Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective | Tate Modern

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In Tate’s ‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’ it is fascinating to see how, for most of the 20th century, American modern art was far far behind the European modernist brush of Cezanne, Picasso, Leger and Matisse until Gorky transcribed their techniques.  Painting in the manner of, rather than directly copying from, existing paintings, Gorky was manifest in bridging the gap between the 1920s Paris School of Art and 1940s New York American Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko).

Listening to his widow, Agnes ‘Mougouch’ Magruder, at Tate’s press view, still a great engineer of his legacy, enthusiastically claiming this exhibition is “wonderfully hung!”, I have to agree.  Spanning his short-lived 25 year career, the show exposes how, single-handedly, whilst developing his own art language of animated abstracts motivated by memories of his childhood in Western Armenia, Gorky is of great artistic breadth and lyricism.

After fleeing the massacres and arriving in America,  Gorky much employed his favoured yellow ochre, for looking at the spaces in between things as much as the objects themselves.  An exquisite draughtsman, drawing from 19th century the Classicalist Ingres, Gorky’s precision of line mixed with a range of paint handling techniques make him simply superb.

By engaging the eye and the mind with his imagery, his pulsating canvas becomes something compelling.  Mechanical and biomorphic forms are integrated into abstract compositions that establish a rhythmic division of space, thick under layers of paint showing how he reworked the canvas over many years.  With influences of Ucello, Poussin, David, Bosch, Michelangelo and Piero di Cosimo in ‘The Artist and his Mother’ to ‘Waterfall’.  In 1946 a fire in Gorky’s studio destroyed his work.  Then diagnosed with cancer, he required emergency surgery.  His marriage suffered.  And he committed suicide in 1948.   

©Estelle Lovatt FRSA

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