From poverty, or of a piece with his camouflage, for he was a very camouflaged man, Arshile Gorky as long as I knew him wore a patched coat, either an old tweed jacket with leather elbow pads in summer or in winter a ragged overcoat much too long for even his tall and lean frame. Inside his overcoat he would draw himself up, or lower himself without bending, so when he crouched, perhaps to examine a canvas, his coat crumpled down like an accordion as he folded his legs beneath it with the same muscles used by Caucasian dancers -- although Gorky was not Caucasian, was in fact Armenian, and Gorky was not his real name. This is how camouflaged he was. His dark fierce face and ferocious black moustache concealed something soft and vulnerable and not easily approached even by his intimates. Strangers he either frightened or awed. Policemen, he told me proudly, often stopped him for questioning, "just because I look so dangerous," he said, but more probably because he was walking through traffic too absent-mindedly. Once in a dramatically illuminated exhibition in a museum he appeared suddenly conspicuous beneath one of the spotlights. A woman crossed herself, then apologized. "For a moment," she said, "I thought you were Jesus Christ." "Modom," he said, drawing himself up to his towering tallness, "I am Arshile Gorky." And this was not arrogance. This was his devotion to a self-appointed mission. Art was Religion for Gorky, and in a museum God was in His Temple and Gorky was His Prophet.
His life may have been unhappy; or he may have chosen the climate of unhappiness as deliberately as he chose his own name, Gorky, the "bitter one."
He did not come to my Gallery directly to show me his own work. In the winter of 1932 he came urging me to look at the work of a friend of his named John Graham, and it was Graham who generously suggested that I also look at a portfolio of Gorky's own drawings. "My portfolio is already in your back office," Gorky reluctantly confessed, and my secretary told me that "that man is always leaving his portfolio in the back office. He comes back days later and pretends he had forgotten it."
"Yes," said Gorky shamelessly, "and I always expect you will have opened it and discovered masterpieces. . . ." So I sorted through them now, and I answered Gorky gently. Because if I had not found masterpieces, I nevertheless thought I detected future greatness. I went down to Union Square with Gorky and looked at everything in his studio. I listened to his passionate discourses concerning the faded illustrations tacked on his walls, monochrome reproductions of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca and photographs of Ingres drawings. I listened to the woes of his financial disorder, and I lent him five hundred dollars. Later, when he couldn't repay, I bought some of his drawings. But I could not promise him an exhibition.
"Your work is so very much like Picasso's," I told him. "Not imitating," I said, "but all the same too Picassoid."
"I was with Cézanne for a long time," said Gorky, "and now naturally I am with Picasso. . . ."
"Someday, when you are with Gorky . . ." I promised.
I had never before met a painter with the empathy to enter so completely into the style of another. I thought of the translations Moncrieff had made from the French of Proust. It was said that he memorized a dozen pages of Proust at a time, and then having completely absorbed the text he translated with no further reference to the original. And I remembered a concert given by HaroldSamuels . . .