Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective – Tate Modern, 20 March 2010

Clement Greenberg refers to Gorky as “one of the most important painters of his generation anywhere in the world”.  With my limited knowledge, I would now refer to him as the biggest con artist in the world. Well, there you go… bet this will infuriate some of you!

Knowing nothing about Arshile Gorky, I scanned the internet and read many articles praising the artist, in preparation for my visit to Tate Modern yesterday. I was amazed to find out about the influence he had on future generations and how well regarded he was/is. Imagine how let down I now feel.

There was very little in the Gorky retrospective  I hadn’t seen before. Self Portrait (c. 1928) was obviously influenced by Cezanne, other works were clearly influenced by Cubism; there were traces of Miro and Kandinsky on many canvasses. Check out Diary of a Seducer (1945); Central Park at Dusk (1936-42); Nude (c. 1946) or The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (c. 1943).

And so perplexed, I deduced that may be when Gorky was taking in the work of European artists and letting it influence his work, this was not something that America was very familiar with. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with this. In essence, you’re influenced by what you see and read and other people will be influenced by what they see and read.

It would be unfair to say, however, that I’m not a Gorky fan. I enjoyed Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia (ink on paper, c. 1932); The Artist and His Mother (c. 1926-36); Untitled (c. 1943-8); Painting (c. 1943-7); Charred Beloved II  (1946) and the study for Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations (c. 1935-6). I also liked the Armenian wooden plows. The smoothness of the wood turning what is essentially a workman’s tool into a work of art.

Gorky reworked his paintings over many years and I can understand what he meant when he said that a finished painting was a dead painting.

His portraits can be seen as naive but at the same time, I couldn’t help but associate The Artist and His Mother to an icon. That Armenian born Gorky be influenced by iconic works is perhaps not surprising but the simplicity of the work and the intensity of emotions on display make this one of my favourite works.

I wouldn’t say “don’t go” but go with an open mind and try not to read too much about Gorky beforehand.

Arshile Gorky Tate Modern exhibition booklet

Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective is on at Tate Modern until 3 May 2010. Admission fee.

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