I visited MOCA twice this summer and most recently I stopped by the museum to view Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective, which is the first exhibit brought to the museum by MOCA’s new Director Jeffrey Deitch.
I was thrilled to see that the permanent collection, whose works include Giacometti, Rothko, Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock were still prominently displayed in the right wing. The Gorky exhibit began its journey in Philadelphia in 2009 making one other stop at the Tate Modern in London earlier this year. This comprehensive collection is an autobiographical narrative of the artist’s life.
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian artist whose childhood was marred by the Armenian genocide of 1915. His eventual emigration to the U.S. became the catalyst to his artistic career on the east coast. His works represent the inner conflict between Gorky’s past and his attempts to define his identity as an artist. This exhibit was brilliantly curated by Paul Schimmel and provides visitors an interesting look at the progression of his work and the events influencing his art.
Prior to Young Turk Revolution 1908, Gorky’s father fled Turkey to avoid being drafted into the army. In 1915 the Ottoman military invasion and genocide drove Gorky, his mother and sister out of Turkey in a forced migration through the desert to Syria that eventually cost Gorky’s mother her life (she died of starvation in 1919). This seminal event influenced some of his most recognized work.
His self portrait with his mother was painted from a photograph he discovered in 1926. He recreated different versions of the picture; each version told a different story and evokes different emotions in very subtle ways.
Scholars think that these different constructs were different representations of his relationship with his mother. In #1 c:1926-1936 on the left, his mother appears stoic while the artist looks vulnerable and distant, while in #2 c:1929-1942 below on the right, the roles are almost reversed, and the piece is a stronger commentary on her illness. When taking a closer look at this work in person, the artist is closer to her almost in a protective way and his face is much more prominent, while his mother’s hollow visage appears to be moving away from him. The fact that these two disparate versions convey very different emotions they support the claims that much of Gorky’s work consists of his attempt to re-create and re-define his narrative.
Gorky was inspired by other artists whose influence is easily recognized in his works. There’s a series of paintings that have a Picasso like quality while other works in the collection look like Matisse and Miro. While Gorky’s style is firmly entrenched in an abstract expressionist model, some evoked a commercial appeal that introduced the masses to abstract expressionism. His “Aviation” series included murals that were displayed in Newark Airport’s Administration building between 1938-1939. This project was originally funded by a Federal Art project launched out of the New Deal in the mid ‘30’s.
In the 1940’s Gorky’s work took a darker turn where his somber grey and black paintings were a departure from his colorful graphic Miro inspired work. During this time, Gorky suffered a series of tragic events including cancer and a studio fire. In 1947 his works appear a bit lighter in mood and composition, however in 1948 the artist’s personal life was derailed by a failing marriage. He was involved in a tragic car accident that broke his neck and collarbone placing him in an immobilization collar and impeded his ability to create.
His last painting was created in 1948, and its harried, erratic brush strokes convey a morbid sense of despair missing from some of his deeply personal reflections in his past works.
The culmination of styles bespoke a race against the clock and the finished work portrays the artist as a shell of his former self. Confronted with the possibility of a life without art and his failed marriage, Gorky committed suicide shortly after this work. This piece sadly reads like a suicide note, and was a haunting end to a very interesting exhibit.
This collection is the first curated under the leadership of Jeffrey Deitch, and as it ushers in different perspectives in contemporary art, I am looking forward to future exhibits at MOCA.
The Gorky exhibit will remain on display at MOCA Grand Los Angeles through September 20, 2010.