The Elusive Modern

Article excerpt

The Elusive Modern Hayden Herrera. Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. 784 pp., 60 color ills., 120 b/w. $45.

In 1920 a teenage boy came to the United States to escape the Armenian Genocide-the first bout of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century-and decided to become an artist at a time when most immigrants took factory jobs. Without formal art training he proceeded to copy the compositions of other artists as a way to learn an aesthetic language, just as he learned English in his new country to survive day to day.

By 1925 he had changed his name to Arshile Gorky, moved to New York City, and made up stories about himself, his history, and his art schooling. Eventually Gorky produced abstract paintings and drawings that led André Breton to claim him as a Surrealist, while at the same time the immigrant artist kept company with those who were to become part of the internationally significant Abstract Expressionist movement.

Perhaps because of his intermediate historical position, Gorky's art has remained enigmatic and largely misunderstood for over fifty years. Gorky's work is tough. He did semi-Cubist compositions, modernist portraiture, and biomorphic abstraction-all of which had roots in other artists and movements. The American abstract painter Balcomb Greene, a near-contemporary of Gorky, made a significant observation about Gorky's mature work, saying that looking at it is "almost as though you are seeing living things except you can't quite recognize them enough to give them names." Gorky's biography is equally elusive. Interestingly, what has emerged in the study of Gorky is a preoccupation with his biography.

The first book on the artist, Arshile Gorky, published in 1957, was a semibiographical work by Gorky's former student Ethel Sch wabacher. The first biography of the artist, Arshile Gorky Adoian, published independently in 1978 by Gorky's nephew Karlen Mooradian, revealed at length Gorky's Armenian background and its connection to his work, although his thesis is supported by letters from the artist that are of questionable authenticity.

No less than three additional biographies on the artist have been published in the past five years. Although Gorky's biography is a key component in understanding his work, because many of his subjects are related to his biography, the recent obsession over the exact details of Gorky's life is quite remarkable. To date, perhaps as many biographies as serious art-historical books have been written about the artist. There is a certain amount of irony to this interest in biography because Gorky himself took great pains to avoid giving precise information about his background and often falsified it, suggesting for instance, that he was Maxim Gorky's cousin or had studied withVasily Kandinsky.

In writing Arshik Gorky: His Life and Work, Hayden Herrera tries to differentiate her from previous books and biographies by attempting to analyze some of Gorky's art in addition to cataloguing his life. As in her earlier book, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Herrera is clearly enticed by the tragedy of an artist she portrays as an exotic subject.

Herrera begins Arshile Gorky like a preview for a "bio-pic," by recounting the incident of a studio fire in 1946 that claimed many of Gorky's works a few years before his death. Then, jumping back to the beginning of his life, she begins a chronological story of Gorky's early life that reiterates common information about the Armenian Genocide, family information originally provided in Mooradian's biography, and accounts of Gorky's life quoted from Nouritza Matossian's 1998 apologist Black Angel:A Biography of Arshile Gorky and From a High Pkice:A Life of Arshile Gorky, by Matthew Spender, published in 1999.

Organizationally, Herrera's writing often wavers between the biographical and visual analysis. Although she might appear, at times, to address Gorky's work as an afterthought in an effort to go beyond the previous accounts of Gorky's life, Herrera's rendition of his life is comprehensive, and this book is likely the most complete compilation of extant visual analyses of Gorky's work and previously published biographical research to date. …