New York

Arshile Gorky


The drawings by Arshile Gorky at Knoedler were not especially good, for the most part. In any case, I think that for everybody their principal interest is in the light they can shed on the question, “What does New York-type painting owe to them?” This, in itself, is an implicit recognition of the limits on Gorky’s quality: the idea is that, although Gorky is not especially exciting, perhaps we can say that he is historically important. And it is a fact that most discussions occasioned by the MoMA show of 1962 were of this sort, although it might be a good time for somebody to reconsider Gorky’s role in the light of what has happened in New York since 1962.

There are two questions to be asked about Gorky’s historical position, and it is important to distinguish them in hopes that if they are separated one can be used to clarify the other. They concern Gorky’s space and his imagery. With his space, the question is whether it is Cubist or post-Cubist; with his imagery, whether reference to nature is where the artist starts or where he ends. So far as the first question goes, I have always felt that Gorky’s space is illusionistic: Gorky works in terms of a finite and divisible space, derived from the Quattrocento vistas of Tanguy and Dali, and even where he does not follow the divisibility of his space to its consequence by actually dividing it, his forms are . . . well, forms—his line is outline, and his outlines enclose planes. The result is that even when Gorky’s space is at its most fluid and indeterminate, the nature of the forms within it impresses on it a kind of contrapuntal quality: space becomes a matter of plastic “push and pull,” as Hofmann would have said; which is to say that it is Cubist space.

Does the nature of Gorky’s imagery help in deciding between those who think in this way and those who take the opposite view? It does if it is considered in the right terms, which in my opinion are not those which are usually used in discussing it. It really does not matter much if for Gorky natural forms are the starting point or the finishing point: so far as they have a place at either end of the process, or anywhere in between—and everyone is agreed that they have a large place in Gorky’s art—his space would have to be illusionistic.

Finally, I should like to ask very tentatively if the entire question of Gorky’s historical place is not a false one, in that it gives too large a role to an individual—to me it seems very odd that claims for Gorky’s historical importance are generally made by those who view the succession of styles in art as a dialectic of forms, since from this point of view the history of art is a “history without names,” as one says. So far as Gorky’s art goes, at any rate, I think it will be agreed that all its basic elements, whether of form and space or of iconographic process, are to be found in a large number of artists, of all degrees of merit, whose work was well known in New York—Tanguy, Matta, Miró, Masson, even Dominguez, Lam and many others. And if this is so, I wonder if it is possible to isolate Gorky’s contribution, or even worthwhile to try.

Jerrold Lanes