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Always in Exile

Gorky next apprenticed himself to Picasso, whose influence on him throughout the 1930s was to be paramount. He was overcome by the magnitude of Picasso’s achievement, but also by the fact that in his work Picasso acknowledged his debt to countless masters of the past. It is characteristic of Gorky that when he adopted an older artist he also took on his new mentor’s sources. In his drawings he looked at Ingres through Picasso’s eyes. In his studio he had tacked up on the walls reproductions of Ingres next to those of Paolo Uccello, another of his idols, and significantly enough an authoritarian artist in that he demonstrated so implacably the direction in which he felt painting must subsequently evolve.

Gorky was attracted simultaneously to Picasso’s pre-Cubist work of 1906, to the Neoclassical work of the 1920s, and to his wilder biomorphic work of the late 1920s and early 1930s in which Picasso comes closest to the kind of Surrealism he himself had done so much to invent. Gorky’s Organization of 1936, one of the largest and most ambitious works of the decade, derives directly from Picasso’s Painter and Model of 1931 in the Sydney Janis collection. Gorky, Herrera tells us, used to baby-sit for the Janises’ children and sometimes advised Janis on his purchases. He also assiduously consulted Cahiers d’Art, initiated by Christian Zervos in 1926. As well as keeping American artists up to date on recent developments in Parisian modernism, the publication’s aim increasingly became to chronicle Picasso’s entire development. For Gorky Cahiers d’Art became a sort of bible. Gorky on the whole shied away from the blacker, more violent side of Picasso’s vision in favor of an emphasis on the formal properties of his art, and his borrowings have about them a quality of self-discipline, something Picasso had never felt it necessary to exert.

If it is in Gorky’s figure pieces that his debt to Picasso is most straightforwardly overt, the metamorphic properties of Picasso’s contemporary still lifes were to influence him equally at a different level. Because they were less emotive in their subject matter, they gave him greater liberty to exercise his own imagination. At the same time he was studying de Chirico’s work. The mysterious still lifes with their enigmatic, disturbing combinations of unlikely objects fascinated him. A lonely man at the time, he must also have responded to de Chirico’s empty, echoing, and haunted cityscapes. By adapting aspects of de Chirico’s work and iconography to Picasso’s compositional procedures he was further preparing himself for his all-important encounters with mainline Surrealism. The great invasion of Surrealist expatriates didn’t begin until 1939, but between 1930 and 1935, one-man shows of most of the leading Surrealists were staged in New York, and interest in the movement was quickened by the great Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.


Some of Gorky’s letters of the mid-1930s have a stream-of-consciousness quality about them, evidence that he was interested in exploring the entire Surrealist ethos and not just its visual manifestations. In one of them, mentioned by Herrera, he quotes from a poem by Eluard; characteristically he claims the words as his own. Many of the canvases of 1936 and 1937 might at first sight appear to be highly abstracted still lifes, but their imagery becomes increasingly animated and biomorphic. Some of the shapes suggest palettes and fragments of body parts; others evoke associations with birds, plant forms, pods, and leaves, which carry with them connotations of fertility so that the paintings exude a new aura of sexuality. It is as if the outside world had been brought indoors and placed on a table. These works have analogies with some of the canvases of Max Ernst and André Masson.

But it was the greatest of all the Surrealist painters who was to cast the greatest and most enduring spell on Gorky. Miró was to be as strong an influence on him as Picasso; and if his encounter with Picasso’s work had disciplined him, Miró’s was to liberate him. Gorky became acquainted with Miró’s work as early as 1928, and had been exploring his art in depth, well before Miró’s influence became more widespread after the great retrospective mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, the most extensive survey of Miró’s work yet to be seen. Miró was an inspired and original colorist, and although Gorky’s use of color had from the start been very personal to him, Miró’s example helped to turn him into a true colorist. And Gorky responded to Miró’s work at every level. Miró’s early detallista pictures, with their almost surgical yet magic depictions of nature, must have delighted him, and the farmyard pictures in particular must have taken Gorky back to his own childhood.

Miró’s identification with Catalan Romanesque ecclesiastical art and with a tradition of folk art that was still alive and flourishing must have brought Gorky to a more intense consciousness of his Armenian heritage and quickened his memories of the church carvings and decorated manuscripts he had seen as a boy. Much more important, however, was the fact that during the mid-1920s, when Miró was cultivating associational and automatic working procedures intended to echo those being practiced by the Surrealist writers and poets at the time, Miró’s attitude toward his multiple sources changed radically. Like Gorky, Miró was interested in exploring the art of the past and the affinities it might share with the work of his contemporaries. He now found that he was able to carry on a sort of running dialogue with his many sources of inspiration. Thus in a single work he could metaphorically “talk” to Bosch, to Picasso, to Dutch genre painting, and to Kandinsky and Klee without impairing his own artistic originality.

Then again there is in much of Miró’s work a sense of hidden narrative. Gorky was to write:

I tell stories to myself, often, while I paint, often nothing to do with painting. Have you ever listened to a child that this is a house, this is a man and this a cow in the sunlight…while his crayon wanders in an apparently meaningless scrawl all over the paper? My stories are often of my childhood. 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 embroideries keep unravelling pictures in my memory, if I sit before a blank white canvas.

Miró’s influence affected Gorky most directly in the Garden in Sochi series painted between 1940 and 1943, in which references to Miró abound. But, largely thanks to Miró, Gorky is now in the land of his mother’s apron: and although these canvases are richer in imagery than any that preceded them it is difficult to assign to individual forms within them a definite or single meaning, despite a text of Gorky’s that poetically describes the garden of his parents’ house in Khorkom. To try to find such meaning destroys the spell these pictures cast. (Gorky chose Sochi, a well-known resort on the Black Sea, for his title because he felt it was more likely to strike a chord in the minds of spectators.) And despite the debt to Miró, these pictures are more truly Gorky’s than anything he had produced to date. De Kooning was right when he once observed, “He had all these things before the Surrealists and the Surrealists told him he had it already.” The Surrealists, and Miró in particular, revealed Gorky to himself. When Miró revisited New York in 1947 he declared Gorky to be the best painter in America.

Of the Surrealist painters in exile, Herrera makes clear, Matta meant most to Gorky. They met in 1940. Matta was Chilean; his precocious talent had blossomed quickly in pre-war Paris, and he was the movement’s last star recruit before the outbreak of war. Matta dismissed the deep perspectival space of Dalí and Tanguy, which had characterized so much Surrealist painting of the 1930s, in favor of a space that was equally deep but was vaporous and pocketed; through this space spin strange configurations which seem to combine animal and mineral properties. He had invented the term “Psychological Morphology” to describe his work, suggesting that his indefinite, mobile space was designed to evoke or echo psychological experience.

Matta’s influence on Gorky can already be sensed in some of the Sochi series in the way the imagery at times seems to float, and in the way smudgy, painterly areas of color appear to be embedded in and between the outlines of forms without always touching them. Miró had helped to liberate Gorky’s color sense and now, through Matta, Gorky’s use of space became freer and more open. The relationship was reciprocal: Matta borrowed a drawing of Gorky’s and kept it for over a year. Matta had been “with” mainstream modernism in a more concrete way than Gorky; but because Matta was over a decade younger, Gorky could also feel paternalistic and protective toward him, which made their relationship special to him.


Gorky’s emotional horizons were also expanding. In February 1941, Herrera writes, de Kooning introduced him to Agnes Magruder, who was to become his “Mougouch”—an Armenian term of endearment meaning “little mighty one”—and by this name she was to become universally known. She was young (nineteen at the time), as well as beautiful, very intelligent, and fearless. She was also in revolt against what she called “embassy life.” Her father was an officer in the US Navy, so she was much traveled and had spent the previous year in Shanghai. Earlier Gorky had had a short, misconceived marriage and several other unsatisfying emotional attachments—he was jealous and possessive toward his women.

Mougouch represented everything he had sought in a partner. She had hoped to be a painter; she recognized Gorky’s genius and looked up to him in every way. They were married seven months after they first met. At the same time the fact that the expatriate Surrealists in New York were prepared to accept Gorky as an equal must also have greatly lifted his self-esteem, although in certain respects Gorky was more stimulated by Surrealism when he was experiencing it at a remove than when he was confronting it, so to speak, face to face. And though he was to experience financial problems throughout his life he was beginning to receive greater recognition in the New York art world. That André Breton, one of the greatest artistic impresarios of all time, rated him so high must also also have been gratifying to him.

The years between 1941 and 1946 must have been the happiest in Gorky’s life since he had been so cruelly robbed of his childhood. His two daughters were born during those years, and he emerged as a truly great artist. Yet there remained one last father figure for him to confront. He had claimed, untruthfully, to have been a student of Kandinsky’s in Paris. In 1931 he wrote of Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky as representing “the distinctive art of this century.” In 1939 the opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later to become the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), which had some twenty examples of Kandinsky’s work, was to be enormously important to the subsequent development of much progressive art in New York. Gorky had long been aware of Kandinsky’s large coloristic masterpieces executed in the years before 1914. Yet one of his greatest strengths was his ability to hold back from total involvement with his sources until the moment seemed right and he could face them on his own terms.

Gorky must now have realized that like himself, Kandinsky had reinvented or transformed landscape to a large extent in terms of his own inner psychological drama. Despite the fact that Kandinsky’s work is more self-conscious, more truly metaphysical, Gorky was nevertheless to recognize in him a precursor with whom he could, in his work, converse more freely, more joyously even than with Miró. In the summer of 1942 another dimension was added to Gorky’s art when on a visit to Connecticut he began to work from nature, something he had not done for almost fifteen years. Much of 1943 was spent on a farm Mougouch’s mother had bought in Virginia, and there he produced a large number of drawings which he henceforth drew on for his paintings. He was now cultivating mesmeric forms of vision, not unlike Miró’s. He would hold up a small object, a matchbox for example, at arm’s length and would invite nature to push forward to meet him there; grasses, plants, and trees would seem after a while to sway forward toward him, like algae bent by a current of water flowing swiftly forward. In such undulating configurations he saw reminiscences of the old masters who hung in reproduction on his studio walls and also of the European moderns whom he had searched out in galleries and in art journals. And as he told himself stories about them, strange hybrid figures or presences could emerge to take part in the excited dialogues he was conducting in his work.

Gorky’s new relationship with Kandinsky is celebrated in a succession of masterpieces produced in 1944, which include The Sun, The Dervish in the Tree, One Year the Milkweed, and, perhaps most memorable of all, the large The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb. Gorky’s palette now becomes richer than ever and his effects in paint are increasingly varied, often more liquid and always more luminous. Other outside influences continue to flood in. Critics and people who knew him well, some of whom actually watched him at work, have seen in the two Betrothals of 1947 sources as diverse as Uccello, Ingres, Duchamp, and Tanguy. But after 1944 Gorky’s art was also becoming increasingly self-referential, although the element of pictorial experiment remains as strong as ever. (Herrera speculates that the Betrothals are based on memories of traditional Armenian weddings.) In the summer of 1946, at Crooked Run Farm in Virginia, Gorky had spent the days drawing out of doors and the evenings drawing indoors, and once again, as in the series of 1936 and 1937, landscape and the interior space seem to become confounded. Despite its continued diversity, all the very late work is characterized by both a sense of tension and a feeling of valedictory sweetness, midway between pain and ecstasy.

During the last two years of his life Gorky experienced a series of accidents and disasters which cumulatively resulted in deep tragedy. In January 1946 his Connecticut studio burned to the ground, destroying over two dozen finished canvases and more recent drawings. Gorky had always been fascinated by fire and the episode must have brought back to him a much-told tale from his childhood: his maternal grandmother had cursed God for the murder of a favorite son, and in her unabated rage had torched the local church.

Gorky’s health, too, was declining. He was suffering from internal bleeding and in March, in New York, he was forced to undergo a colostomy, from which he never fully recovered, for a life-threatening cancer. He had always been proud of his strong body and resented the indignities to which it was being subjected. Mougouch nursed him devotedly, but their life together was at times becoming difficult. In physical decline, Gorky was perhaps coming to resent in her the very qualities that had originally drawn him to her—her youth, her vitality, and her ability to summon up reserves of gaiety in the face of misfortune. Gorky was on occasion cruel to her, once even violent. Although Mougouch had initially disliked or at least distrusted Matta she realized that he was deeply attracted to her, and now very briefly she succumbed to his notorious charm, although she never had any intention of leaving Gorky.

Gorky understandably was desolated by the fact that he had been betrayed by a younger friend. In June 1948 he was involved in a serious car crash; his dealer, Julien Levy, was at the wheel. Gorky’s neck was broken and he had also fractured vertebrae and a broken clavicle. He suffered agonies in traction, and total despair when he found himself unable to lift his painting arm. Increasingly he was losing control of himself. On July 21, while Mougouch and the children were away, he hanged himself from a beam in an outbuilding of the Connecticut farm that housed his last studio.

What distinguishes Hayden Herrera’s book most notably from those of her immediate predecessors, apart from the fact that she deals much more exhaustively with Gorky’s work, is the attention she gives to Mougouch in the second half of the book. Mougouch was generous in allowing both Matthew Spender (her son-in-law) and Matossian access to her extensive private archives; but Herrera has drawn on them even more exhaustively.5 The quotes from letters to Gorky and to their mutual friends and their answers enliven the book hugely, as do her comments on Gorky’s pictures and his working methods.

After Mougouch’s appearance in Gorky’s life the narrative, always absorbing, becomes compulsively readable. As the book makes clear, Gorky owed an enormous debt to her. She rescued him from the loneliness that had dogged him ever since the death of his mother. Because she was a great deal more sophisticated than he was, both socially and politically, she was instrumental in making him feel at ease in the company of the Surrealists; she spoke good French. Breton was clearly fascinated by her and she was close enough to Duchamp to be able to ask his advice about personal matters. Indirectly she taught Gorky to appreciate aspects of the American landscape that he had originally denigrated; and in doing so, and because of her faith in his art, she helped him to become one the greatest lyric painters of his age.

Herrera’s book suffers from a few minor defects. The wealth of information she provides is invaluable; but one sometimes gets the impression that the book has, if anything, been too long in its gestation. Occasionally it is repetitive; conversely, because it is so loaded with research, at times it becomes overnuanced. Gorky’s earlier work is dealt with in separate chapters that at times fit slightly awkwardly into the book’s structure, although when the painting gets more autobiographical the story naturally flows more easily. The chapters on the New York art scene during the 1930s make for slightly heavy reading, and because of this, perhaps unintentionally, Herrera underlines its provincialism. Things were certainly hard for American artists at this time, but different groups among them nevertheless enjoyed a spirit of camaraderie, something that was soon to be lost by the more truly revolutionary artists who came to maturity in the 1940s and went on to undreamed-of fame in the 1950s.

Still, all future chroniclers of Gorky’s life and art—and the two are inseparable—will have to begin with Herrera’s book. Her final summing-up of Gorky’s place in history is also sound. There is a lot of truth in the traditionally held view of Gorky as a bridge figure between Surrealism and the emergent radical American art, but it is also an oversimplification. Toward the end of his life Gorky repudiated Surrealism totally. Despite Breton’s attempts to enfold him into the Surrealist canon and his vast debt to the movement, Gorky was never at any time a true Surrealist. The movement’s anti-aestheticism was wholly foreign to him, and its moral values came increasingly to repel him. The Surrealists had seen art as a technique for living; Gorky saw it as a way of life, and this was one of his legacies to younger American artists who had looked at his art and then moved on from it along very different paths. Herrera makes a case for Gorky’s centrality to emergent new American art when she concludes that

Gorky was quintessentially American in his polyglot melding of many cultures and in the way his feelings of dislocation and exile gave urgency to his reinvention of his self.

This is somewhat like saying that he became an American artist despite himself; and Herrera recognizes that he never came to feel completely at home in the US. Other immigrant artists—and here de Kooning, who had for a spell been a disciple of Gorky’s, is a classic example—developed visions that were totally American. Herrera also suggests that Gorky’s sensibilities were not truly European either, despite his incalculable debt to European and particularly French art and culture. Gorky’s Armenian background haunted him and gave his art, when it ultimately flowered so personally, an Eastern cast. As Herrera also implies, and this is a thread that runs throughout her book, Gorky was always in exile, even from himself, until the last great poetic explosion of his art.

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    Somewhat unusually, Herrera is both Mougouch’s stepdaughter and her goddaughter.

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