July 4, 2014

Arshile Gorky

"Drawing is the basis of art. A bad painter cannot draw. But one who draws well can always paint." - Arshile Gorky

Early Life

Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanig Manuk Adoian on April 15, 1904 (there are conflicting accounts of his birth date) in the village of Khorkom (khor means ‘deep’, and koum means ‘stable’, in Armenian) near Lake Van, in an Armenian province on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey. In 1919 Arshile Gorky and his family fled Armenia to escape Turkish persecution (what would later be known as the Armenian Genocide). Gorky and his sister Vartoosh eventually immigrated to the United States in 1920, where he changed his name to Arshile Gorky and created a new life for himself. The name Arshile is derived from Achilles, the brooding Achaean hero of the Illiad. The name Gorky (Russian for “the bitter one”) is derived from that of the writer Maxim Gorky.

The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926–36

Move to America

After living with relatives in New England, Gorky settled in New York City in 1924, and enrolled at the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art (where he also became an instructor). From 1926 to 1931 he taught at the Grand Central School of Art. Early in his career, he hit on the idea of becoming a great painter by subjecting himself to long apprenticeships, painting in the style of such artists as Paul Cézanne, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso. His aim was never merely to imitate the work of others, however, but to assimilate fully their aesthetic vision and then move beyond it.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Gorky’s prominent position in the New York art scene brought him into contact with several members of the Surrealist group, who had been forced to flee Europe during the Second World War. His close friendship with the poet and leader of the group, André Breton, made a deep and lasting impression on the artist. The Chilean-born painter Roberto Matta also contributed to the development of his mature style, encouraging Gorky to improvise and experiment with biomorphic forms, and introducing the artist to the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, which he deftly mastered. In the numerous innovative landscapes that Gorky produced in the early 1940s, his abstract vocabulary embraced natural and organic forms, which he conveyed with explosive energy.


Until his death in 1948, Gorky painted highly original abstractions that combined memories of his Armenian childhood, especially the gardens, orchards and wheat fields of his rural homeland, with direct observations from nature. A string of tragic events beginning in the mid 1940s, however, would leave the artist in both physical and emotional agony. Although his life was tragically cut short, the unique and impressive body of work that Gorky left behind made a profound impact on American Art, securing his reputation as the last of the great Surrealist painters and one of the first Abstract Expressionists. Arshile Gorky was the direct link between the European Surrealist painters and the painters of the American Abstract Expressionist movement.

My recollections of Armenia open new visions for me. My art is therefore a growth art where forms, planes, shapes, memories of Armenia germinate, breathe, expand and contract, multiply and thereby create new paths for exploration – Arshile Gorky

Reference: Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky by Nouritza Matossian