Arshile Gorky became a legend during his lifetime. No less a figure than André Breton had declared him to be “the most important painter in American history.” Clement Greenberg, the most influential American art critic of his age, though originally grudging in his praise, in 1948, the year of Gorky’s death, pronounced him to be “among the very few contemporary painters whose work is of more than national importance.” And yet even today his art awaits the major monograph that it deserves. In recent years, however, he became the subject of two substantial biographies, Matthew Spender’s From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky (1999) and Nouritza Matossian’s Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (2000). Now we have Hayden Herrera’s Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, the longest and most exhaustive of the three books; as its title suggests, it is also the most ambitious in that it attempts to deal extensively with Gorky’s art as well as with his life.
It is easy to understand why Gorky has come to cast such a spell over biographers. In his youth in Armenia he had experienced inconceivable trag-edy. His death was also dramatically tragic. He was in many respects the archetype of the doomed romantic artist. He was of striking appearance, tall, with large, haunted eyes. (He was once approached by a woman in the Metropolitan Museum of Art who asked, “Are you Jesus Christ?” “No Madam,” Gorky replied, “I am Arshile Gorky.”) His hands, like his eyes, were also enormous and equally beautiful. That he was a compulsive fantasist, constantly altering and embroidering his own personal history, is a challenge to anyone wishing to chronicle his history. Trying to pin him down can at times become an absorbing kind of paper chase.
Gorky named three different sites as his birthplace. In fact the event took place in the now destroyed village of Korkhom in the western Armenian province of Van, then part of the Ottoman Empire. We still do not know the exact date of his birth and probably never will. When he arrived at Ellis Island on February 26, 1920, he gave his age as seventeen. In 1939, applying for American citizenship, he said that he had been born on April 15, 1904, at Tiflis. On another occasion he said 1905. Herrera suggests, convincingly, that he was probably born at the turn of the century.
His real name was Vosdanig—soon to be changed to Manoug Adoian. It was in 1922 that he assumed the name of Arshile Gorky. Gorky, he was fond of remarking, was Russian for bitter, and he claimed kinship with the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky, not realizing that this was itself a pseudonym. He came from a peasant family of good standing in the village and later used to talk of an idyllic childhood in its surroundings on the shores of Lake Van. But all that was soon to change. In 1906, after the Turkish …