PRINT March 1963


THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF GORKY’S DEATH have not yet been published fully though they are still talked about 14 years after his suicide. Awareness of the anguish that led to his death has influenced the criticism of Gorky’s art, feeding both a high evaluation of the late work and the comparative denigration of the early work. It is a traditional idea in art criticism that, to quote Jacopo Salvia’s letter to Michelangelo, “great men, and of courageous spirit, take greater heart under adversity and become more powerful.”1 William Seitz, in his book on the Gorky exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, ends his text on a note perfectly in line with this belief. Of the late paintings, he says, “their lyric beauty shows the exultant affirmation of universal creativity that Gorky distilled from the suffering of his last years.”2

However there are disadvantages to this view of art getting better as the artist gets worse. In Gorky’s case, his suicide shows that he had, in fact, passed the point of which he could use his adversity for any esthetic purpose; in addition, the late work tends to be praised at the expense of the early work (when the artist was well). In fact, Gorky’s portraits of the ’30s are among his best works. In the early heads, a heavy plasticity begins to swell, only to be flattened by the protraction of the heavily painted surfaces. In the two portraits of The Artist and His Mother, there is an extraordinary suspension of a stiff folky pose with a Renaissance-like amplitude of form, which, in its flowing planes, yet has a languid feeling. An intense family feeling is implied, investing the final complexity of a long worked-on painting with human echoes.

A more important fact about his death is that Gorky was the first painter of the “New York School” to die. This, rather than the torment of his last days, is what was momentous in New York. When he died in 1948 it meant that his oeuvre was complete, that he was committed fully, that he could no longer add to or change the whole work. His death was a statement, as any death is for those close to it, of the seriousness of life and, of its product, art. The survivors were reminded simultaneously (as perhaps Kline’s death last year also reminded them) of the limitations set to their own art within the brief span of life. Hence the feelings of shock produced by Gorky’s death, which are emphatic in Gorky criticism, have to do with the situation of the living.

Adolph Gottlieb, in the catalog of the first posthumous show of Gorky’s paintings in 1950, wrote that “for him, as for a few others, the vital task was a wedding of abstraction and surrealism. Out of these opposites something new could emerge, and Gorky’s work is part of the evidence that this is true.”3 At this time in New York, after the war and until the early ’50s, advanced American painting was often described as neither abstract nor surreal, but as some sort of third term. This third term included the discovery of significative values in abstract art and the modification, by painterly processes, of geometric forms. Gottlieb’s tribute to Gorky (the only catalog introduction he has written) indicates the sense of identification with Gorky felt by one of the survivors, a sense of sharing common problems and directions.

With the recent increase of interest in Gorky (Harold Rosenberg’s book, William Seitz’s exhibition) the question arises: is Gorky relevant or topical for artists today? For Rosenberg the point of reference in the present seems to be de Kooning (to whom his book is dedicated) and who has characterized himself as the Man from Union Square (where Gorky had a studio). But the kind of painting by de Kooning which is connectable with Gorky is not the kind that de Kooning is doing now, or has done lately. His recent work, apart from some weak revivals, on a small scale, of the women, has been impulsive, fat, and splashy, which is antithetical to Gorky’s lean mode. Ethel Schwabacher, who showed Gorky’s influence in her early painting, has shown lately a complete freedom from the subject of her monograph,4 in fluent, energetic color abstractions with no linear framework or tonal bracing. So far, then, as painters are concerned, Gorky is not a topical influence. What Gorky is, in fact, is a hero of the threshold between pre- and post-1945 art. His reticent color sense and the subtle and constant checks of his drawing procedure are richly traditional. Drawing, for instance, is always the constitutive formal element in his art, as it is in much European easel painting. Compare him with Hassel Smith who has developed aspects of Gorky and de Kooning into a whiplash metamorphic style, with strong painterly jumps of plane, and it becomes clear how restrained Gorky stayed in his handling of light, thinly-brushed color washes.

Andre Breton was not only a source of titles for Gorky’s paintings, he applied the term hybrid to his forms, to mean the mixture of “a natural spectacle” with “a flux of childhood and other memories.”5 Given the continued prestige of psychoanalysis with big-city Americans, such dual-forms might appear to be topical and timely. In art, however, the productive influence of psychoanalysis reached a climax in New York in the ’40s, at which time the idea of the unconscious, connected with mythology, gave the program or rationale for a great deal of organic and primitivistic imagery. On the whole, the hybrid-imagery of Gorky is, I should say, the end of an affair artists had been having with sex and childhood memory, rather than a fresh start. Gorky’s mixture of visceral, floral and insect-forms, has a central erotic reference in which respect he related to the French line of erotic art, the culmination of which is Surrealism, that great inventory of brothel and boudoir imagery. The mouth, the nipple, the groin, the armpit, the buttocks smile through Gorky’s metamorphic spectacle; one’s own bed of love, rather than our parents’, is the point. Gorky turns the sacs, joints, tubes and membranes of Duchamp’s Bride into a seduction by Fragonard. Gorky’s hybrid-forms are, in fact, reminiscent of a European art tradition which is scatological rather than erotic: the grotesques which abound in European art and architectural ornament since the Renaissance. It is a fantastic and decorative style, sometimes called the Cartilage Style (or Knorpelwerk). Parades of metamorphic forms mingled organic and inorganic elements. The art seems to have depended on non-iconographical invention; its fund of marvels and paradoxes comes more out of a natural, garrulous improvisatory flow, than from exact literary sources. Peter A. Wick refers to “the dissolution of tectonic tradition in the kneading, pulling, twisting and softening of forms,”6 which is close to a description of Gorky’s imagery. Certainly grotesqueries were known and used by 20th-century artists (Picasso, Dali, and Seligman, for example) and what Gorky has done is to recover the linear inventiveness of the racy original forms of the tradition, rather than use them descriptively. In addition, he veils and eroticizes what was originally a robust, rather than a tender, tradition.

Gorky, sampled abundantly, as in the Museum of Modern Art show, appears as a very gifted painter, with a flair for the beautiful, for giving his transitional style a seductive and tender shimmer. The transition, of course, is from Paris-based European art to New York based post-war art. Gorky, as Gottlieb saw, is a precursor of the new painting, a surrealist who was turning into a painter, in a traditional sense, before our eyes. (A characteristic of the Surrealists is their comparative lack of competence as painters, as part of the mainstream of painting; but Gorky, with his painterly tact, steered Surrealist-rooted imagery in the direction of la belle peinture.) What Gorky accomplished is the transformation of an ungainly, largely brute, European movement into a painterly statement. What was new in his art was its painterly sophistication and its pictorial grace (qualities to which his sources, in their sensational illusionism and their sculpturesque modeling, were aggressively indifferent). The new element, influential in American art, or at least prophetic of it, was the renewed mastery of painterly traditions and the use of these traditions to filter and subdue “ugly” European formal devices. Gorky brought the metamorphic imagery of the grotesques, up-dated to express the “unconscious,” into ingratiating relationships with a direct and very graceful painting procedure. He reconciled automatism, as a form-inventing principle, with a coherent formal structure. His drawing incorporated references to nature and, at the same time, was kept alive and flexible, in a way rare in Surrealist linear automatism, by his draughtsmanly expertise.

William Seitz installed the Gorky exhibition in a way that recalled his successful systematization of the Monet exhibition, “Seasons and Moments,” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Then his procedure was to hang together runs of paintings with common subjects, such as the haystacks and the Rouen cathedrals. What he has done with Gorky is to associate drawings and studies with finished paintings and also to relate paintings that are versions of one theme. This method has the advantage of showing with fresh clarity Gorky’s preoccupation with progression and repetition. 1. Progression shows in the series of drawings and studies which terminate in paintings, such as Agony and The Plough and the Song. Here there is no doubt that the role of drawing is preliminary to an ambitious final statement (hopefully, a masterpiece); his working method is, therefore, relatable to, say, Seurat, Kandinsky and Leger, all of whom used drawings to work out both the details and the format of completed paintings. 2. Repetition shows in the pairing of paintings that have very similar linear bases, but divergent top layers or backgrounds of color, such as Housatonic Falls, and Golden Brown Painting, or the two versions of The Betrothal. Two different ways of drawing are involved here. Drawings used progressively are intermediate steps towards a terminal painting in which different possibilities have been resolved, chosen between; but the repetition of paintings, with small variations, assumes the work of art to have value as an episode in the history of the artist’s consciousness. One approach issues logically in the masterpiece, whereas the other approach does not require an imposing terminus. It follows from the latter approach that the uniqueness of each episode, not an approach to formal completeness, is what is interesting and moving.7 Thus in Gorky’s paintings and drawings there is an interplay, or hesitation between the formal development of his motives and, at the same time, the intimate expressiveness of the artist thinking and feeling before us, with, as a consequence, each phase enjoying equal value in the process.

Gorky has been over-characterized by his relations with other artists. In this respect Harold Rosenberg’s study, which sees “Gorky’s career . . . as a succession of dialogues with artists living and dead”8 is typical. To piece together quotations from various places in Rosenberg’s book reveals the extent to which he sees his subject in terms of borrowings from other artists. Gorky “picked Picasso to succeed Cézanne as his guide”; “having hesitatingly let go of the coat tails of Picasso, Gorky found himself clutching those of Miró”; “Matta not only succeeded Picasso and Miró as a guide to painting: He took the place of de Kooning and [Mischa] Reznikoff.” Rosenberg sees Gorky as a great role-taker; when he “decided to become an artist, he decided at the same time to look like an artist.” In a way what Rosenberg is doing to Gorky is what Kierkegaard, in “The Point of View for my Works as an Author,” did to his early self; that is, show up his duplicity. Kierkegaard’s purpose, of course, was to unify the “esthetic author” he had appeared to be, with the “religious author” he had clearly become. By showing that “the duplicity, the ambiguity, is a conscious one” he gave the strength of irony and continuity to his life. Rosenberg, however, makes the impersonation and parody the mainspring of Gorky’s life and art. Thus, the art of Gorky results from his attempt to be an Artist. In fact, Gorky does not appear to be more dependent on his sources than any other artist who has learned from his predecessors and peers. Morphological idiosyncrasy is as clear to see as stylistic and iconographical similarities. Rather than make the meta-language in which art communicates to artists the unique characteristic of one artist, it is probably more useful as a general tool applicable to everybody. The study of influences and affiliations cannot proceed in the absence of checks from other areas of knowledge.

The internal dialogue of artists with works of art used to be neglected in the days when art was judged solely by reference to an external canon on nature. As a rejection of earlier critical habits of continually making nature the norm of art, one sympathizes with Rosenberg’s stress on the artificiality of art. However, it is a fact that Gorky went “back to nature,” as they say, at a key-point in his career, a move of which Rosenberg makes nothing. “Sitting before nature,” as Ethel Schwabacher put it in her excellent monograph, “Gorky dissected root, stem, insect, leaf and flower, studying genesis and process; out of these studies he created an alphabet of form.” (This alphabet of form is fully compatible with the Cartilage Style of the grotesque, incidentally.) This return to nature was experienced by other artists at this time who, just like the heroes of 19th-century art biography, abandoned the city for natural places and things. At Hamilton, Virginia, in 1943–44, Gorky discovered a non-scenic (i.e. non-recessional) landscape of chained and woven proliferating forms seen in close-up, at the same time that Wols, at Cassis, was making his drawings in which near and far landscape forms were conflated. Graham Sutherland’s Welsh sketchbook of the early ’40s records, though less profoundly, a similar experience of withdrawal from the urban center and a developing sense of nature as organic plenitude. Gorky and Wols, back in the studio, built their art, for what remained of their lives, on this experience of swarming nature.

Lawrence Alloway is curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York.



1. Robert J. Clements, Michelangelo’s Theory of Art, 1960.

2. William Seitz, Arshile Gorky, Museum of Modern Art, 1962.

3. Exhibition catalog, Arshile Gorky, Samuel Kootz Gallery, 1950.

4. Ethel Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky, 1957.

5. Exhibition catalog, Arshile Gorky, Julian Levy Gallery, 1945.

6. Peter A. Wick, “A New Book of Grotesques by Christoph Jamnitzer,” Bulletin, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. LX 321, 1962.

7. For serial painting as the record of incidents of personal consciousness, see Otto Benesch’s Rembrandt as a Draughtsman, 1960.

8. Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky the Man, the Time, the Idea, 1962.