And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.
--From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Whenever you look at photographs of Arshile Gorky you can see the pain in his eyes, as if he knew things were bad and were going to end badly. Like Melville’s Ahab, Gorky bore a “crucifixion in his face” yet maintained a dignity and poise that allowed him to become a seminal figure in the history of Abstract Expressionism. Born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in Armenia on April 15, 1904, the artist took the name Arshile Gorky as a way of separating himself from his memories of the Armenian Genocide he and his family fled from. After the death of so many family members and his estrangement from his father once in the United States, Gorky, who claimed the author Maxim Gorky as a relative, formed a new family composed of the artists he surrounded himself with, including his close friend Willem de Kooning, portrayed by Gorky in Portrait of Master Bill (above, from 1929-1936). Gorky and de Kooning shared a studio for a time, bouncing ideas about art off of one another as they each shaped their personal visions. Gorky’s love of Cezanne appears clearly in this portrait, but cubism, especially by Picasso, and Surrealism also fired his imagination. Again, like Ahab, Gorky stalked an elusive prey—a wholly new way of creating art.
The influence of Joan Miro and his mythical little creatures appears in Gorky’s beautiful The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (above, from 1944). The title alone announces it as a surrealist work. However, Gorky begins to go beyond Surrealism and towards Abstract Expressionism in this work with the power of his gestures, a parallel development with that of his friend de Kooning. Younger artists such as Jackson Pollock soon saw Gorky’s work and listened to his words as they gathered at the local Cedar Tavern in New York City to talk shop. It’s hard to truly appreciate Gorky’s influence today because his works have been so overshadowed by those who came later and lived to see the rise of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant movement of the 1950s. The fame de Kooning and Pollock find in that decade comes too late for Gorky to enjoy, even second hand.
Gorky’s last years were as full of pain as his first ones. A fire in his studio destroyed many of his works, one of the reasons why his works are so scarce today. A diagnosis of cancer led to a painful colostomy. Shortly thereafter, a horrific auto accident left Gorky with a broken neck and partially paralyzed, unable to paint. Gorky’s wife left soon after, taking their children with her. Gorky’s Charred Beloved I (above, from 1946), painted before all his troubles, seems like a prophecy of this trial by fire and pain. Finally unable to cope with all his pain, Gorky took his own life in 1948. In his 44 pain-plagued years on Earth, Arshile Gorky managed to touch many lives and minds and helped shape the art world for decades.