About 1945 American painting emerged, with an abruptness still difficult to assimilate, as a major international force in both quality and inventiveness. The first artist to achieve that new breadth and originality which make even the best of Marin or Davis look provincial was the Armenian-born Arshile Gorky. Indeed, Gorky's career almost recapitulates the history of abstract painting in this country, for it begins by paying homage to a diverse sequence of European masters--Cézanne, Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky, Léger--and then, in the early 1940s, trembles with a sense of imminent fruition and rapidly blossoms with a brilliance and sureness that seem to belie the painstaking, studentlike transcriptions of the European pictorial languages imported in the two previous decades.
It is most appropriate, then, that the first full-scale monograph on an artist who belongs to this recent phase of American painting be devoted to Gorky. The author, Ethel Schwabacher (who also wrote the catalogue for the 1951 Whitney Gorky exhibition), is unusually well qualified to record the master's arduous and tragic history, for she had known Gorky as a close friend and teacher since 1928. As a result, her text has the flavor of an intimate tribute to the complex fabric of Gorky's personal and artistic biography. With letters and anecdotes, she re-creates his paradoxical personality--at once ingenuous and sophisticated, slow and impetuous, aggressive and retiring--as well as the cruel series of circumstances that maimed his private life, from his early poverty and unsuccessful first marriage to the swift, ultimate sequence of fire, cancer, and suicide. In these terms, Gorky's art becomes more intelligible as the carrier of an emotional burden which, in its final discharge of 1947-48, has the ominous inevitability of van Gogh's crows.
But Gorky's art stands up fully without such biographical allusions, and Mrs. Schwabacher, fortunately, is as concerned with the paintings as with the painter. Her text, in fact, demonstrates that all too rare ability in writers of art books--to discuss particular pictures in a particular way--and offers the reader considerable assistance in seeing the intricate and elusive imagery of, to use her words, "the Ingres of the unconscious." Given the impetus of her analysis, one can understand all the more clearly, for example, how Gorky's early work prefigures his great late period--how the portraits of the 1930s already posit that complex structure of flat, broadly compartmented areas set aquiver by the tremulous, irregular human contours they contain; or how that quality of introspective fantasy, supreme in the final work, is prophesied not only formally in those loosely brushed overlayers of paint that