Arshile Gorky, Painting, ca. 1944, oil on canvas, 65 3⁄4 x 70 1⁄4".

Arshile Gorky, Painting, ca. 1944, oil on canvas, 65 3⁄4 x 70 1⁄4".

Arshile Gorky

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Arshile Gorky, Painting, ca. 1944, oil on canvas, 65 3⁄4 x 70 1⁄4".

THERE WERE TWO Arshile Gorkys to be found in this retrospective: Gorky the Authentic, and Gorky the Faker. As the exhibition made clear, most of Gorky’s work teeters on the fulcrum point between these two categories. The installation in Philadelphia began with Gorky’s self-portrait of circa 1937, the one with haunting eyes and lumpy, fingerless hands that barely support an insubstantial palette. Next to the portrait, a wall label shared details of Gorky’s tragic life story—of his mother’s death by starvation, his survival of the Armenian genocide, his eventual suicide. Thus was Gorky the Authentic introduced to the general public as a sort of midcentury van Gogh, cut down in the prime of his artistic career by a world too callous to grasp his genius. The scale of the tragedy is different, of course (van Gogh’s personal pathology seems especially trite compared with the historic catastrophe that would leave its scar on Gorky). But almost every painting from this point in the exhibition onward could register as a response to trauma, and Gorky’s homage to modernist examples (Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, and, eventually, Matta) throughout his life could read as an attempt to take command of his nightmarish past through artistic mastery and as an expression of his longing for a home he would never find. Under this Gorky’s hand, modernism emerges as a search for truth about selfhood through a concurrent search for truth about painting.

In a small room across from the 1937 portrait, however, a group of Gorky’s early modernist imitations suggested the very different figure of Gorky the Faker. One landscape from 1927, for example, does not pay homage to so much as ventriloquize Cézanne, and with startling facility; in the process, Gorky’s painting adorns Staten Island with the mask of Provence. His capable imitation of Matisse’s 1908 Still Life with a Greek Torso was exhibited next to a copy of the yellowing photoreproduction from which Gorky worked. This Gorky generated a version of modernism that might best be understood as a series of pastiches. Sitting downstream from the torrent of modernist examples he would divert, Gorky the Faker understood that modernism is a fiction (albeit a serious one) first told by others, and that, like any good story, it gets better through skillful retelling. This is the artist who made a fiction of his biography. Changing his name from Vosdanig Adoian, he passed himself off as a relative of Maksim Gorky (it’s not clear whether he knew that was a pen name for Aleksey Peshkov). To some interlocutors, he claimed he was a Georgian prince; to others, he confessed he was just a Russian playboy come to America in search of blondes. Like the main character of Evelyn Waugh’s Loved One, he wooed love interests with plagiarized verses (Paul Éluard, rather than Tennyson, was his source material).

That these contradictory Gorkys coexisted is a testament to the complexity of the artist, who was able to act out modernism’s own twisted history, in which authenticity and masquerade have always operated in a dynamic relation. That they stood alongside each other in this exhibition is also evidence of Michael R. Taylor’s nimble curatorial skills—though the two Gorkys appeared in different magnitudes at different times. The essays in the excellent catalogue, particularly the one penned by Robert Storr, trafficked more in notions of fiction telling, thus appealing to those fluent in postmodernism. The exhibition proper, on the other hand, leaned more toward the rhetoric of authenticity, at least in the early portions, and thus spoke to a public conversant in the language of suffering artists.

So it was partly because of chronology, but also because of this slight curatorial emphasis on Gorky the Authentic, that the second discrete room of the exhibition was devoted to Gorky’s two famous paintings of himself as a boy standing next to his mother (along with another large wall panel that repeated some of the artist’s gruesome biographical details). The paintings were handily situated amid a number of Gorky’s fascinating preparatory studies, which made for a good deal of comparing and contrasting, as well as frequent collisions and apologies among visitors bouncing from work to work. A digital scan of a copy had to substitute for the long-lost photograph on which the paintings were based, but the curatorial coup was the inclusion of the Art Institute of Chicago’s rarely circulated Gorky drawing of his mother’s head, which features tender, even voluptuous passages in the drapery of her scarf. The paintings are heartbreaking meditations on loss, serving as memorials to the mother who would eventually die in his arms. Her apron is crowded with a flower pattern in the photograph, but in the first of the two paintings it has been scrubbed to a white, monolithic blankness that generalizes her into an icon of maternal power even as it foreshadows her erasure. But Gorky’s penchant for artificiality could be found here, too. That the antecedent photograph was a studio concoction is important: The two figures struck their wooden poses before a photographer’s scrim—the hearth and mantelpiece were mere simulacra of domestic stability—that perhaps provided Gorky with his first lesson in the usefulness of art’s fictions. Already stipulating a homeless condition that would be echoed in his later paintings, the flat background was a prop strategically meant to coax homesickness from Gorky’s father, who had left years earlier to escape conscription.

This mingling of sincerity and artifice is one of the reasons Gorky’s paintings remain important. It certainly isn’t because he somehow transformed the category of art, or even painting. From the beginning of his career until his death in 1948, his canvases remained rather conventional in terms of pictorial space. Unlike Pollock, Gorky never ventured into allover composition; unlike Newman and Rothko, Gorky did not radically reduce the number of compositional incidents to flatten the canvas. Some would argue that his later works were heading in such a direction, but I’m not so sure. The stakes were too high for him to let go of the virtual. For him, modernist painting, even when it was right under his brush, needed to retain the painful (and sometimes clever) project of pointing to a somewhere else. So instead of stamping out a singular shape that would persist in literal presence, Gorky generated piles and riots of forms that, for all their abstraction, typically coagulate in the center and coalesce within quasi-architectural or environmental spaces (a vertical line on the side intimates a wall; a flat line just below the center suggests a horizon). Often it seems possible to locate those forms at a calculable distance behind the picture plane, usually between four and twenty feet. This virtuality constitutes not a failure but a strategy: It is a way of staging form and its investigations, keeping the procedure in quotation marks.

And really, few artists were as good at putting on the modernist play. At the height of his career, Gorky’s work excelled at cataloguing the possibilities of line and surface. Sinuous filaments thicken and twist. In the “Betrothal” paintings, 1947, lines stretch like fragile threads of viscous fluid. There are rectangles whose edges are slightly concave, as if they were breathing things and we’d caught them just after exhalation. Form is animated and mercurial; it inhabits the paintings.

Occasionally a scored line or a boundary made of dashes will remind the viewer that the painting is still in a schematic mode in which form is proposed rather than definitively iterated. In his murals for the Newark Airport Administration Building, Gorky sent dotted lines across a biomorphic map of the United States (Texas is a mere uvula), playing on conventions of suggested routes. In Abstraction with a Palette, 1930–31, the viewer might read a dotted line as an instruction to “fold here.” In Garden at Sochi, 1943, a line of dashes seems provisional, suggesting that the viewer might imagine a real line in its place. Painting, circa 1944, says something like “There is a line here, but you really aren’t supposed to see it, because it is transparent or behind something else.” Patches of pigment incompletely rubbed into ovals seem similarly elliptical. (Imagine this shape filled with forest green; red would do well here—you get the idea.)

Gorky was also good at masking his canvases, as he embedded his own artistic mythology of rural authenticity within formal techniques of concealing and revealing. His Garden in Sochi (the 1941 canvas from MoMA’s collection) was originally part of his “Khorkom” series of the mid-’30s. Look closely and you will make out the bright orange, yellow, and lavender swirls of the earlier painting. When asked at the last minute to contribute a work to the Whitney Museum Annual in 1941, he converted the thing into a “Sochi” painting by applying a green layer through which the original painting peeks out. The result is a flattened canvas, as the background paradoxically lies on top of the scene (this is a trick Pollock would use for such paintings as She-Wolf, 1943). In the process, however, the first painting haunts the second one; the previous painting is filtered, masked, and converted into another memorial (this time a favorite Khorkom landscape from Gorky’s Armenian childhood). Memories lie behind memories, but there is nothing to suggest that some are more truthful or accurate than others. This masking procedure would evolve into something like an echo in later works: The encircled, lobed motif in the center of Soft Night, 1947, lies over a faint copy of that same form, suggesting that behind the present composition lurks a phantom of itself. Perhaps Gorky had simply decided he was, at last, a modern master worth imitating.

There is a third Gorky whom Taylor proffered in this exhibition: Gorky the Surrealist. Including a canvas by de Chirico that was a source for Gorky’s “Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia” works, 1931–34, and surrounding canvases from the mid-’40s with wall paintings that evoked Frederick Kiesler’s Surrealist environments in which such works were once shown, the curator made a strong case for housing Gorky among European exiles rather than with the New York School. This contribution to the classification debate was convincing (if a bit too academic to do Gorky justice), and it gave Taylor an opportunity to showcase one of the most brilliant descriptions ever penned about Gorky’s work. In a vitrine housed in the Kiesler room, Taylor presented as Exhibit A André Breton’s 1945 essay “The Eye-Spring,” which reminded one that Gorky’s line was “made to cast a lineament, a conducting wire between the most heterogeneous things. Such a wire, of maximum ductility, should allow us to understand, in a minimum of time, the relationships which connect, without possible discharge of continuity, innumerable physical and mental structures.” Indeed. Gorky’s work held many contradictory modes in a turbulent union, both on the scale of his compositions and on the larger scale of modernism’s heterogeneous project. That is an achievement that doesn’t need to be lodged in any particular school.

“Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective” travels to Tate Modern, London, Feb. 10–May 3; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, June 6–Sept. 20.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.