Arshile Gorky

Abstract Expressionism: Arshile Gorky
"Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot physically see with his eyes... Abstract art
enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the
emancipation of the mind. It is an explosion into unknown areas." (A. Gorky)
Where did it begin? New York City
When did it begin? Post World War II (approximately 1946)
Who were they? Artists who fled Europe before and during World War II
What were their inspirations? The legacy and themes of Surrealism were a major inspiration as
it impacted their own themes of anxiety and trauma, and focus of the unconscious. This
Surrealist influenced was heavily encouraged due to the move of many Surrealist artists from
Europe to New York during the 1930s.
What was their goal? To create a movement of expressive style of emotional and universal
themes that conveys emotional and expressive content
What were their characteristics? Spontaneity, automatic, highly idiosyncratic, dynamic and
energetic gestures, focus on open fields of colour, non-representational
Historical Context
 Many artists, writers and poets escaped Europe during World War II to America
 Due to what once were powerful European capitals now suffering large economic,
political and physical emergencies, New York City became the art capital of the world
 Prior WWII – Paris is art capital of the world
 Post WWII – New York City is art capital of the world
 This movement emerged with the Cold War, so the American society’s optimism
transformed into power and paranoia
 Artists were able to express their freedom through this movement which highly
contrasted McCarthyism, an practice that sought out individuals different from society
and labelled them as threats to America
Arshile Gorky (c.1904-1948)
Gorky grew up in Armenia in the midst of the Armenian Genocide. The genocide would
become a huge influence on his artwork, due to his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment.
As an artist in America, Gorky was interested in many movements such as Post-Impressionism,
Surrealism, Cubism and Expressionism. Through Gorky’s interests in many styles, he created his
own unique style which would become a major influence of Abstract Expressionism itself, make
him the godfather of the movement as well as the bridge between European and American art.
 Paul Cezanne: In Gorky’s early years, he incorporated Cezanne’s brushwork, flat
compositions and light permanence into his pieces which were also influenced by
Cezanne’s chosen subject matter – “Pears, Peaches and Pitcher”, 1926-1927
 Roberto Matta: Matta’s Surrealist philosophy, floating biomorphic forms, automatic
drawing and fluidity of line encouraged Gorky’s own style – “Waterfall”, 1943
Pablo Picasso: Gorky wanted to mimic the Cubist and Surrealist qualities Picasso
possessed within his artworks, as well as his form and colour – “Woman with a Palette”,
Joan Miro: Gorky experimented with Miro’s Surrealist qualities, biomorphic shapes
floating on a melting background, reduction of details in his subjects, palette and form –
“Garden in Sochi”, 1943
 References to Armenia, specifically
the Armenian Genocide
 Biomorphic forms in strong colours
 Unrecognizable shapes with personal
 Layered
Abstract elements floating in
congested space
Energetic line
o “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”, 1944:
 Biomorphic forms in strong colours are congested and floating in space
 Shapes are so abstracted and personal that their meaning is unknown
 The colours of the shapes are layered overtop one another to create translucency
 This painting is said to represent the perfectly ordered world he lived in before the
wild and savage world destroyed it, which could reference to the atrocities in
 The liver is said to be the seat of love and lust, so this painting can also be taken
as a statement that life is vanity and vain
 The “cock’s comb” doubles as headdress and phallic symbol to create a link
between the mind and body
o “Agony”, 1947:
 Unrecognizable symbolism in extremely personal biomorphic shapes
 Translucent and layered colours within his forms
 Depicts the agony Gorky endured during the last two years of his life
 Figure in the left represents Gorky who is painted in fiery colours and pulled at by
lines to create the feeling of suffering, pain and sorrow
 Death is represented in malleable forms
o “The Artist and His Mother”, 1926-1936
 Biomorphic forms beginning to form in the figures
 Extremely evocative as it references to his experiences in the Armenian Genocide
 Inspired by a picture taken of him and his mother in Armenia
 Certain elements reference to the pain of her death: space between him and his
mother, his feet motioning away from her and the cloth is similar to that of
Mother Mary to make her an immortal icon
 Inspiration is drawn from Picasso’s Blue Period
 Gorky was a major influence on the movement of Abstract Expressionism
 Through his work, he helped establish New York City as not only the art capital
of the world but also the cultural capital of the post war world
 Gorky’s method of assembling compositions, which was both spontaneous and
planned, and his focus on the painting process became popular amongst Abstract
Expressionist, such as De Kooning and Pollock
 Since his influence was so substantial on the next two generations of artists, his
art hangs in every major American art museums
 Gorky influenced numerous artists such as Johns, Rauschenberg, De Kooning,
Rosenberg and Greenberg