Luckily, the lenses of critical theory and Postmodernism’s pluralism have shown that history looks very little like a linear route. The interconnections that can be traced across time tend to unravel more like a knitted sweater, heaped in a jumble of looping strands. And yet, there remain some figures in the story of art who are clearly synthesizers—transitional figures who act as a bridge between periods.
Arshile Gorky, though far from a household name, was one of those key transitional figures. He was also quite a tragic one. It may be the adversity that both brought the best out of Gorky and eventually led to his downfall.
In some ways, Gorky was far from significant or original in his early paintings. One finds the mimetic paintings of his early career to be the same fare as his amateurish contemporaries. Gorky made his way through the pantheon of prominent artists and painting styles of the previous fifty years. His works appear as re-presentations of Cezanne and Picasso. Those familiar shapes and color schemes are simply his method of learning the visual language of Modern form and composition.
Though an Armenian immigrant, Gorky was determined to reinvent himself as a previously accomplished Modernist upon his arrival to the U.S. His state-side name change was meant to strengthen the credibility of his claims. His early geometric abstractions were reminiscent of Russian Modernists like Malevich and Kandinsky. The latter he had even claimed to study under. Yet Gorky was not content to import the styles of the Europeans alone.
The American answer to Picasso’s Cubist forays was found in the jazz-like compositions of Stuart Davis. Davis had landed somewhere between Picasso and the late works of Matisse. Gorky picked up on the hybrid of styles in Davis’ work while he was completing a mural project for the WPA. It was one of many brief stops on his way to the creation of a truly innovative and original style.
Gorky was not the sole European of Mediterranean immigrant artist of his age. The wars in the first half of the twentieth century displaced scores of artists. A large portion of them ended up in New York City and it was in that rich cultural stew that Arshile Gorky simmered. The influence of the Surrealists became the primary element that pushed Gorky into original motifs. It was during this period that he finally began to swap roles—some other artists began to emulate Gorky’s work.
These tales bring to mind the stories of both Rothko and Pollock. Perhaps for all of them, the newfound art world fame was more than they could take. Gorky’s work had a dark cast in his later years—consider Agony of 1947—that would once again appear in Rothko’s late paintings. Both artists ultimately ended their own lives. Tales of Pollock’s out of control behavior that led to his fatal car crash are similar. With each artist the existentialist search for meaning in the work itself seemed to come up empty. So, sadly, they all came to profound visual discoveries that balanced themes of mythology and spirituality, yet failed to satisfy their longings. It makes the work bittersweet and reminds us that art may lead us to the profound ideas of life, but it does not provide a sufficient substitute for real meaning.