Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter, who was one of the prominent representatives of Abstract Expressionism.


Vosdanig Manoug Adoian (the true name of the artist) was born on April 15, 1904 (though the date is uncertain) in the village of Khorgom near the Lake Van, situated then on the territory of the Ottoman Empire, in a family of a trader Setrag Adoian. When Vosdanig was around 4 years old, his father left the family and set off to the USA. The boy began drawing very early, receiving his first lessons in a one-room school of the local church.

During the Armenian Genocide, the boy with his family sheltered in Russian-controlled Erevan. Unfortunately, on the March 19, 1919, the boy’s mother died of starvation, so the youngster was forced to leave for America, where he lived with his sister Akabi and her husband Mkrdich.

Early years in emigration

In 1921, after two months of working for the Hood Rubber company (he was fired for drawing on the shoe-boxes), Vosdanig attended the Technical High School, a preparatory school for Brown University’s School of Engineering in Providence. Having no enthusiasm about engineering, he was happy to take art classes there. In 1922 he attended the Scott Carbee School of Art in Boston and later enrolled in the New School of Design (in the same city).

It was then, when Vosdanig adopted his pseudonym (partly because of the complicated relations between refugees and the local society). It derived from the hero of western films – Archie Gun (the young artist liked the cinematographic genre) – and pseudonym of Russian writer Maxim Gorky, whose ideas Vosdanig shared. “Arshile” is also connected Armenian word “aisahar” – crazy, raging, and “Gokh” – is the second name of the painter’s native Khorgom, so together it sounds like “Mad from Khogrom”. He even sometimes introduced himself as his relative. Up to 1932 the master wrote his new name and surname differently: before final variant Arshile, there were others – Archele, Archel, Arshel, and initially he wrote Gorki, not Gorky. His sister Vartoosh claimed Vosdanig to take that pseudonym because of the fear not to meet the hopes his mother had pinned on him.

Shaping up of creative manner

In parallel Arshile Gorky worked at the Majestic Theatre, painting posters for them and making one-minute sketches of American presidents between acts. He continued studying at the New School of Design. Impressing professors with his skills, he was proposed the vacancy of an assistant instructor for live-drawing class.

During 1920s the painter enlarged his connections in the artistic world. One of the brightest and charismatic ones was David Burliuck – an outstanding representative of Russian avant-garde, Futurism in particular, an artist and theoretician. Gorky was in a certain meaning his antipode, as he explored are mainly with his senses and intuition, not with rationality. Burliuk acquainted his friend with such movememnts as Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, which weren’t so wide-spread in the USA at that time.

Apart from that, another source of his inspiration were visits to the museums, where he especially enjoyed with pieces by Frans Hals and Adolphe Monticelli. Despite their discrepancy (at first glance), these masters had some similarities in painting technique – all three liked working quickly, achieving intensive, vibrating painting surface. For instance, we can see a clear Monticelli’s impressionistic influence in “Park Street Church, Boston” cityscape (1924). However, in contrast to impressionistic tendency to depict air and light, Arshile’s manner is more materialistic – it doesn’t ruin the construction of the church and maintain connection with sensitive reality. It was the first painting, signed as “Gorky, Arshele”.

In 1923 – 1924 Gorky created his first self-portrait in loose brushwork that resembles portraits of Frans Hals. The author clearly indicates himself as an artist on the image and even made the shape of the face look like a palette – the motif he would later recall in later compositions.

In New York

In 1924 Arshile Gorky moved to New York, where started teaching a branch of the New School of Design, opened on Broadway. There he absorbed some ideas of the “Ashcan” school, which was the opponent of Impressionism, and faced the newest conceptions in art, while attending the studio of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the Gallery of Living Art, which belonged to Albert Eugene Gallatin. The latters exhibited pieces of modernist authors, like Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.
In 1925 Gorky entered the Grand Central School of Art, where he studied with Nicolai Feshin – famous Russian-born portraitist. In a year he became a full faculty member there. In 1926 the School organized a travelling exhibition of art, one of participants in which was Arshile. It was one of the first times, when the painter’s works were publicly displayed.

Influences of other artists

The master seemed to be volatile in his artistic preferences: on one hand he praised those famous artists, who were known for their well-balanced lucid drawing and smooth painting surface (like Bouguereau and Ingres), on the other, he often followed the pass of masters with spontaneous, vivid manner (like already mentioned Monticelli or Paul Cezanne). Both those types were parts of the integrity of painting’s visual language that served Gorky for more eloquent representation of his own memories, their expressive power and significance.

Since 1925 he was largely under influence of Cezanne. In his still lifes of 1926 – 1927 (“Pears, Peaches, and Pitcher”), Arshile Gorky tried to achieve the effect, when spaces between objects were of no less importance, then objects themselves. Gorky managed to make space tangible, to show the harmony through shape, structure and light. The same analytic approach towards form can be seen in his landscapes (“Staten Island”, 1927). In his self-portraits (“Self-portrait at the age of nine”, 1928), instead of stoicism and objectivity of Cezanne, Arshile was close rather to melancholy.

But Cezanne’s impact wasn’t the only one – the artist experimented with some Fauvisitic features: in 1928 he created another self-portrait, which gave a hint at “Self-portrait” by French master (1906). Many critics see the early period in Gorky’s oeuvre as merely imitative, deprived of originality. Yet, it was an essential stage of development, which organically led to synthesis of traditions and innovations in his art. The painter wasn’t concerned about the problem of being “original”. He liked repeating “Copy Art and imitate Nature”.


1930s were a prolific decade in Arshile Gorky’s life. In 1929 he met Willem de Kooning – a painter, whom he had impressed much. De Kooning wrote once “I met a lot of artists — but then I met Gorky”. They shared a studio and Arshile created Willem’s portrait – “Portrait of Master Bill” (1929).

The next year the painter exhibited his works Shows three still lifes in “An Exhibition of Work of 46 Painters and Sculptors under 35 Years of Age” at Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was one of his major exhibitions in 1920s – 1930s.

In 1931 Arshille Gorky abandoned teaching in the Grand Central School of Art and concentrated on his own ideas – series of “Night-time”, “Enigma”, and “Nostalgia”. All three referred to the canvas by Giorgio de Chirico “The Fatal Temple” (1914), eclectically combining de Chirico’s mysticism with reminiscent of Picasso and Fernand Leger.

In 1933 the master joined the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project, under which he did abstract murals for Newark airport, “Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations” (1935 – 1938) for Newark airport.

Connection with Surrealism

Encounter with pieces of many surrealists, who migrated to the USA because of social tension of pre-war Europe, caused changes in style of Arshile Gorky. Dynamic compositions with linear counters (like in “The artist and his mother”) were ousted by fluid biomorphic figures and even almost abstract paintings (“Garden at Sochi”, 1942). Coloring became more expressive and decorative, shaping up images ( sometimes a little bit morbid and connected with sexual implications) of his personal experience. After seeing them, Andre Breton called Gorky’s paintings “hybrids”, since they combined figurativeness and automatism, spontaneity and planning (the master draw sketches to all of his compositions). Arshile belonged both to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism (“The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”, 1944, “Water of the Flowery Mill”, 1944). “Landscape Table” (1945) is considered to be one of the high points of that period.

Last years

In the artist’s last works forms became more rough and vigorous (“Agony”, 1947), reflecting his emotional station after all disaster he had to go through: in 1946 the fire in the studio destroyed 27 of his canvases and the next year he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Unable to handle all this disasters, Arshile Gorky committed suicide on June 21, 1948.