New York

Arshile Gorky

A sense of artistic as well as emotional frustration pervades Arshile Gorky’s last paintings. If they were not so important as precursors and transitions to the completely gestural paintings of Jackson Pollock, they would have to be regarded as seriously unresolved—more aborted representations than achieved abstractions. Indeed, Gorky seems to have started with a scene that he then deliberately undid in an effort to realize abstraction, but this way of backing into abstraction suggests that he could not accept it on its own nonpictorial terms. For Gorky, to paint meant to picture, but he knew that “theoretically,” to be truly Modern, painting should simply be painting. John Graham and Willem de Kooning had taught him that this did not necessarily mean a loss of ideation and conviction.

But on the evidence of this last body of work—a kind of hesitant hallucination—Gorky was not completely convinced. He tried to satisfy the zeitgeist by dissolving the landscape he preferred to picture into its elements of line and color (which he tended to separate, as though to show that they could function abstractly, autonomously). But the disintegrative act—the forced negation—only turned the natural scene into a surreal sketch: defamiliarized and morbidized, as though it were a poorly remembered (and thus all the more nightmarish), infantile, and distorted dream.

The last paintings are the climax of the conflict that pervades Gorky’s career. From the beginning, when he “apprenticed” himself to such father figures of European Modernism as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, through his peculiarly limp, quasi-primitivist portraits, to the late paintings, where Gorky supposedly came into his own, we see that in fact he never quite did. These late works only confirm that he was always dependent on the preconceived image to give him “original” form. We call the result “archaic”: a compromise formation involving a regression in the service of an ego that is not sure what it wants to be, and so can only go back to its hypothetical beginning—to a fantasy of roots.

Thus, like many another 20th-century artist, Gorky was inhibited by his need to prove his modernity—to show that he could, in Ezra Pound’s words, “make it new.” Serving this embarrassed wish kept him from discovering or inventing what was truly unprecedented—if there is any such thing. His desperation did take him to the border of what soon after his death became the promised land of Abstract Expressionism, but perhaps it is better that he only glimpsed it. No doubt he sometimes pursued gesture vigorously, but he never worked it over for its own sake, only as an adumbration of a scene, a way of emphasizing features that struck him in their inherent peculiarity, of giving contour to what had unconscious resonance. Such subjectification of the objective never arrived at an unequivocally subjective abstraction.

What we witness, then, in Gorky’s last paintings is a struggle to be new marked by a reluctance and inability to let go of the old. But this is exactly what makes them fresh and relevant today, when newness seems to have played itself out, as its stylization suggests—and so much seems very old. The most remarkably creative works here—those that transcend the textuality to which they have been reduced by history—are those in which gray tends to overwhelm the colorful scene, suggesting that Gorky is mourning for his own creative limitations.

Donald Kuspit