He fled the Armenian genocide, which took the life of his mother. He made his way to New York and ran with some of the most infamous painters of the age. He bridged the gap between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and never got to capitalize on either. He had a two-timing wife, some duplicitous pals, and a bad case of cancer. And he finished it all up at the business end of a noose. He was artist Arshile Gorky. And this Wednesday, at Whale & Star, the Philadelphia Museum's Michael Taylor will tell us why he still matters.
Why Arshile Gorky? He's a great artist, but still misunderstood and underappreciated. For me, he ranks alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as one of the three great American painters of the twentieth century.
Do people still argue about where to place him in the history of modern art? Yes, very much so. The vast majority of critics label him as a bridge figure between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism (and what do we do with bridges -- we pass over them). I see him differently -- as a self-taught artist who freely moved from abstraction to figuration.
Gorky also had a rather tragic life, didn't he? Incredibly sad life, which reads like a Greek tragedy. The death of his mother in the Armenian Genocide, his protracted battle with colon cancer, the 1946 studio fire, his young wife's affair with his friend, Matta -- all took their toll and eventually led to his suicide.
The tragedy endure even after he died, right? There was a plane crash in 1962 that destroyed several of his works, and the year before the New York Governor's mansion burned down destroying one of his great paintings. Very sad.
Didn't Gorky also run with the Abstract Expressionists back before they'd made their names? He certainly knew Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning (the latter artists were his students in the 1920s and 1930s), but Abstract Expressionism, as it is widely understood today, did not exist during his lifetime. Critics like Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg labeled Gorky an Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s, after he was dead.
Any salient incident from that period you'd care to share? He once handed [critic] Clement Greenberg, who wrote a negative review of his work, a piece of chalk and asked him to draw on the pavement as well as he could. Gorky knew that Greenberg couldn't do it, but the word "draw" that he challenged him with also recalls a wild west gunfight.
Were you behind the Philadelphia Museum's '09 Retrospective? Yes, I was the curator who organized the show, which came about through my friendship with the artist's family and my career-long admiration for Gorky's work.
So what can we expect at Whale & Star this Wednesday night? A lively and entertaining talk, with great images, that will challenge conventional wisdom and make you run to the nearest museum to see a Gorky painting in the flesh, as it were!
Michael Taylor: Arshile Gorky and Abstract Expressionism: A Contested History Wednesday May 18, 7pm at Whale & Star 2215 NW First Place Miami. For more information call 305-576-6160 or log on here. Seating is limited and admission is $5.