The many masks of modern art

While viewing the superb Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum recently, I remembered something I had jotted down in a notebook a few days before, something to the effect that "the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but despair."

The notion that beauty as art reflects not only order and sensibility but also a positive judgment on life, that it represents a rejection of despair, that it is living proof of the transcendent nature of spirit over death, seemed particularly relevant to Gorky's struggle to find his unique voice and, having found it, to use it to create paintings that sing out about the beauty of life despite increasing pain, fear, and loss.

That Gorky's art could rise so magnificently above such matters is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that he had more than his share of pain and loss -- including the childhood tragedy of seeing his mother die of starvation and the adult difficulties of having to struggle constantly to survive as an artist with very little money and hardly any professional acceptance. The worst years of all were the last two and a half years of his life. During that period a fire in his studio destroyed much of his work; and he developed a serious illness, had an automobile accident in which his neck was broken and his painting arm paralyzed, and saw his marriage fail. Discouraged and despondent, he could take no more, and committed suicide on July 21, 1948.

But transcending this was the richness of his life -- the love of family and friends, his deep and growing dedication to art. Art was, if not the center, then most assuredly a major mainstay of his life, and contributed a great deal to the serenity he was able to find in it.

One of the most fascinating things about Gorky was the depth of his identification with the older artists he admired. During his younger days he produced several paintings that could easily be mistaken at first glance for the work of Cezanne. And in the years that followed, his involvement with the art of Picasso, Miro, Braque, Matisse, resulted in canvases that so resembled works by those masters that he was frequently accused of lacking originality and of being little more than an imitator.

The fact of the matter is that he was an extremely original artist, but one whose originality (like Jackson Pollock's) only emerged to view after a long, many-year dialogue with the other art of his time. In many ways he was one of the most significant connecting links between the art of the first half of the century and that of the second. By harvesting a considerable portion of what Picasso and Miro (and others, but mostly these two) had had to say, assimilating that into his own very personal imagery, and then pointing that synthesis beyond what had transpired in the first 40 or so years of this century, Gorky helped lay the groundwork not only for Abstract Expressionism but also, indirectly, for some of the formal ideas that evolved from it.

It is not, however, as a formal innovator that Gorky moves and fascinates me most, but as an artist who was able to plumb the very depths of his being through his art, and then to return to everyday activity with images and rhythms that speak of profound subterranean realities and feelings. The significance of his discoveries encapsulates but also transcends the pains, tremblings, and joys of human existence.

That sounds like a tall order and very close to purple prose, but we need only spend some time with the work he produced during the last six years of his life to see how true it is. During those six years he not only found his unique voice but also learned how to sing out without encumbrances or hesitations. We sense, as we move from painting to painting, that what concerned him more and more was the process of bringing forth and making manifest what lay hidden behind appearance, that he increasingly dealth with the ineffable and the invisible rather than with the definitive and physical.

He himself said, "I prefer not to see the strength of my arm in the painting but only the poetry of my heart." And indeed, although we are occasionally aware of the muscle and the thought that went into these late works of his, we are much more aware of the feelings, moods, and energies he evoked from behind the colors and forms we see on the canvas before us.

Although Gorky's art is often joyous, it is never gay or abandoned. While our eyes are enchanted by merry and delightful things happening on the painting's surface, our interior sensibilities are responding to the more measured and profound qualities existing beneath them -- and are weighing the significance of this dialogue between what is seen and what is barely sensed and felt.

A Gorky painting is dynamic and organic, and gives one the impression that it is still growing, is still in the process of becoming, of being made. As such, it resembles something alive and breathing -- something like a rich, crawling-with-life garden full of plants, weeds, insects, and soil -- much more than it does something merely decorative and pretty like a bouquet of flowers plucked from the earth and given a few additional hours of artificial life in a vase.

But most of all, Gorky's paintings revel in the interaction of apparent opposites, in the tension between positive and negative, active and passive. But with Gorky neither wins, neither rises above and eliminates the other -- for both belong to what human life is all about. More than any painter of recent years, Gorky encloses both the male and female principles in equal portion and so creates an art that celebrates the totality and the subtle interactions of life, rather than the dominance of one point of view over the other.

Even during the painful last years, Gorky's art remained in a state of balance between the dark and the light sides of life. Its joy is deeply sonorous and richly textured, never lighthearted or gay. But his art is all the more beautiful and meaningful for that, for what we see is a transfiguration of pain and suffering into images of such private, aching beauty that we must ultimately look away.

Gorky reminds us in these last paintings that beauty is a blessing of human consciousness, that it derives from our unique acknowledgment of life's infinite preciousness. And nowhere is this more apparent than in one of his very last paintings, "The Limit," which is reproduced here.

It's a tender and subtle painting executed mostly in off-grays and a few touches of blue, red, yellow, and black. It has a muted, smoky quality, and exists more as a caress than as a flat pictorial statement. But it is one of the loveliest and most moving paintings anyone has produced in this century, for , while it celebrates nothing, and argues for no particular point of view, it is affirming life with the quiet assurance of someone who has seen it all and chooses life and love over despair.

My only regret is that its special moving quality cannot be caught and communicated in black and white. When a painting exists primarily asm color, it cannot be translated or paraphrased successfully into anything else. This was true of the late works of Monet, Redon, Matisse, Rothko -- and most especially of the last paintings of Arshile Gorky. The next article in this series appears on June 2.

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