Gorky -- crucial artist of America's postwar era

I have seldom been so tempted to describe a 20th-century American artist as great as I am now, a few hours after seeing "Arshile Gorky, 1904-1948: A Retrospective" at the Guggenheim Museum here.

This huge (roughly 250 paintings and works on paper), comprehensive, stunning exhibition is one of the best shows of an American painter in years. What makes it such a particularly joyous occasion is that it is paintingm we see here, not just colored canvases, tinted photographs, or acres of flat color.

We also see real drawing, for Gorky was an excellent draftsman, a master of line and tone who could ferret out the essentials of a form, a mass, or of a movement with the most delicate or sinuous line, and could then create an image that stood perfectly by itself without recourse to paint or color.

But I was equally moved by this show's evidence of Gorky's crucial role in American art history -- as well as of his importance to post-World War II art in general. For he, more than any other American, set the standards for what was to become abstract expressionism. By example and by deed he helped establish a worldwide, postwar level of quality which has still not been surpassed, over 30 years after his death.

Gorky was a Janus-figure, an artist devoted equally to the art of the past and to the art of the present and future. He was a kind of perpetual swinging door through which the values of the past were continually reevaluated in the light of present-day ideals. His involvement with the Old Masters, and with such modern masters as Cezanne and Picasso, was total. In fact, this ability to give over to another's style was at times so uncanny it resembled an actor's ability totally to immerse himself in a particular character.

This is very evident in his 1927-28 "Landscape, Staten Island" which could easily be mistaken for a Cezanne, as well as in his Picasso-like drawings and paintings (such as his 1932 "Painting"), which pay their artistic debt to that master without evasion or embarrassment.

By the early 1930s, his pictorial borrowings were beginning to coalesce, as is most apparent in his 1931-32 "Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia" series of pen and ink drawings. These truly magnificent works give the first real indication of Gorky's talent for pictorial synthesis, for in them influences of Picasso, de Chirico, Dali, and Max Ernst are first blended and then transcended by his own particular vision. These are among the most beautiful and remarkable American drawings of the century -- just how remarkable they were for their time can best be seen if we remember that Grant Wood's "American Gothic" had been painted a year or so before, and John Steuart Curry's "Baptism in Kansas" two years before that.

This was also the period of numerous figure studies, including his pencil "Self Portrait" of around 1936, his extraordinary "The Artist and His Mother" completed in 1936, and his enigmatic oil "Self Portrait" probably executed in 1937.

Remarkable as these works were, they still belong to his apprenticeship period. This is true even though he knew as well as anyone, at the time they were painted, what the art of this century was all about, where it had been, and what it was most likely going to do next.

By 1940 he was on his way. By 1941 he had painted one of his first masterworks, "Garden in Sochi" (although it still showed traces of European influences), and by 1943 he had hit his stride with paintings that were completely and triumphantly his own. From then until his death in 1948, Gorky produced some of the most innovative and lyrically haunting paintings and drawings of the mid-20th century, works which, in an odd sort of way, seem to become more beautiful with each passing year.

This exhibition will almost certainly be a moving experience for anyone the least bit interested in the crucial role modernism has played in 20th-century art, and for anyone interested in the dynamics, the triumphs, and the tragedies of the creative life. For Gorky was a creator for whom art and its manifestations were at the heart of life, and for whom modernism was not a rejection of the art of the past, but a logical progression from it.

Although Gorky was extremely rational and analytical about art, he became an increasingly intuitive painter toward the end of his life. Works such as "The Liver is the Cock's Comb" and "The Betrothal" could not have been willed into existence. They had to be discovered on the canvas as much as plotted for in numerous preparatory drawings and studies. And this probing, preparatory process is made manifest in drawing after drawing in which Gorky's pencil, crayon, or pastel stick is seen poking about, approaching and withdrawing, or whipping past an object at top speed. These drawings by themselves make this exhibition a memorable one, and should not be ignored or seen merely as studies for paintings.

But the ultimate magic of his art lies in its color and in the manner in which even the most exotic and voluptuous of hues seem to rise naturally and organically from within his paintings' realities. There is no sense of the arbitrary, no sense that the colors have been positioned according to certain laws of color. If anything, one feels about his color (and about his forms) as one does about a successful landscape painting: that both its colors and forms derive naturally from observation and thus represent a reality more universal than that of the artist's imagination.

Indeed, this sense of the organic is a large part of what makes Gorky's art so remarkably regenerative and recreative. It is also a contributing factor toward making his paintings appear increasingly beautiful during a time such as ours, when art has too often become a matter of concoction, willful invention, or slavish copying of physical data.

Gorky doesn't dictate or insist, but brings forth. He is a transmitter from within who utilizes the formal echoes of the art -- of the near and distant past -- to help enchant and convince us.In such noble and (dare one say it?) sublime works as "Agony," he also touches upon depths of human experience that seldom find formal voice, and so exist painfully and formlessly -- and without resolution -- on the darker side of human life.

Particular credit for this superb exhibition must be given to Diane Waldman, who not only assembled it but is also responsible for its excellent catalog, notable for clarity of expression and poetic evocation of Gorky's life and art.

Following its closing at the Guggenheim Museum on July 19, this first-rate show will travel to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (Sept. 11-Nov. 8) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Dec. 3-Feb. 28, 1982).

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