|When we put pen to paper or fingers to blog to write about art--whether with insight or not, whether astutely or not--there is a way in which we cannot help but create a kind of parallel history. . .a history of words. Words then reify object, and so on. As an arts writer committed to art production and the objects behind my words, I am also acutely sensitive to the idea that as arts writers we can often find ourselves writing about writing, commenting on chronology, context and time as much or more than we are engaged in discourse directly related to the mysterious and provocative things we call art.
This is an unavoidable rumination when confronting Arshile Gorky, who visits us in an effortful show mounted by a gallery that has stayed the course and tried to bring museum quality Modernism to this city regardless of the vagaries of taste. The Modern stands as the stereoisomer of its offspring--the looming and still unfolding Postmodern; thus, to understand one is to know the other.
Besides his art, there is the inevitable history of Gorky, a history that stands parallel to the work. I find that I cannot unwrap the one from the other. Those markers by which we defined Modernism and the very things that art for the last three decades has attempted to unfrieght--the wild genius artist, the sanctity and awe of the mark he makes, the socially constructed fiction of complete free will running like electricity from the hand of this Van Gogh-Picasso-Kandinsky-Matisse-esque dude--to provide us with an epiphany of some kind--all these are to a certain extent the legacy of Gorky. He can almost claim them as his purview in the U.S., if by claim we mean that he was instrumental in the first time such ideas hit young artists with an intensity that had any wide-spread impact here.
If that were the end of it--hype, history, chronology, doing something first where it had not been done much--I would not be wasting ink. Beyond the myth making that surrounds this artist, and the myth debunking that surrounds him as we cycle out of the world of which he was inevitably a part, the work stands up. There may not be exclusively museum level works on view here, but there is enough of representative quality to put us in mind of his contribution.
There were limited epicenters of vanguard thought in the States during the 40’s when Gorky left his mark. This is a generalization but an apt one: the group around Stieglitz (himself a full Europhile), Duchamp cross dressing and inventing conceptual art (for the few people who understood what he was up to, and the handful of others who pretended they did). For the most part, the U.S. was late in coming to art, late in embracing it, and even later in letting go of Academic traditions borrowed from Europe. We were, until the late 40’s, home to a very regionalist sensibility and a commitment that lingers today to the phenomenological and the seen; we liked, and continue to like, what is recognizable, what is plain spoken and not too intellectual. Experiments into pure form as expression, theories of abstraction asempathy, of platonic shape as utopian, of artist as provocateur and instrument of social change that had been worked out in Paris and Russia found no wide appeal here outside the most elite creative and intellectual circles.
Into this art and social context sweeps Gorky, brought here from his native Armenia in 1920 under circumstances that were personally tragic. Draped in capes, engaged in living and talking constantly about the creative impulse, Gorky lived the role of the garrulous bohemian intellectual at a time when such things were foreign to us in both senses of that word. Gorky talked and painted Surrealism. Beside the fanfare of his really theatrical and comedic-tragic persona, there was this remarkable work. You stand in front of a fine Gorky and you have to recognize the power of the mark to speak worlds, to say something essential about us without ever actually articulating anything specific enough to reside in this common realm where we wage war, wash clothes and vote to no avail. Yes, it’s all quite Kantian to the hilt, but when done well it can still touch us decades later. This is Gorky’s legacy and it cannot be separated from this show.
Gorky brought the idea of the eccentric artist, the free liver, to what would become our first claim on an avant garde. He opened up his own figuration into the loose expressionist Surreal abstraction that attracted the likes of Pollock and de Kooning (a transformation you can track in the works on view here), and he provided a template (perhaps more than all the other very controlled, disciplined émigrés like Walter Gropius or Hans Hoffman) of the artist as free thinker to a pre- and post-war America where such a model was double-sided and suspect.
While the works on view are not the seminal objects (like The Liver is a Cockscomb) able in the 40’s to jolt Yankee regional figuration from its deep roots, they remind us of his innate sense of the inner structure of things (cubist drawings on brown paper), his facility with line, and his completely intuitive understanding of the emotional resonances of color and plane orchestrated to shift and lock, bleed and congeal in turn, a lot like memory and experience are wont to do.
There are some pieces here that actually do Gorky a disservice--an insipid still life, for example--because they seem to gain entrance into an otherwise serious venue by virtue of his signature and not his skill. But all in all I must send you to this show to experience one of the major figures in the history of both European and American abstract expression.