teach at the Grand Central School of Art; Gorky accepted and remained with them until 1931. In 1927, Gorky met Ethel Kremer Schwabacher and developed a lifelong friendship. Schwabacher was his first biographer. Gorky said:
The stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of the artist’s brush. As the eye functions as the brain’s sentry, I communicate my innermost perceptions through the art, my worldview.
In 1931, Gorky sent a group of works ranging in price from $100 to $450 to the Downtown Gallery in New York. (The artist’s name was spelled “Archele Gorki” in the gallery’s records. Most of Gorky’s works from this period were unsigned.) The exact nature of their relationship is unknown. Mrs. John D. Rockefeller (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller) purchased from the gallery a Cézannesque still life by Gorky titled Fruit. Gorky may have been introduced to the gallery owner by Stuart Davis who regularly exhibited there.
In 1933, Arshile Gorky became one of the first artists employed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. This later came to include such artists as Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko.
In 1935, Gorky signed a three-year contract with the Guild Art Gallery (37 West Fifty-seventh Street, New York). Co-owned by Anna Walinska and Margaret Lefranc, but funded and directed by Lefranc, the gallery organized the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, Abstract Drawings by Arshile Gorky.
When Gorky showed his new work to André Breton in the 1940s, after seeing the new paintings and in particular The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, Breton declared the painting to be “one of the most important paintings made in America” and he stated that Gorky was a Surrealist, which was Breton’s highest compliment. The painting was shown in the Surrealists’ final show at the Galérie Maeght in Paris in 1947.
Michael Auping, a curator at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, saw in the work a “taut sexual drama” combined with nostalgic allusions to Gorky’s Armenian past. The work in 1944 shows his emergence in the 1940s from the influence of Cézanne and Picasso into his own style, and is perhaps his greatest work. It is over six feet high and eight feet wide, depicting “an abstract landscape filled with watery plumes of semi-transparent color that coalesce around spiky, thorn like shapes, painted in thin, sharp black lines, as if to suggest beaks and claws.”
Artist Corinne Michelle West was Gorky’s muse and probably his lover, although she refused to marry him when he proposed several times.
In 1941, Gorky met and married Agnes Ethel Magruder (maiden; 1921–2013) daughter of Admiral John Holmes Magruder, Jr. (1889–1963). Gorky soon nicknamed her “Mougouch”, an Armenian term of endearment. They had two daughters, Maro and Yalda (renamed Natasha some months later). Maro Gorky became a painter, and married the British sculptor and writer Matthew Spender, son of the poet Sir Stephen Spender.
From 1946, Gorky suffered a series of crises: his studio barn burned down, he underwent a colostomy for cancer, and Mougouch had an affair with Roberto Matta. In 1948, Gorky’s neck was broken and his painting arm temporarily paralyzed in a car accident, and his wife left him, taking their children with her. She was later married to British writer Xan Fielding.
Gorky hanged himself in Sherman, Connecticut in 1948 at the age of 44. He is buried in North Cemetery in Sherman, Connecticut.