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Genius in Exile

The year is 1908, the place Khorkom, a small village set 5,500 feet above sea level amid the spectacular mountains and valleys of western Armenia. Sedrak Adoian, a Christian Armenian from a prosperous family of traders, is emigrating to America. Early one morning he wakes his small son and daughter and leads them to a wheat field by the shores of Lake Van. Sitting on the ground, they share a last meal of eggs and flat bread. Before kissing his children goodbye, Sedrak presents his five-year-old son Manoug with a pair of pointed wooden shoes of the sort traditionally worn by Armenian men; he then mounts his horse and disappears into the mist, never to return.

Two years later, Sedrak’s young wife Shushanig Der Marderossian Adoian moves with her children to Van, the region’s capital city. She is leaving to distance herself from her husband’s family, who have been treating her harshly in his absence. The move is only temporary. As a matter of family honor, Armenians who have emigrated to the US save enough money to bring their relations, even distant ones, to the New World. Sedrak will send for his family as soon as he can. Shushanig and her children wait.

But the years pass, and in 1915, with the major European powers distracted by the Great War, the Turks step up their persecution of Christian Armenians. The government’s aim is to eliminate non-Turkish minorities from the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the extermination of all Armenian males twelve years of age or older. Between 1915 and 1918, one and a half million people perish through deportation or massacre in the worst act of genocide in this century before Hitler’s.

As the Turks lay siege to Van, neither the Red Cross nor the American missionaries who run the school where her son has been educated can protect Shushanig and her children. Amid scenes of almost unimaginable horror, they flee for their lives. In mortal danger every step of the way, the family trek with thousands of other refugees toward Russian Armenia in the northeast, sometimes crossing wild ravines piled high with the bodies of the dead. Attached together by a rope, they march toward Mount Ararat and the relative safety of the provincial town of Yerevan, 150 miles from Van.

There they are destitute, and yet no help comes from Sedrak, now living in relative prosperity in America. As the temperature sinks to thirty degrees below zero during the winter of 1918-1919, they face starvation. Ill and undernourished, Shushanig has surrendered to a despair more lethal than malnutrition or cholera. At this moment she receives a letter from her husband proposing that she abandon her children and join him in Rhode Island. Lying on a pile of rags spread over the dirt floor of a derelict house, she dictates a scornful refusal. As her daughter Vartoosh later recalled, “Mummy was speaking. She was saying, ‘Write that I can never leave Armenia. That I will never come to America. They’ve abandoned us completely.’ Then suddenly we saw that mother had died.” Her fifteen-year-old son Manoug was huddled at her feet.

These are all scenes from the early life of Manoug Vosdanig Adoian, the painter who would be known to the world by the pseudonym of Arshile Gorky. No other major artist of this century survived experiences as dreadful as those endured by Gorky in the years between 1915 and 1918. Later, as an exile in America, he would draw on memories of his boyhood in Armenia in creating a new language of lyrical abstraction. Though slow to mature as an artist, when his genius did flame up in the 1940s, it briefly lit the way for an entire generation of American artists, including Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning, before guttering violently out.

After his mother’s death, Manoug became the head of his family in Armenia. Keeping grief at bay, he and Vartoosh made their way by train to the Georgian city of Tiflis, then by cargo ship to Constantinople, where at last they found the $300 they had been promised for their fare—sent not by their father, but by their older half-sister Akabi and her husband, who were already living in America. The money enabled them to reach New York, two ragged teenagers among the thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe who landed at Ellis Island in March 1920.

It is a small but significant detail in the story of Gorky’s life that the father whom he had not seen for twelve years did not come from New England to meet him or his sister when they arrived in New York. The children of Sedrak and Shushanig by their first marriages would become Manoug’s family in America. Yet even toward them Vartoosh and Manoug harbored mixed feelings. In their first days in America, the brother and sister were shocked by what they perceived as the wealth of their relations. Now they asked themselves, “Where were you when we were starving? What did you do when mother was dying?”

Manoug and his sister settled in the industrial suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts. Temperamentally unsuited to work in a local rubber factory like his father and his other Armenian relations, Manoug set out to become an artist, studying first at the New School of Design in Boston and then, after his move to New York in 1924, both at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League. Six feet four inches tall, romantically good looking and with a charismatic personality, Gorky became a minor celebrity in the bohemia of Greenwich Village. He survived by giving private art lessons, supervising the life classes at the Grand Central School, and selling an occasional painting. Contemporaries remember him drawing and redrawing his mother “hundreds of times,” as though through his art he could somehow repossess her. Of the past, of Armenia, he never spoke. “All he wanted was to leave the chaos and misery behind him,” writes his biographer Nouritza Matossian. He “had lost his home, his mother; his childhood paradise was ravaged. He was taking with him a tragedy which filled his heart and against which he would have to battle for the rest of his life.”

Toward the end of 1924 Gorky began his painting The Artist and His Mother. As in a Russian icon, stiff hieratical figures stare out at the viewer, embodiments both of Gorky’s own lost childhood and of the experience of millions of displaced persons in this century. Two versions of the painting exist, both based on a grainy black-and-white photograph that had been taken back in Van in 1912 by a professional photographer.

In the photo, Shushanig and Ma-noug pose self-consciously against a painted studio backdrop. The shy and sensitive boy, formally dressed in a dark coat with a velvet collar, stands so close to his mother that his left arm seems to merge with her body. In both hands he carries a little bouquet, like a bridegroom or a page. His mother, in a traditional headscarf and long patterned apron, sits as though enthroned, massive and solemn as one of Giotto’s madonnas, her face impassive, her mouth a gash.

In the paintings, the black and white of the past has been transfigured into an eternally beautiful present through a palette of rose and lavender, beige and pink. In the second version of the picture, on which Gorky worked until 1942 and which is now in the National Gallery in Washington, time and memory are evoked not only in the figures themselvesbut even in the way the figures are painted, for Gorky renders vividly his own black hair, dark eyes, and olive complexion, but lightly sketches in his mother’s face using ghostly grays and chalk whites. Even as we look, therefore, the living boy seems to grow more distinct, while the dead woman fades into memory. Matossian describes the portrait as the artist’s way of snatching his mother at last “out of the pile of corpses to place her on a pedestal.”

But it is more. The more we look, the more we realize that there is a third, implied participant in the picture: the person for whom the original photograph was taken. Manoug offers his bouquet not to his mother but to his father. The reason the photo survived at all is that Shushanig sent it to Sedrak in America as a reminder of his family’s existence, of their plight, of their need for his help. Knowing this, we look again into the eyes of the mother and son. Hers plead. His glare.

In the light of what happened to his mother, the painting can be read as the abandoned son’s bitter accusation against his father. Of Sedrak’s failure to save his wife and children, the family feeling was, as a relative told Spender, that “he should have managed it somehow.” And indeed, the surname Manoug chose as his pseu-donym, Gorky, means “bitter” in Russian. Was this anger unjust? According to Matossian’s account, Gorky retrieved the photograph not from his father but from Akabi, to whom Sedrak must have given it. What the father didn’t value enough to keep became his son’s most precious possession, the only image of his mother to survive the siege of Van and the dissolution of his childhood. When Gorky’s studio burned down in 1946, it is one of the few objects he snatched from the flames.

Both versions of The Artist and His Mother are unfinished, either because Gorky couldn’t let so cherished an image go by completing it, or perhaps because he found the feelings the pictures aroused in him while he worked on them unbearable. Then too, they are painted in a relatively conventional figurative style, from which Gorky was beginning to move away by the later 1920s. At a time when American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood were proudly rejecting European modernism for an indigenous tradition of robust figuration, Gorky chose for twenty years to imitate Cézanne, Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky, and de Chirico. Young artists often absorb the styles of their predecessors, but Gorky’s identification with European masters was far more intense than simple hero worship. “I was with Cézanne for a long time,” he used to say, “and then naturally I was with Picasso.”

What is so interesting about Gorky’s thickly painted pastiches of the 1920s and 1930s is his lonely faith in painters whose work he knew only through the relatively few examples he could see in American museums and galleries, and through black-and-white reproductions in magazines like Cahiers d’Art. If the Europeans were his artistic fathers, then the one characteristic they all had in common was that, like his real father, they were absent, known only from afar, idealized.

Manoug Adoian’s rejection of his real father could hardly have been more sweeping. On arrival in America immigrants frequently changed or anglicized their names. But in becoming Arshile Gorky, Manoug assumed an entirely new identity, inventing a new past for himself. A composite c.v. would now contain the information that he was a Georgian prince, born in Tiflis, the nephew of the Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. Forced to flee his native country after repeated raids by the Bolsheviks and by the Whites, he made his way to Paris, where he studied for a time under the sculptor Albert Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian, and was taught both by Maillol and Kandinsky. After arriving in America, he spent three and a half years at Brown University, where he majored in engineering and excelled at the long jump. There was also a period of study at the Rhode Island School of Design. According to his pupil Mark Rothko, “It was all fantastic and you couldn’t believe what he told you if you were a stranger. I mean, for those newly introduced to Gorky, I’m certain it was difficult to tell where reality ended and imagination began.”

On the other hand, it was fairly easy to see through Gorky’s stories. For one thing, he couldn’t speak more than a few words of Russian, and for another, it was no secret that Maxim Gorky—who was only to die in 1936—was the pseudonym of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov. The real Arshile Gorky was largely self-taught, and for almost twenty years eked out a living on the essentially provincial New York art scene, moving in a circle of artists which included Stuart Davis, John Graham, and Willem de Kooning. The most important works of this period are the Aviation murals painted for Newark Airport in 1935 under the sponsorship of the WPA, the government agency founded to supply needy artists with employment. From photographs it is clear that Gorky was inspired by both Fernand Léger and Stuart Davis when he created a cubist jigsaw out of wheels, propellers, wings, and tail fins, a high-spirited, proto-Pop extravaganza which was demolished when the US Air Force took over Newark Airport during the war.

Though Gorky had a number of romantic entanglements, including a brief early marriage, neither of his new biographers can disguise the essentially static nature of his life during the Depression. Perhaps Gorky’s lies were necessary to create an aura of excitement and glamour around a fundamentally banal struggle for existence. Or perhaps they were a way of not remembering what had actually happened to Manoug Adoian. By assuming the identity of others, Gorky did not have to be in contact with the intolerable burden of his own past, with its real terror, grief, and anger.

In his art, for almost twenty years this brilliantly talented artist painted in the styles of others. Something kept Gorky from finding his own artistic identity, and after reading the two recent biographies under review, I suspect it was fear. He sought refuge in fantasy because to draw on his own experiences meant confronting feelings of helplessness and loss, which threatened constantly to overwhelm his fragile ego.

You sense something of Gorky’s interior life in the early 1930s in a series of black-and-white drawings which he called Nighttime Enigma and Nostalgia. Formally they are indebted to de Chirico’s surrealist still lifes, but also draw on the biomorphic abstraction of Miró and Picasso. The mesh of densely hatched lines; the shallow space; the heavy organic forms embedded in the black background as though struggling to emerge from it; the absence of light, air, or movement in a closed-off world—everything about these drawings feels inert, melancholy.1 As the title of the series suggests, at some level they are Gorky’s way of describing through the language of abstraction a dead part of himself, the unconscious feelings and memories to which he was as yet unable to gain access. If they are essentially landscapes and still lifes, they are also self-portraits.

It is possible to read Gorky’s paintings, like those of Jackson Pollock, as visible extensions of the artist’s inner world. Much as Pollock’s colors and imagery changed with his marriage and move from New York to Long Island, so Gorky’s art matured as he discovered a new inner security. With his 1941 marriage to Agnes Magruder, the birth of two daughters in 1943 and 1945, and prolonged exposure to nature during three summers spent in Virginia, his pictures become more complex, more integrated, more alive. (Matthew Spender, the author of From a High Place, is married to one of the daughters.) Then too, at the beginning of the Second World War he came into direct contact with European Surrealists like Roberto Matta Echaurren, André Masson, and André Breton, all of whom were then living in New York. Gorky had always been a disciplined, controlled artist. These European Surrealists showed him that beauty can arise out of accident and chance, that he need not fear the unconscious, but could use his own dreams and memories without being destroyed by them.

The first intimations of Gorky’s power and originality are found in the Garden in Sochi series, painted in 1941 and 1942. These are inspired by memories of his Armenian childhood, and specifically a garden belonging to his father in which he had played as a child; though they are semi-abstract, images are still recognizable in them. At the center of the brilliant yellow canvas now in the High Museum in Atlanta we can spot the pointed wooden shoe presented to him by his father, as well as a rug, a butterfly, and a tree to which Gorky remembered the local women pinning fluttering strips of colored cloth. Gorky’s Garden in Sochi paintings are still full of references to Miró, particularly the famous Still Life with Old Shoe of 1937. And yet, in John Golding’s phrase they are “more uniquely infused by his personality…more totally Gorky’s than anything that he had yet produced.”2

So lyrical is the imagery in The Garden in Sochi that it would be easy to accept it as an authentic evocation of a carefree childhood, one in which, as in a fairy tale, the little boy was protected by the magic of the Armenian shoes. In fact, he was at this stage painting a past he wished had been his, not the experiences he had actually lived through. These imaginative re-creations of Khorkom are the pictorial equivalent of a screen memory—a beautiful or acceptable recollection which is used as a defense against a real event too traumatic to remember. For all their beauty, when we ask why they do not have the stature of the paintings Gorky would produce in the next six years, it is because they are expressively one-dimensional. In them Gorky addresses only the pleasure and beauty of his childhood, not its “horrific events” which, Matossian writes, “could never be retold, for they threatened to overwhelm him.”

Though she is referring here to the years between 1915 and 1918, what both these biographies convey is that long before the Armenian genocide Manoug Adoian’s life was filled with fear. Surely it is a sign of emotional disturbance that Manoug did not speak until he was five years old. The story of how his father disappeared from his life after their sacramental meal and the presentation of the shoes is indeed romantic. But it omits the fact that his father’s departure left his mother vulnerable to physical and verbal violence by a brutal uncle, which was the reason she left Khorkom. After his father left, Manoug relapsed into mutism.

Gorky once described the origins of his art as follows: “My mother told me many stories while I pressed my face in her long apron with my eyes closed. She had a long white apron like the one in her portrait and another embroidered one. Her stories and the embroidery on her apron got confused in my mind with my eyes closed.” What kind of stories? Gorky told his second wife that when his mother told him stories from the Bible “the terrors of Hell she described sent the children diving under the bedclothes.” She certainly mentioned the local patron, Saint Nishan, who “seized devils and threw them out of mad people’s bellies.” As late as 1942 Gorky recalled being in church, standing in front of a painting with his mother:

There were angels in the painting. White angels. And black angels. All the black angels were going to Hades. I looked at myself. I am black, too. It means there is no heaven for me. A child’s heart could not accept it. And I decided there and then to prove to the world that a black angel can be good, too, must be good and wants to give his inner goodness to the whole world, black and white world.

But she didn’t need to invent tales to scare the wits out of her child. In the year of his father’s disappearance, 1908, an eyewitness described yet another massacre at Van when

the Armenian quarter was ransacked…. For those who were not butchered in the streets worse torture was reserved. In some cases horseshoes were riveted onto men’s feet; wild cats were attached to the bare bodies of men and women so that they might tear the flesh with their claws; many were soaked in oil and burnt alive in the streets….

These are events which the child would certainly have heard discussed at home. Shushanig’s own father, a priest at a nearby monastery, had been murdered in 1898 and his body nailed to the door of his church. Shushanig’s brother, too, had been killed, this time by the Kurds, while the Turks forced her to watch as they murdered her first husband. But the source of the child’s terror was also the source of his consolation. Gorky buried his head in her embroidered apron in order not to see the terrifying visions her stories brought before his eyes. Yet from these visions, art emerged. “All my life her stories and her embroidery keep unravelling pictures in my memory as if I sit before a blank white canvas.”

How do you reconcile this statement with the fact that in the fully abstract paintings that followed Garden in SochiPirate, The Waterfall, One Year the Milkweed,How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds My Life —there are few recognizable shapes of any kind; and as far as I can see none at all that can be connected with anything specifically Armenian? The answer lies in the way the pictures are painted, in the actual textures and surface of the canvases. By 1944 pigments have become more liquid and transparent, as boundaries between forms begin to merge, and colors are allowed to flow into one another. Wherever an image seems to be emerging or forming, Gorky uses paint as a veil to cover it; or else he employs a scumbling technique which makes us feel that something that once was visible has been erased or buried.

These paintings have a visual and emotional allusiveness that had never before been seen in American art. In them Gorky is reproducing the way in which thoughts, images, and memories rise up and intrude on consciousness, only to be buried again through an endless process of forgetting and repression. This, of course, was Gorky’s own experience. By a process of constant erasure, it seems, Gorky could bury his fear of abandonment, of danger, of hatred, and so hold on to the beauty of his earliest childhood. By acting out this process while he painted, Gorky was able to create connections between areas of the canvas which in the earlier work would have been isolated and separate, allowing accidents and the unexpected to invade his art; the colors, no longer contained within black lines, are permitted to spill over the canvas surface, finding their own shapes in shifting, perpetual movement. The expressive freedom Gorky allowed into these late works became a powerful factor in the emergence of a specifically American school of abstract art in the later 1940s and in the 1950s, particularly in the work of Pollock, Guston, and de Kooning. In the 1960s, Cy Twombly’s graffiti-inspired paintings used erasure, scratching out, and scribbling in a way that mimics our ability to cancel memories and annihilate feelings—and this too derives ultimately from Gorky.

In January1946, a fire in Gorky’s studio destroyed paintings, drawings, and art books accumulated over a lifetime. Two months later a diagnosis of cancer of the bowel led to a colostomy, a condition particularly horrifying to a man as proud and fastidious as Gorky. In other works of this period it is fruitless to try to make out recognizable shapes. But in Charred Beloved of 1946 he includes images of the fire as well as a blood red lozenge that clearly refers to the searing pain in his bowels and black smudges which could be nothing other than the cancer that has invaded his body. No longer was he able to feel clean, to keep pain at bay, or to control the rage which he now directed at his innocent wife. The old defenses against the terrors of the past break down and they find their way into his painting. It is as though he had become one of those black angels whom his mother had told him were consigned to hell. Now he was the madman, but there was no Saint Nishan to seize the devils and throw them out of his belly.

Just at the time that the critic Clement Greenberg announced that Gorky was “among the very few contemporary American painters whose work is of more than national importance,” his wife, bewildered and unable to cope with his increasingly violent tantrums, began an affair with the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta Echaurren. Insanely jealous, Gorky could not bear abandonment. In June 1948 he was a passenger in a car driven by his drunken dealer, Julien Levy, when it skidded off the road. With a broken clavicle and injured vertebrae he was in constant pain, unable to sleep, and subject to terrible headaches. Four weeks later, during the last two days of his life, it is as though he had been condemned to relive the traumas of his youth, as he wandered through the streets of New York seeking safety. Matthew Spender says that Gorky’s own

imaginative re-creation of Khorkom and its gardens was the fuel which drove him forward all his life, and when it no longer functioned, he abandoned himself to a despair which in many ways resembles that of his mother in her final months.

When he arrived at the studio of his friend IsamuNoguchi he held in each hand a little cloth doll—“old, dirty rag dolls”—which must have looked to Noguchi like two small children, and “tears were streaming down his face.” He could not in the end bear being Arshile Gorky. The final irony is that by hanging himself on July 20, 1948, he abandoned his own two small children, the eldest five years old, the age at which he and his sister had been abandoned by their own father.

You don’t need to know anything about Gorky’s life to recognize that he is one of the most important of American painters. But Matthew Spender’s From a High Place and Nouritza Matossian’s Black Angel, both subtitled as a “life” of Arshile Gorky, add immeasurably to the interest of his art. Both are good books, carefully researched, well written, sympathetic, and enlightening. Both authors explain clearly the complicated relationships within Gorky’s family,in Armenia and in America; and both are excellent in recounting the family’s flight from Van. Both give moving, detailed accounts of Gorky’s last years, months, and days.

There are, as one might expect, many disagreements about details, as well as differences in emphasis. For Matossian, for example, Gorky’s childhood was deeply disturbed. She stresses his mutism, beatings at the missionary school in Van, his mother’s frightening stories. Spender is more informative about Gorky’s life among New York artists in the 1930s, and he draws on a revealing ten-hour conversation with Gorky’s close friend Willem de Kooning, who described Gorky’s reactions to paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. (In a painting by Ingres, Spender writes, Gorky “found in the bend of a sleeve, in the arrangements of folds of painted velvet, whole mountains and valleys.”) Spender is also more dispassionate in assessing the flaws in Gorky’s character. For in addition to being a fantasist and liar, Gorky could express his feelings of insecurity in loud, obnoxious behavior and showing off, to say nothing of the domestic violence and obsessive jealousy.

For Matossian, Gorky is a sexier, more romantic, more easily forgivable man. Unlike Spender she is more ready to cast blame—on the family members who could have helped Shushanig and her children at Yeravan and didn’t, and on those who failed to prevent his suicide. Herself of Armenian descent, she is aware of Gorky’s status as an outsider in a society which lionized him when he was successful but didn’t want to know him when he was ill and mad. She is far more conscious than Spender of “the vast social divide” between Gorky and his wife’s well-established Virginia family, the Magruders. Unlike Spender she speaks Armenian, and unlike him, she actually undertook the dangerous journey to the village that was once Khorkom, and interviewed Gorky’s surviving relatives in Yerevan. Even more important, she was able to interview Gorky’s sister Vartoosh shortly before her death in 1990. Though Spender quotes many survivors from the retreat from Van, including a published interview with Vartoosh, he did not speak directly to the one family member who was there. Vartoosh’s eyewitness testimony adds to the authenticity and vitality of Matossian’s account of the Armenian years. Of these two good books, it is Matossian’s that brings us closer to Gorky’s origins and the sources of his art.

  1. 1

    See Matthew Spender and Barbara Rose, editors, Arshile Gorky and the Genesis of Abstraction: Drawings from the Early 1930s (Stephen Mazah/University of Washington Press, 1994).

  2. 2

    John Golding, “Arshile Gorky: The Search for Self,” in Arshile Gorky 1904-1948 (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1990), p. 20.

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