PRINT July 1962


Harold Rosenberg’s Arshile Gorky

Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky (New York: Horizon Press, lnc.), 1962, 143 pgs.

ONE WRITER RECENTLY EXPRESSED the idea that the proper attitude for the critic of contemporary art is that of “sympathetic interest,” (a phrase which Mr. John Canaday immediately took to task as smacking of partisanship, or at least the opposite of his own favorite myth, “objectivity”). The phrase is a particularly apt one. The honest critic must sooner or later weary of setting up standards and theories which the very next canvases by his favorite artists knock over like so many wooden bottles. Particularly in periods of such hectic creation as the last two decades, the artist is in fact racing far ahead of the critic’s ability to formulate the whys and wherefores of what is being done. If he does not denounce the artist as a fraud or an incompetent, but instead does what he can to bring to his public a somewhat greater understanding of the artistic activity taking place, minimizing his role as “expert” and “evaluator” and maximizing his role as guide, his attitude is one of “sympathetic interest.” Perhaps the finest example to date of how valuable this attitude can be is Harold Rosenberg’s new book, Arshile Gorky.

What the book does not do is almost of as much interest as what it does do. To the extent that it is biography, it is not stifled with scholarly searchings into old addresses, old mistresses, precise arrivals and departures. To the extent that it is criticism, it is not a series of judgements based on standards long irrelevant to the new art, or use that art as a weak foundation for a ponderously heavy house of theory. What it does, instead, is to take the reader carefully along the road of Gorky’s life and art, pointing out, here and there, with taste and diffidence, some of the more interesting sights along the way.

Gorky’s successive “apprenticeships” to Cézanne, Picasso, Miró, Masson and Matta, among others, are distinguished, one from the other, and explained with their own rationale. His period of subservience to Picasso is discussed with particular brilliance. Rosenberg’s insight into the functions of “allusion, parody, quotation,” is contemporary art, (derived in great measure from his understanding of contemporary literature), gives the entire Picasso period the sharpest illumination. On the other hand, his discussion of Gorky’s relationship with Matta, perhaps because it was based on direct personal contact, is murky and obscure, and gives the impression of having been written for the understanding of only a few people “in the know”:

Committed to moral provocations and ruses of destruction, he (Matta) made of his tall, melancholy partner’s sortie into life an induction into disaster. As if personifying the dual forces of rejuvenation and death at work in Gorky, Matta pointed the way for him to bring his art into touch with his being, then did not hesitate to break his ego to pieces by willfully emerging into the desolation of Gorky’s illness as the focus of his violent jealousy. Without this accomplice of his self-discovery and his fate, the art of Gorky’s last seven years would not be what it is.

Rosenberg will rarely approach an individual painting for detailed analysis; he much prefers the task of educating the reader to the rationale of each of Gorky’s periods. Nevertheless, after giving the information, with regard to The Diary of a Seducer, that “Ethel Schwabacher has related (it) to Ingres’ Odalisque” and “Elaine de Kooning found its composition pat with . . . David’s Mars Disarmed by Venus” while Gorky himself “confided that the painting was of a landscape in Virginia,” something more would seem to be called for than the simple conclusion, “Probably all three statements are correct . . .” The interested reader can, of course, do his own comparing, but a little of Rosenberg’s might have been rewarding.

Gorky’s attraction to the Surrealist painters who arrived in New York during the war was of major importance to his development, but Rosenberg directs this entire section of the book to an appreciation of the fact that Gorky did not become simply a Surrealist imitator, but employed their presence to bring him to the very threshold of the abstract expressionist movement. Absorbing the influence of Masson, Matta, Ernst and the other refugee artists, Gorky’s art takes the vital step into greatness:

For the first time he relaxes his striving for the masterwork in favor of drawing and painting as a continuous note-taking of vision. No longer is the canvas conceived as an ideal entity standing above the artist as the alter ego of his ‘miserable’ self; it is a record of the art activity to which its creator has surrendered. Gorky now starts a drawing and looks to it for surprises.

Against the notion that Gorky had simply given himself over to the Surrealists, Rosenberg advances the notion that “Gorky was consciously establishing a new purpose for abstraction in the visual powers of contours, strokes and color washes . . .” and that “At all times Gorky belongs to America’s new abstract art, pre-figured by Kandinsky, rather than to a latter-day Surrealism.”

It is unfortunate that the book does not physically correspond to the high level of its content. Typographical errors occur too often, and the illustrations are universally very poor and badly placed. Nevertheless, it ranks better space on the bookshelf than most of the exquisite giants published in such profusion nowadays.

Philip Leider