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Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective Of Drawings


A seminal figure in the movement toward abstraction that ultimately transformed American art, Arshile Gorky (1905-48) will be celebrated as one of the outstanding draftsmen of the 20th century in an exhibition opening in November at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings, on view from November 20, 2003, through February 15, 2004, will examine the importance of Gorky's drawings in his development as an artist and the evolution of his visual vocabulary and style. It will include 140 drawings, some previously unseen by the public. After its presentation at the Whitney, the exhibition will travel to The Menil Collection in Houston. (right: Arshile Gorky, Untitled, 1946. Graphite and crayon on paper, 21 x 29 inches, Collection John McEnroe. The Estate of Arshile Gorky/ARS)

"Gorky's intensely powerful drawings are pivotal to an understanding of his art," said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney. "We've had a long association with Gorky, beginning with the purchase of a painting in 1937, the first work of his acquired by a museum. The Whitney organized a memorial exhibition in 1951, a few years after Gorky's tragic early death. We've done other Gorky exhibitions as well and are very pleased to present the first major show devoted exclusively to the artist's drawings. Gorky's work helped to revolutionize American art, and it continues to fascinate."

The exhibition is being curated by Janie C. Lee, adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum, with Melvin P. Lader. Mr. Lader, a longtime Gorky scholar, is Professor of Art History at George Washington University.

"Gorky's drawings are set apart by the graphic elegance and forcefulness invested in them by the artist," said curator Janie C. Lee. "This technically demanding medium taught Gorky self-discipline and control, driving his visual inventiveness to new heights."

About the Artist

Arshile Gorky (Vosdanik Adoian) was born in 1904 or 1905 (there are differing accounts of the date) in the province of Van in Armenia. Following the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, the scattering of his family, and the death of his young mother from starvation, Gorky immigrated to the United States in 1920. It was here that he took the name Arshile Gorky and invented a new life for himself.

After arriving at Ellis Island, he moved for a brief time to New England to live with relatives. In 1924 he came to New York and began to study art. He was quickly made an art instructor and taught for years in order to survive as an artist. Throughout the late 1920s and thereafter, Gorky met and became friends with a great many artists, among them Stuart Davis, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, and Isamu Noguchi.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, Gorky's position within the New York art scene brought him into contact with some of the Surrealists who had been forced to flee Europe during the Second World War. His friendship with the Surrealist poet André Breton, who greatly believed in Gorky's work, made a deep impression. Gorky's friendship with the Chilean-born artist Matta also contributed to the development of his mature style. Matta encouraged Gorky to improvise and experiment more on paper, introducing him to the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing.

The critic Harold Rosenberg noted that Gorky, "a lifelong student, was an intellectual to the roots; he lived in an aura of words and concepts, almost as much at home in the library as in the museum and gallery." New York City gave Gorky the culture he craved, and the Surrealists gave him their encouragement and a fluidity of line that was to carry him toward the achievement of his own personal abstraction.

Gorky's artistic development can be defined in part by the transitions between rural and urban environments that marked the turning points in his life. Gorky's experience would greatly alter and expand in the early 1940s with his exposure to rural America. This began with his marriage in 1941 to Agnes Magruder, always called by Gorky (and later by others) Mougouch, an Armenian term of endearment. The parents of his new wife had a farm in Virginia, and over the next seven years, Gorky came to spend time in the countryside there, and later in Connecticut as well. The support of a wife and family (their first daughter, Maro, was born in l943, followed by a second, Natasha, in 1945) led to a tremendous increase in his productivity as an artist.

In the many landscapes Gorky produced in Virginia in the early 1940s, his abstract vocabulary came to embrace natural and organic forms. His method was to take home the drawings that he made in the fields and draw repetitions of them, exploring multiple variations of each image. These repetitions enabled him to ingest new ideas gained outdoors until they became an integral part of his formal vocabulary. Meyer Schapiro, in his introduction to Ethel Schwabacher's monograph on Gorky, said that after discerning "the vague, unstable image-space of the day-dreaming mind," Gorky detached color from drawn line, making line and color two different components in the picture. Gorky's drawings from this time also gave the artist a chance to experiment and develop new techniques. He washed them in his bathtub, hung them up to dry, and later scraped or sanded the surface. In part, this new experimentation with surfaces was intended to further alter the recognizable identity of an image through the elimination of specific botanical or biological details.

The swelling, rounded forms found in the late drawings, which abruptly collapse into curving and folded planes suggestive of leaves, petals, or grass, have convinced many commentators that Gorky's imagery must have a basis in natural forms. Interpretations differ as to the source of these forms: some believe Gorky's inventions were inspired by plants and insects that he observed during his walks in the countryside, while others claim that these images recall genitals or viscera and must have welled up from Gorky's subconscious fantasies. Perhaps it is only with the help of Breton's theory of Surrealism, with its characterization of nature as an abstract or symbolic language, that we can begin to understand the significance of Gorky's unique style of abstraction.

Gorky at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney has long had an interest in the art of Arshile Gorky, and began showing his work in the 1930s. In 1951 the Whitney organized Arshile Gorky Memorial Exhibition, which traveled to the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Art. The museum owns eleven works by Gorky. The Whitney has also amassed significant archival holdings of various materials on Gorky's life and work.

Arshile Gorky: Drawings has been made possible by support from the Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation, Thomas H. Lee and Ann G. Tenenbaum, Aaron I. Fleischman, and the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.


The accompanying publication will examine the evolution of the artist's visual vocabulary and style through his drawings and will illuminate his subtle changes in motifs from one version of a theme to another, and the gradual metamorphosis of a form from identifiable object or detail to abstract image over periods of time, enhancing understanding of Gorky's working method. The book will also explore, through several of Gorky's drawings from the 1940s, the artist's precise and conscious methodology and differentiate his approach from the spontaneous and direct execution generally associated with Abstract Expressionism.

While the majority of Gorky scholarship has tended to present biographical overviews of his career, the catalogue will focus specifically on his drawings, thereby providing fresh insights into this integral component of his work. It will be the first retrospective catalogue solely devoted to Gorky's drawings. Essays by the show's co-curators, Janie C. Lee and Melvin P. Lader, will frame the drawings within a comprehensive overview of Gorky's life, contemporaries, aesthetic influences, and artistic evolution. The catalogue will also contain a foreword by Whitney Director Maxwell L. Anderson. 

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