May 16, 2010

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective at MOCA, Los Angeles

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective
MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
June 6 - September 20, 2010

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), presents Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. This major traveling retrospective celebrates the extraordinary life and work of Arshile Gorky (b. c.1902, Khorkom, Armenia; d. 1948 Sherman, Connecticut), a seminal figure in the movement toward abstraction that transformed American art in the middle of the 20th century. Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective positions Gorky as a crucial forerunner of abstract expressionism, and as a passionate and dedicated artist whose tragic life often informed his groundbreaking and deeply personal paintings. The first full-scale survey of Gorky’s oeuvre since 1981, this exhibition includes more than 120 works spanning the artist’s 25-year career. It features the artist’s most significant paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, including two masterworks from MOCA’s permanent collection—Study for The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1943) and Betrothal I (1947). Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is organized by Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the exhibition was on view October 21, 2009, through January 10, 2010, before traveling to Tate Modern, London, February 10 through May 3, 2010. MOCA’s presentation, the third on the exhibition’s tour, is organized by MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel.

“As the only West Coast venue, MOCA is proud to present the work of this historically important artist who developed a unique and deeply influential visual language,” commented Schimmel. “Gorky courageously re-shaped European modernism into the foundations of abstract expressionism. He inspired a new generation of artists demonstrating that the act of painting alone was enough to be both poetically charged and powerfully tragic. His legacy can be seen in the work of many of the major abstract expressionists represented in the MOCA’s permanent collection, including Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko."

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is the first major exhibition of its type in three decades and the first to benefit from the publication of three biographies of the artist: Nouritza Matossian’s Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (1998), Matthew Spender’s From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky (1999), and Hayden Herrera’s Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work (2003), all of which shed new light on the artist’s Armenian background and his central role in the American avant-garde. This is the first major museum exhibition to highlight the artist’s Armenian heritage and examine the impact of Gorky’s experience of the Armenian Genocide on his life and work. The retrospective and its accompanying catalogue have also benefited from in-depth interviews with the artist’s widow, Agnes “Mougouch” Gorky Fielding, who has generously supported the project from the start, through key loans and first-hand accounts of Gorky’s artistic practice as well as his cultural milieu.

Among the works to be included are such renowned paintings as the two versions of The Artist and his Mother (1926–36, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and about 1929–42, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Waterfall (1943, Tate Modern, London); the Betrothal series, three large-scale works from 1947 reflecting Gorky’s closer engagement with surrealist ideas and practices—Betrothal 1 (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), The Betrothal (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and The Betrothal II (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)—which are being exhibited together for the second time at MOCA (the works were first exhibited together in MOCA’s exhibition Focus Series: Gorky’s Betrothals in 1994); The Plow and the Song (1947, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio), which demonstrates Gorky’s continuing engagement with memories of his rural Armenian childhood; Agony (1947, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Gorky’s haunting late painting, a product of his increasingly tormented imagination in the late 1940s; and Last Painting (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which was left unfinished on Gorky’s easel at the time of his death in 1948. Some of the works included in the exhibition have not been on public view before, among them are the wood sculptures, Haikakan Gutan I, II, and III (Armenian Plow I, II and III) (1944, 1945, and 1947, collection of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, on deposit at the Calouste Gulbenkiam Foundation, Lisbon).

At MOCA, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective will be presented in a generally chronological sequence. Thematic groupings will represent each phase of Gorky’s career, which underwent an astonishing metamorphosis as he assimilated the lessons of earlier masters and movements and utilized them in the service of his own artistic development. Beginning in the mid-1920s with Gorky’s earliest experiments with the structural rigor of the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and continuing through his prolonged engagement with cubism in the 1930s, the exhibition ends with a series of intimate galleries showcasing the abstract surrealistinspired burst of creativity that dominated the final decade of Gorky’s life and left us with so many breathtakingly beautiful paintings and drawings that form the foundation for abstract expressionism. In the early 1940s, Gorky’s contact with surrealism informed his breakthrough landscapes in Virginia and the visionary works made in his spacious, light-filled studio on Union Square, which he called his “Creation Chamber.” Several galleries in the exhibition highlight the artist’s working process by presenting Gorky’s most significant paintings alongside the numerous painstaking studies that informed their making.


Born Vosdanig Adoian around 1902 near Lake Van in an Armenian province of Ottoman Turkey, Arshile Gorky was a first-hand witness to the Turkish government’s Armenian Genocide of 1915, which led the artist’s family and thousands of others to flee. In 1920, Gorky emigrated to the United States, where, claiming to be a cousin of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, he changed his name to Arshile Gorky. In 1924, Gorky settled in New York, where he became a largely self-taught artist.

At a time when the American avant-garde privileged originality over traditional working methods, Arshile Gorky was a nonconformist who developed his personal vocabulary through a series of intensive apprenticeships to the styles of other artists. He became familiar with modern European art and embarked on a systematic study of its masters and their methods, from Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, whose landscapes and still-lifes he emulated masterfully, to Pablo Picasso’s cubist and neoclassical works, and the biomorphic abstractions of Joan Miró. Works by Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger informed, respectively, Arshile Gorky's vast Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia series of the early 1930s and the sequence of murals on the theme of aviation that Gorky created in 1936 for the Administration Building of Newark Airport, under the aegis of the Public Works of Art Project (later the Works Progress Administration), through which Gorky and many other American modernists found employment during the Great Depression. Gorky became fast friends with many of New York City’s emerging avant-garde artists, including Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, John Graham, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith. He briefly studied at the Grand Central School of Art, later becoming an art instructor there. Among his students was Mark Rothko.

Arshile Gorky’s relationships with members of the surrealist group in exile in the United States during the 1940s—including André Breton, Max Ernst, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy—contributed to the development of his mature style, a highly original form of surrealist automatism characterized by biomorphic forms rendered with thinned-out washes of paint, as in Waterfall (1943) and his 1947 Betrothal series. After his marriage in 1941 to Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whose parents had a farm in Virginia, Gorky’s experience of the American landscape would enrich his artistic vision, and, beginning in 1943, emerges as a central theme in the lush, evocative paintings for which Gorky is best known. The rich farmland and bucolic atmosphere of rural Virginia (and later Sherman, Connecticut) reminded Gorky of his father’s farm near Lake Van, and inspired him to create freely improvised abstract works that combined memories of his Armenian childhood with direct observations from nature. The resulting paintings, such as Scent of Apricots on the Fields (1944) and The Plow and the Song series (1944–47), are remarkable for their evocative strength, lyrical beauty, and fecundity of organic forms.

Arshile Gorky’s last years were tragic. In January 1946, a fire in his Connecticut studio destroyed 27 recent paintings. Shortly thereafter, he underwent a painful operation for rectal cancer, and while recovering created some of the most powerful, though agonized, works of his final years, including the haunting Charred Beloved series (1946), which alludes to his lost paintings. In June 1948, Gorky was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a broken neck and temporarily paralyzed his painting arm. His young wife left him shortly afterward to pursue a brief affair with Matta, Gorky’s friend and mentor. Gorky took his own life on July 21, 1948, leaving behind an impressive body of work that secured his reputation as one of the great painters of the 20th century and an important precursor to abstract expressionism.

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Tate Modern, London, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.


The exhibition is accompanied by a 400-page catalogue, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press. The catalogue includes essays by a group of noted art historians and curators: Harry Cooper, Jody Patterson, Robert Storr, Michael R. Taylor, and Kim Servart Theriault, who present new theoretical approaches to the artist’s work. The essays build upon new biographical details about the artist’s Armenian background that have emerged in recent years, while also exploring Gorky’s creative thinking, his unique experimentation and extraordinary command of materials, and his imaginative exploration of various themes. The catalogue is fully illustrated in color and includes a section devoted to Gorky’s exhibition history, a bibliography, and a chronology of his life and work. It is available for $65 at all MOCA Store locations.

The international tour is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art. The U.S. tour is supported by The Lincy Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The exhibition at MOCA is presented by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Generous support is provided by Lenore S. and Bernard A. Greenberg; Parx Casino and Racetrack, Philadelphia; Steve Martin; The MOCA Contemporaries; and the Pasadena Art Alliance. Additional support is provided by the MOCA Friends of Arshile Gorky: Kip and Mary Ann Hagopian in honor of Charles E. Young, Mrs. Joseph H. Stein, Jr., and Mrs. Louise Danelian. In-kind media support is provided by Ovation TV, Asbarez Daily Newspaper/Horizon Armenian TV, YEREVAN Magazine, and Los Angeles magazine.

MOCA, Los Angeles
June 6 – September 20, 2010

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