THERE WERE TWO Arshile Gorkys to be found in this retrospective: Gorky the Authentic, and Gorky the Faker. As the exhibition made clear, most of Gorky's work teeters on the fulcrum point between these two categories. The installation in Philadelphia began with Gorky's self-portrait of circa 1937, the one with haunting eyes and lumpy, fingerless hands that barely support an insubstantial palette. Next to the portrait, a wall label shared details of Gorky's tragic life story--of his mother's death by starvation, his survival of the Armenian genocide, his eventual suicide. Thus was Gorky the Authentic introduced to the general public as a sort of midcentury van Gogh, cut down in the prime of his artistic career by a world too callous to grasp his genius. The scale of the tragedy is different, of course (van Gogh's personal pathology seems especially trite compared with the historic catastrophe that would leave its scar on Gorky). But almost every painting from this point in the exhibition onward could register as a response to trauma, and Gorky's homage to modernist examples (Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and, eventually, Matta) throughout his life could read as an attempt to take command of his nightmarish past through artistic mastery and as an expression of his longing for a home he would never find. Under this Gorky's hand, modernism emerges as a search for truth about selfhood through a concurrent search for truth about painting.
In a small room across from the 1937 portrait, however, a group of Gorky's early modernist imitations suggested the very different figure of Gorky the Faker. One landscape from 1927, for example, does not pay homage to so much as ventriloquize Cezanne, and with startling facility; in the process, Gorky's painting adorns Staten Island with the mask of Provence. His capable imitation of Matisse's 1908 Still Life with a Greek Torso was exhibited next to a copy of the yellowing photoreproduction from which Gorky worked. This Gorky generated a version of modernism that might best be understood as a series of pastiches. Sitting downstream from the torrent of modernist examples he would divert, Gorky the Faker understood that modernism is a fiction (albeit a serious one) first told by others, and that, like any good story, it gets better through skillful retelling. This is the artist who made a fiction of his biography. Changing his name from Vosdanig Adoian, he passed himself off as a relative of Maksim Gorky (it's not clear whether he knew that was a pen name for Aleksey Peshkov). To some interlocutors, he claimed he was a Georgian prince; to others, he confessed he was just a Russian playboy come to America in search of blondes. Like the main character of Evelyn Waugh's Loved One, he wooed love interests with plagiarized verses (Paul Eluard, rather than Tennyson, was his source material).
That these contradictory Gorkys coexisted is a testament to the complexity of the artist, who was able to act out modernism's own twisted history, in which authenticity and masquerade have always operated in a dynamic relation. That they stood alongside each other in this exhibition is also evidence of Michael R. Taylor's nimble curatorial skills--though the two Gorkys appeared in different magnitudes at different times. The essays in the excellent catalogue, particularly the one penned by Robert Storr, trafficked more in notions of fiction telling, thus appealing to those fluent in postmodernism. The exhibition proper, on the other hand, leaned more toward the rhetoric of authenticity, at least in the early portions, and thus spoke to a public conversant in the language of suffering artists.
So it was partly because of chronology, but also because of this slight curatorial emphasis on Gorky the Authentic, that the second discrete room of the exhibition was devoted to Gorky's two famous paintings of himself as a boy standing next to his mother (along with another large wall panel that repeated some of the artist's gruesome biographical details). …