Splendid Arshile Gorky, in Venice

One Year the Milkweed, 1944, by Arshile Gorky. Oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.)
He’s better than Pollack, and the Ca' Pesaro exhibit of his mystical work makes for a nice break from the Biennale on the other side of town.

Arshile Gorky, 1904–1948 is the new survey show at Ca’ Pesaro, Venice’s museum dedicated to modern art. It isn’t part of the ongoing Venice Biennale, but historically and philosophically Gorky and the Biennale have rich connections. He’s an American artist, yet he was a teenage refugee from the genocide in Armenia. He was self-educated as a painter. Unlike, say, Marc Chagall, who drew from Yiddish iconography decades after he left Russia, Gorky came without any discernible store of Armenian images in his head. He was an original whose work is still fresh today.

Gorky’s art is a visual delight, and this is the best reason to see the show. His late work has no narrative and no recurring symbols. From the late 1930s until his death in 1948, he painted big, swirling forms set against pools of color. Each picture is a new galaxy of shapes and lines. The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb from 1944 is a chromatic riot with so many big and small shapes and so dense a surface that it’s not hard to imagine things from the everyday world. In The Limit from 1947, he turns more minimalist and monochromatic.

When I see a show, I always ask, among other questions, “What’s the point, aside from visual pleasure?” Pleasure is a good reason to do most anything, but, in this case, what does this show add to our knowledge of Gorky? The Gorky retrospective done by the Philadelphia Museum of Art ran in 2010. What’s new to be said?

The show in Venice wants to smooth and refine the transition in Gorky’s style between his work in the 1930s, like his 1937 self-portrait, which is figural and indebted to Cézanne, Matisse, and Malevich, and his late work, the sometimes uneven and blocky and sometimes airy, expansive, feathery pictures that reference nothing in the world of sight and touch. The show wants to make his development more seamless. How did he get from the Whitney’s Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia from 1931–32 to The Limit in a few years?

I reread the retrospective catalogue, and I think the Venice show makes for a worthwhile but awkward departure from the 2010 show. It feels like an amendment rather than a freestanding show. First, what’s at the Ca’ Pesaro really isn’t a retrospective — it’s not a big, comprehensive survey. There are many great things that aren’t in the show, nor need they be. Rather, it’s a show about the relationship between drawing and painting in Gorky’s late work, or that’s the big part of it that’s special, new, and fascinating. The Venice show has many drawings, and these are beautiful. The conversation between drawing and painting for Gorky was intense and intimate. I wish the show would have frankly and enthusiastically embraced this. It wasn’t part of the 2010 retrospective.

The drawings, in pastel, ink, chalk, and oil, were mostly done outside, in rural Connecticut and Virginia, during the last years of Gorky’s life. They take him out of the studio and put him in the world of nature and its always changing mix of forms, color, light, and inexplicable, arbitrary movement. I’m an American art scholar, so I’m reflexively going to respond to an artist whose work is inspired by the natural world, since land and sea are at the heart of American painting.

Most of these works are on paper, which provides a less absorbent surface than canvas. Paint surfaces are thinner and drizzly, so forms are lighter and ethereal, and at times magical. He begins in 1944, in One Year the Milkweed, to transfer this drizzle-effect to canvas. His forms become more wiry. I think these drawings liberated him from solid form and pointed him toward wispy, dematerialized shapes that are given whatever substance they have through lines like a flight path of a bird and thin paint.

In these years, from 1944 to 1948, Gorky was on overdrive. He produced hundreds of drawings and, correspondingly, accelerated his approach toward forms that are mystical and ephemeral. Career-wise, he wasn’t exactly famous but had a nice niche in the avant-garde American art scene led by John Graham and including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Adolphe Gottlieb, and David Smith.

Personally, though, Gorky was unraveling. A studio fire destroyed some of his work. He was diagnosed with cancer. He was seriously hurt in a car crash. He believed his wife was going to leave him. In 1948, he hanged himself. Is it possible to integrate all of this — frenetic drawing, stylistic leapfrogging, and emotional collapse? That’s the challenge the show grazes but doesn’t grab and tackle.

When organizing a show, you get the loans you can. I don’t know what the curators requested or who said “yes” and who was stingy. Missing are the gorgeous, spooky, mostly monochromatic paintings Gorky did in 1946 and 1947. These are very strong, but only one is in the show, Soft Night, which is grand enough but doesn’t evoke the fog at dusk that, say, Gorky’s three Charred Beloved pictures do. These seem important since they have the feel of watercolor but are oil. I believe that the catalogue makes the very good point that Gorky’s aesthetic heirs include Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, and Morris Louis. They seem to have developed Gorky’s thin, mercurial paint surfaces.

Another bit of awkwardness is the second essay in the catalogue, an engaging, informative look at Gorky’s history at the Venice Biennial and his critical reception in Italy. There’s almost nothing in the show on the critical reception of Gorky in Italy, which would have been new and relevant to this year’s Biennale, and would have made for a major essay in the catalogue. I’m not suggesting that the show should be about what it’s not. That said, half the catalogue concerns a subject visually uncovered in the show.

Avant-garde art — what we can loosely call abstract art — had a tough time emerging in Italy after the Second World War, and I would suggest that the Italian art establishment in the late 1940s into the 1960s was more provincial and philistine than anything in America. The American pavilions of the 1948 and 1950 Biennales, which included Gorky’s work — as well as later shows where Gorky starred — were decisive in prying Italian taste from the figurative and the realistic, styles that were entrenched in Italian aesthetics but cursed because of their appropriation by Fascist image makers.

In 1957, the Italian avant-garde critic and poet Toti Scialoja beautifully described Gorky’s impact on Italian artists who were trying to make a new world through art after a devastating half-century. Gorky, he said, painted “in darkness, under a shadowed eyelid and uninterrupted, the writing of a blind man who never loses his way and feels himself along to the core of the universe.” To him, Gorky’s motto might well have been Vide cor meum, or “Look into my heart.” This is very powerful, very inward-focused, and very Italian. Gorky invited some visual soul-searching. The American in me wants Gorky to look outdoors.

The 2010 retrospective was an art-history show. Gorky was well tethered to the artists of the past, reaching from the Renaissance to Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, but also to movements like precisionism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism. The show in Venice seems to want to free us from academics — at its best, it’s about the connections one idiosyncratic artist makes between drawing and painting — but it won’t make the leap. There’s still lots of dot-connecting among movements and artists, and this was the intellectual thrust of the 2010 retrospective.

So what’s American about Gorky? The artist called “Arshile Gorky,” a name he invented, was a rebirth, a retooling, of a young man, a child, really, who came here after the Armenian holocaust. We can debate whether it was economic, social, or political, but there was a zeitgeist in America that gave him space to become an artist, develop a vision, find like-minded artists, and earn a market for his work, which was avant-garde.

This is an American specialty, and it’s not only applicable to artists. Yes, the country is so big and busy making money that all kinds of things can happen in overlooked corners. Still, unlike in most European countries, there is no official Academy projecting and protecting official taste or smothering outliers. I’m often surprised by how many places in America enthusiastically, maybe naïvely, embraced bleeding-edge art. The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney seem new since they’re products of the early 1930s, but it’s good to remember that in France, the Pompidou Center opened more than 40 years after they did.

There’s no lineage in the work of Gorky to anything American from the 19th century, no nationalistic fervor, and no aesthetic aggrandizement. You can’t link Gorky to Whistler the way, for instance, you can connect Rothko’s ephemerality to American romanticism. Gorky is an American in his gusty embrace of the freedom he found here. He looked at everything, took what he wanted, and made it his own. That’s American, too.

It’s a beautiful show, well displayed in a former Grand Canal palace in spacious galleries. It’s a lovely antidote to the crammed, cacophonous Biennale on the other side of town. Among the revelations to me is how much better Gorky is than Stuart Davis, who seems like a very timid cubist indeed. He’s a better artist than Pollock, too. Seeing five great Gorky pictures side by side is having five wonderfully different experiences. Seeing five Pollocks? You’re seeing something that looks like a shtick.


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