In an article for today’s London Evening Standard titled Mother’s Boy art reviewer Brian Sewell discusses the new show at the Tate Modern, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. In a review that reveals far more about Sewell’s artistic preferences than the contents of the show, he states that Gorky, who escaped the Aremenian genocide as a young man by fleeing to New York, “was neither well-taught in the technical sense nor exposed to long traditions and established stimuli that could convert him from provincial fumlber into metropolitan genius.”
Basically, if you weren’t part of the European aristocracy, why bother? Stating that Gorky was “aware of Picasso, presumably from illustrated magazines rather than direct experience” shows the height of Sewell’s ignorance, as European modern art was frequently shown in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929, and private galleries were regularly showing cubist work during this era. I have a hard time believing a young painter living in the city at that time would not have sought out a single Picasso painting by the mid 1930s. By 1937 a major show of twenty years worth of his paintings was on view at Jacques Seligman & Co., and in 1939 MoMA mounted a large retrospective of his work.
Sewell also goes to great lengths to criticise Gorky’s work as being derivative, going as far as calling his earlier canvases “dim-witted imitations.” I think the same could probably be said of the early work of many painters, and for a man his early twenties at the time I don’t think it’s unreasonable for his work to show the influence of the great painters of the day.
The review condescendingly goes on to say of his experience being promoted to mentor at the Grand Central School of Art “I suspect the school was less grand than its name suggests.” The school was an artists’ cooporative, and was run out of New York’s Grand Central Station for twenty years starting in 1924. Founded by John Singer Sargent (one of the finest portraitists of the early 20th century) and Daniel Chester French (sulptor of the Lincoln Memorial and designer of the Nobel Prize medal), students included as diverse a crowd as Norman Rockwell, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
Gorky is given credit for his drawings in the review, but it certainly gets under Mr. Sewell’s skin that he is regarded as a painter in any way. In fact, he blantently says Gorky did not know what he was doing and credits his fame to the “jabberwocky-driven critic Clement Greenberg.” Sewell’s antagonism towards Greenberg leads him to dismiss the importance of the influence Gorky had on the art world of the 1940s and 1950s (including de Kooning and Jackson Pollack), which alone in itself makes Gorky’s work worthy of a major retrospective.
In his 1964 essay “The Myth of Originality in Contemporary Art” in the Art Journal, David Hare writes: “To my mind, Gorky became at the end of his life, far more original than the Abstract-Expressionists that followed him” and then goes on to say “Gorky’s was not as original as the work of Jackson Pollack, but much more interestingly so, since Gorky became original in the face of art history, which he loved.” This is key to understanding the importance of his work: he successfully negotiated his way out from under the weight of the baggage of pre-war art and created something that was almost unbelievably new. It is unfortunate that it took him a long time to do this, and that he departed from the world at the age of 44.
Arshile Gorky’s late work is amazing in the way it dissolves surrealist imagery into beautifully composed non-figurative gesture. I was transfixed by one of his finest works, “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” which I used to stare at on every visit to the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo where I grew up. I have no doubt you won’t regret that you “paid a tenner” (to use Mr. Sewell’s phrase) to see the show, I am very much looking forward to it myself.