In Venice, at Ca’ Pesaro, the first Italian retrospective exhibit on the artist who is considered one of the key figures of 20th century American art.
The exhibition inaugurated at the International Gallery of Modern Art – Ca ’Pesaro in May will be open until 22nd September 2019.The connection between the city on the lagoon and American art is nothing new. In 1948 the American billionaire Peggy Guggenheim, to celebrate the reopening of the Venice Biennale after the war, exhibited her contemporary art collection in the American pavilion. The majority were works created by artists that Peggy knew personally and whose career she supported. At that juncture, Europe first became acquainted with Abstract Expressionism, that genuinely American artistic movement, to which Gorky had made a fundamental contribution.
Arshile Gorky was not born in America, but in Armenia. He signed with a name he had invented, much like his past. He was actually born as Vostanik Manoug Adoian and was a creator of stories before being a painter. He said he was Russian, a relative of the writer Gor’kij, that he had studied in Paris, and that he had been a student of Kandinsky. He made up a life in place of the real one, so painful that it needed to be replaced by an imaginary one. He himself had revealed that he was telling stories while he was painting. In this way, he forgot all that he had lost, his homeland, his father who fled to America, his mother who had died of hardship during the forced migration imposed on the Armenians by the Turkish government.
In Europe, he had seen only Naples, where the ship that had taken him to the States when he was 15 had made a stopover. He had never met Kandinsky. However, he had a profound knowledge of European artistic languages that he experimented with in his painting, becoming a fundamental bridge between Europe and America.
At the beginning, his style was modelled on that of Cézanne. Later, at the end of the 1920s, he was influenced by Cubist Picasso. In the following decade, surrealist styles emerged in his works, especially in the abstract forms of Mirò. Only at the beginning of the 40s did he reach an original style, his canvases populated by abstract movements and fluid lines.
Breton, the theoretical founder of Surrealism who arrived in the States in 1941, considered this artist to be the finest exponent of the movement in America. In those years, New York had become a refuge for many intellectuals who had fled the war in Europe. Among these many painters, especially surrealists, but also Dadaists and abstract artists, found a new home in the United States. Their arrival, accompanied by exhibitions, conferences and publications in specialized magazines, had transformed the American city into the new centre of international art, greatly influencing local artists. Gorky was one of them, and he formed friendships with the surrealist Matta, who also played an important role in the evolution of the Armenian artist’s style, despite the fact that at the beginning of the 1940s he gradually moved away from Surrealism.
Paradoxically, the mass arrival of important names in European painting freed these American artists from their inferiority complex. Europeans lost their aura of giants, as Americans began to develop their own voice.
In 1944 Gorky reached full artistic maturity. Liquid colour drips start directly onto the canvas. The use of this technique – it seems he had followed Matta’s suggestions – radicalizes the presence of the randomness in painting in a way never seen before. In these paintings, the drawing and colour do not coincide, due to the fact that the luminous yet watery and transparent colours flow onto the canvas and spread independently, going beyond the boundaries of the contours. The markings that can be seen under the colour are apparently random. Actually, they arise from careful reflections and preparatory sketches, elaborated by the artist and then transferred to the canvas. Consequently, Gorky’s technique brings together automatic and random movements with a thoughtful construction of forms.
His artistic coming-of-age coincided with a happy point in his life. He got married, spending time in the Sherman countryside in Connecticut where he started painting in the open air, immersed in a landscape that in his mind merged with the woods of Lake Van from his childhood. Then a terrible accident followed, an illness, the loss of many of his works in a fire, and then the betrayal of his wife with his friend Matta. In 1948, he stopped telling stories and committed suicide, just at the moment when he had become one of the greatest exponents of American painting.
When he dies, his antagonist Pollock had free game and stood as the undisputed leader of Abstract Expressionism. As a result, the role of Gorky in this moment of art began to fade.
Anna Maria Calabretta