Arshile Gorky

Orfeas Katsoulis | Feb 19, 2023

Table of Content


Vosdanig Manoug Adoian (Armenian Ոստանիկ Մանուկ Ատոյեան, * April 15, 1904 in Khorkom, Vari Hayoz Dzor, Vilâyet Van, Ottoman Empire; † 21. July 1948 in Sherman, Connecticut, United States), better known by the pseudonym Arshile Gorky, was an Armenian-born draftsman and painter who became an American citizen in 1939. Although he himself did not feel a part of the Surrealist group, he was the last artist admitted to that group. His work was pioneering for Abstract Expressionism. It inspired the artists of the New York School.

Under his pseudonym, composed of the Caucasian form of the Armenian first name Arschak (from Armenian: little bear) and the Russian surname Gorky (bitter), the artist, who had been expelled from his homeland, created a new identity for himself starting in 1924. He described his former life in different, not always truthful ways. For example, he named Tbilisi as his birthplace, claimed to have studied in Paris, and posed as a member of the Parisian artists' group Abstraction-Création (1931-1937), as well as a relative of Maxim Gorky, without taking into account that the latter had also adopted a pseudonym. Furthermore, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gorky's nephew Karlen Mooradian provided English translations of letters that Gorky is said to have written in Armenian to his sisters, the authenticity of which is now questioned. Since both Gorky's statements and the presumably forged letters have been incorporated into many biographies, the description of Gorky's first period of life in particular should be treated with appropriate skepticism.

The later artist was born in simple circumstances in the village of Khorkom on Lake Van (today Dilkaya in the Turkish county of Edremit) as the son of the Armenian farmer Sedrak Adoyan and his wife Shushan, daughter of the Armenian Apostolic priest Sarkis Der Marodorosian. The child was christened Vostanik after the birthplace of his mother, whose ancestors had resided for centuries in the small monastery complex of Charahan Surp Nischan in Vostan, but from about the age of four he was called Manuk (English Manoog) in the family circle after his grandfather from the paternal line.


In the times of persecution and genocide against the Armenians, Vosdanig's parents had entered into a marriage of convenience after the loss of their respective first spouses; Shushan's father had been murdered in 1898, her sixteen-year-old brother Nishan in 1903. In this perilous situation, Sedrak Adoyan left his wife with four children under the care of his brother in Khorkom when - to avoid conscription into the Turkish army - he emigrated to the United States in the years from about 1906 to 1910. Vosdanig thus grew up in the circle of his sisters: the eldest half-sister Akabi, from Shushan's first marriage, Satenik and Yartoosh. The boy showed early artistic talent and in 1908 he began to work with wood carving. He possibly found models for this in the 40 ornately carved tombs of his ancestors in the monastery church Charahan Surp Nischan. In the same year he entered the Armenian Apostolic village school, where he received, among other things, drawing lessons. With his mother and two of his sisters, he moved to Aikesdan, a suburb of Van, in 1910. The town was razed to the ground during World War I, while in Khorkom Vosdanig's relatives fell victim to the genocide (1915). This prompted Vosdanig's mother to embark on a forced march of some 200 kilometers with her children and seek refuge in Yerevan. After his two eldest sisters had also emigrated to the United States (1916) and his mother, scarred by flight and privation, had died of emaciation (1919), the young half-orphan managed to make his way to Ellis Island with his younger sister Yartoosh, whom he later often depicted in his works. When the brother and sister arrived in New York in April 1920, the immigrant (if the year of birth 1904 is taken as a basis), just completed his 16th year.

1920s and 1930s

The brother and sister found shelter with their half-sister Akabi in Watertown, Massachusetts. Vosdanig soon traveled on to Providence to live temporarily with his father, whom he could hardly remember. He was no longer able to establish a closer relationship with him, nor did he learn of his later death (1947). Until the spring of 1921 he attended Providence's Technical High School, then the New School of Design in Boston (1922-1924) later the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art, both in New York. After graduation, he probably taught at the latter school. In New York he adopted the pseudonym Arshile Gorky (1924), rented a studio in Manhattan (36 Union Square), and made his debut at the Museum of Modern Art in the group exhibition Exhibition of work by 46 painters and sculptors under 25 years (1930).

He found contact with other young artists in New York. In 1927 he met the painter Ethel Schwabacher (1903-1984), his later patron and biographer, with whom he was to have a lifelong friendship. He became friends with, among others, the two cubists Iwan Dabrowsky alias John D. Graham (1886-1961) and Stuart Davis (1894-1964), as well as with the stage designer and interior designer Friedrich Kiesler (1890-1965), who immigrated from Austria in 1926. After 1933 he supported the Dutchman Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), with whom he rented a studio and who remained one of his closest friends throughout his life.

Gorky's first solo exhibition, which was followed by others (see below), took place at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia (1934). In 1935, he received support from the Works Progress Administration (later Works Projects Administration, or WPA), which had been established shortly before to alleviate the hardship caused by the Great Depression. The agency, which provided job creation programs for unemployed workers and craftsmen, as well as intellectuals and artists, commissioned Gorky to execute a large-scale wall decoration for Newark Airport in Newark, New Jersey, which opened in 1928, as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP). The work was shown in 1936 as part of a WPA exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and never made it to its intended location, as the airport served as a U.S. Army base from the beginning of World War II.

Official artistic recognition came to Gorky in 1937, when the Whitney Museum, following an exhibition organized there, presented his work Painting (1936


His encounter in 1942 with the Surrealist Roberto Matta (1911-2002) and two years later with André Breton (1896-1966), who had moved to New York as a result of the occupation of France by German troops, had a lasting influence on his career. In New York, the gallery owner and art dealer Julien Levy (1906-1981) represented the interests of the Surrealists since he had moved in the circles of the Paris avant-garde towards the end of the 1920s. Julien Levy later claimed the discovery of Gorky for himself. However, he did not dedicate a solo exhibition to him in his renowned gallery until 1945.

At that time, the artist began to convert a barn into a studio in Sherman, Connecticut, with the help of Henry Hebblen, an architect friend who lived there. In 1946, many of his paintings and drawings, as well as a large part of his books, fell victim to a conflagration. Finally, he moved his main residence to Sherman (1947) and maintained only his studio in New York.

After being diagnosed with colon cancer and undergoing surgery, Gorky suffered from a deep depression. In 1948, in a car accident suffered together with Julien Levy, he suffered a neck fracture. Consequences were the paralysis of the right arm, unbearable headaches and sleep disorders. Under the influence of alcohol, Gorky, in a fit of rage, pushed his wife Agnes, née Magruder, whom he had married in 1941, down a flight of stairs, whereupon she left him with their two young daughters.

Arshile Gorky hanged himself in his Sherman studio in July 1948 at the age of 44. He rests there in North Cemetery.

His eldest daughter, the painter Maro Gorky, married Matthew Spender (son of the British writer Stephen Spender), who wrote a book about Gorky's first period of life in Khorkom.


The talented and intuitive artist seized every opportunity to draw as a child and throughout his life prepared his paintings by careful preliminary sketches. He educated himself mainly as a self-taught artist, visiting exhibitions and reading art books. He studied and copied, in accordance with the traditional academic method, the techniques of great masters from antiquity to the present day, acquiring not only artistic skills but, as colleagues and students pointed out, an astonishingly comprehensive knowledge of the oeuvre of Joan Miró and that of Pablo Picasso (and other artists such as Fernand Léger). The sources of inspiration that nourished his work are correspondingly diverse.

The early work is mainly characterized by Gorky's involvement with the works of Paul Cézanne (Self portrait at the age of nine) and Pablo Picasso. The influence of synthetic Cubism, clearly recognizable in certain of his drawings, can be traced back, among other things, to an artistic exchange with John D. Graham, who had lived in Paris and maintained contact there with both the Cubists and the Surrealists. These drawings earned Gorky the nickname Picasso of Washington Square. Other drawings, such as the portrait of the artist's sister, were influenced by Picasso's Ingresque period. He was also inspired by Picasso's studio paintings from 1927.

In the 1930s, the painter gradually broke away from these (and other) models. On the one hand, his work from then on (and until the end of his life) dealt more and more with his Armenian origins and childhood, on the other hand, he began to devote himself to outdoor painting. The work in nature accompanied a fundamental change in working method, style and pictorial content. Characteristics of this include a seemingly explosively liberated, significantly faster gesture, a more fluid application of paint and brighter hues, as well as the subtle, not infrequently ambiguous allusions to organic or anatomical forms (Garden in Sochi) that increasingly flowed into the paintings until the early 1940s.

Gorky then turned to Surrealism, focusing particularly on Joan Miró and Roberto Matta. He adopted Miró's cryptic linear language, which seemed to him the optimal symbiosis of humans, animals and plants. From Matta he took over the automatic writing. From the set pieces of Miró and Matta, he found a personal visual language that logs dream images as an amorphous flow.

While teaching at New York's "Grand Central School of Art," he taught the European tradition to American students and was a pioneer of abstract expressionism.


  1. Arshile Gorky
  2. Arshile Gorky
  3. Das Geburtsdatum ist umstritten. Gorky selbst machte widersprüchliche und irreführende Aussagen dazu und gab mehrmals andere Jahreszahlen an.
  4. Vgl. Michael Kimmelman: Arshile Gorky, Poet of Line and Color in The New York Times, 28. November 2003.
  5. Vgl. Jean-Louis Ferrier (Hrsg.): L’aventure de l’art au XXe siècle, Chêne Hachette, 1990 Paris
  6. Arshile Gorky – Hommage, Pressemitteilung des Centre culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, Paris, anlässlich der gleichnamigen Ausstellung (4. April bis 4. Juni 2007).
  7. Vgl. Sean James Rose: Gorky, le talent d’Arshile, Libération vom 10. April 2007-
  8. ^ Arshile Gorky: A Summation Too Soon, by Tom Birchenough, The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
  9. ^ Kerr, Melissa (2009). "Chronology", in: Michael R. Taylor (ed.), Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. Philadelphia, Pa.: Philadelphia Museum of Art. ISBN 9780876332139. pp. 352-365; here: p. 353. Also available on the website of the Arshile Gorky Foundation. "... born in the village of Khorkom, within the Armenian province of Van, on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey".
  10. ^ Kerr, Melissa (2009). "Chronology", in: Michael R. Taylor (ed.), Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. pp. 352-365; here: 353, 366. Also available on the website of the Arshile Gorky Foundation]. Kerr gives Gorky's birth date in the chronology as "c. 1902". In a footnote she states that the often cited birth date of April 15, 1904 is the date that Gorky declared on his citizenship papers. She goes on to recount other conflicting reports of his birth date, including the fact that "his older sisters maintained that he was born in 1902 or 1903"; she finally concludes that "the 1902 birth date seems most plausible" (p. 366). What Kerr does not mention, however, is that the date that actually appears in the citizenship papers is not 1904 but 1903. Gorky's "Petition for Naturalization", filed in New York on January 18, 1939, as well as his earlier "Declaration of Intention", filed on May 7, 1936, both give the date of birth as April 15, 1903. The citizenship documents are retrievable via; the citation: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C. Petitions for Naturalization from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1897-1944, NARA Series: M1972, Roll 1173. Arshile Gorky, Petition No. 321324.
  11. ^ Barnes, Rachel (2003). Abstract Expressionists. Chicago: Heinemann Library. p. 14. ISBN 9781588106445.
  12. a b JANSON, H. W.; A. F. (2009). Iniciação à história da arte. São Paulo: Martins Fontes. 383 páginas
  13. BARNES, Rachel (2003). Abstract Expressionists. Chicago: Heinemann Library. p. 14.
  14. THERIAULT, Kim. Rethinking Arshile Gorky. Penn State Press.
  15. Levy, Paul (4 ago. 2013). «Mougouch Fielding: Painter who became muse to Arshile Gorky». Independent. Consultado em 25 set. 2017
  16. a b c LUCIE-SMITH, Edward (2006). Os Movimentos Artísticos a Partir de 1945. São Paulo: Martins Fontes. pp. 11–15
  17. a b Matossian, p.8
  18. Spender, p.6
  19. Spender, p.51
  20. Levy, Julien. Gorky (en inglés). Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers.

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