ARSHILE GORKY

by Mario Cutajar

(Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood) One of the pleasures to be derived from this intimate show of Gorky drawings is to be reacquainted with the tremulous tentativeness that abstract expressionism introduced into drawing and painting in the post-World War II years. Gorky's stature as one of the key progenitors of this style is established, and clearly it was a style whose coincidence with the dominance of Parisian existentialism in intellectual circles reflected the shattering of cultural and moral certainties caused by this cataclysmic war, and the genocidal atrocities associated with it. Contemporary critics quickly capitalized on this connection: agony, anxiety, "authenticity" were the qualities most in demand in the art of the time, and, one might add, in the lives of the artists.

It has always been tempting to seize upon the trials of the last years of Gorkyís life, which ended in suicide, as an explanation for his work, but what this sampling of his drawings from the thirties and forties suggests is that the work is at least equally rooted, as was Pollock's and De Kooning's, in a struggle to absorb and extend the lessons of cubism, and specifically the spatial ambiguity that cubism introduced into painting.

Sixteen drawings are on display. About three-quarters of these are from the mid-thirties, and these testify to the enormous, almost stifling influence which Picasso's synthetic cubism exerted on Gorky's generation of European and American artists. To say that some of these drawings are reminiscent of Henry Moore is just another way of saying that in the thirties nobody could get away from Picasso, but also, and this is important in Gorky's case, that there is an inherent preoccupation with the paradoxical rendering of volume in all cubist-derived drawing and painting. A good portion of these cubist drawings are related to Gorky's no-longer-extant Newark airport mural.

By sharp contrast, the primary, if not singular, preoccupation of the drawings that date from the mid-forties, is linear. The cubist drawings fracture space and then lock the fragments together into tight, cohesive compositions. They indulge in a cerebral game of hide and seek, showing volume and flatly denying it at the same time. The best ones are quite simply the ones that play this game with the most verve and panache.

In the later drawings the ambiguity of pictorial space has become a given. It is the mysterious ability of a line to perform as both a mark, a register of impulse, and as a contour, that animates them. There are plenty of erasures, shading is all but absent and when present suggests color, and flickering touches and smudges of colored crayon float independently of the shapes defined by the line. Suddenly we are inhabiting a different pictorial world. Yes, perhaps this loosening is an artifact of the shattering of Gorky's personality, but it also represents a triumph, because in these delicate, tentative drawings Gorky seems to realize himself. He is no longer trying to figure out how Picasso, or Miro, might have stated it. He has created his own idiom. And of course, having done so, he is completely alone.

 
"Study for Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia," ink on paper, 19x24", c. 1930-34.


"Study for Summation," crayon/pencil on yellow paper, 20 x 25 5/8", 1946-47.


"Untitled," crayon and pencil on paper
19 x 24", ca. 1946


"Study for Aviation Murals," ink on paper,
29 x 22 3/4", ca. 1935-36.