New York

Arshile Gorky

Poor Arshile Gorky. To judge from those early self-portraits he really had an attitude about himself. But it was an attitude plagued by a crippling lack of definition, for he was extremely slow to develop any deep sense of who or what he was. As a result his work always seems rather touching, even sad. He continually strove to express his deepest, most essential self, but since he had no real idea of that self, he could only work by mimicking others. Even toward the end, when he did develop his own style, it remained a derivative one, and he never found the courage to step out from behind the comfortable camouflage provided by veiled allusions and double entendres.

Like many artists of his generation, Gorky was an exile, uprooted from his past. And, like many, he hid from this by mythicizing himself, creating a complex autobiography of desires, half-truths, and outright lies designed to create a more noble self with a timeless identity free of the negations and disappointments of his particular history. But, lacking those particularities. Gorky found to his despair that his image of himself was negated even more thoroughly than before, and, lacking any identity whatsoever, all he could do was borrow the mannerisms of others. Wherever you look in his work there are reminders of those others; of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, André Masson, Joan Miró, Willem de Kooning, even of Roberto Matta. One hardly ever sees Gorky, save in the desperation behind his repeated attempts to do something already done, and usually done better.

It was only toward the end that something more peculiar to Gorky began to emerge, although even then the paintings remain firmly within the shadow of Miró. What is interesting, however, is that they approach success because they are more particular in subject matter, more truly personal. In these paintings of the ’40s he began to drop the veil of his myth and to return to his own history, to his past anguish and present miseries—approaching, in the attempt, the confusion between identity and sexuality. But it remained only an approach, and a continuing lack of self-confidence prevented him from ever overcoming the clammy coyness of the work, with its secret messages and hidden images. There is an irritating inability to face up to anything foursquare, a continuing reliance on a kind of fictive screen, which makes a viewing of the work of this strangely least personal of Expressionists dispiriting. If only he had been able to apply a more critical mind to the profound alienation from self which paralyzed him, he might have developed into something more than an interesting figure from a period of transition. But all we have is a sad story, and not many paintings.

Thomas Lawson