Reinventing Life: the Black Angel from Vaspurakan

Armenian International Magazine (AIM) April 2000, Volume 11, No. 4

Reinventing Life

Nouritza Matossian on Arshile Gorky: the Black Angel from Vaspurakan

By HRATCH TCHILINGIRIAN

Arshile Gorky, a painter…the first cousin of Maxim Gorky, the writer… ends life,” wrote The New York Times in a short obituary on July 22, 1948.

Arshile Gorky had introduced himself as a Tiflis-born Georgian prince who had fled his native Caucasus mountains and Bolshevik persecutions. He had studied in Paris, he said, with the great artists of the time, such as Maillol and Kandinsky, and continued his studies in the US at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The artist who had assumed the pseudonym of the Russian playwright to whom he was not related was in fact born in 1902 in the village of Khorkom, in Van, Western Armenia. His mother, Shushanig Adoian, named him Manoug but called him after her hometown, Vosdanik.

Gorky had reinvented himself in America having survived immeasurable horrors in his early life. “No other major artist of this century had experiences as dreadful as those endured by Gorky in the years between 1915 and 1918,” wrote Richard Dorment in The New York Review of Books.

His “fabulous dark looks, soulful Armenian eyes and magnificent” six-foot-four frame, coupled with his wit, charisma and passion made Gorky a “celebrity” in the New York art scene. He barely made ends meet despite giving private art lessons, teaching at the Grand Central School and occasionally selling paintings.

Over five decades after his death, Nouritza Matossian, author of a new book on Gorky, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (Overlook 2000), presents a comprehensive new study of the life and works of one of the most famous modern American artists.

“My whole intention was to find the real background of who Gorky had been,” says Matossian. “Artistically, I wanted to find out why his paintings were more mysterious and had different colors and textures, why they were so individual compared to other artists of his generation with whom he was being constantly compared. And I thought, and I still do, that the keys of his genius are in his childhood. Indeed, what one absorbs unconsciously and then what one does with it in maturity is very important. When you take on all this experience, you learn from the world outside you, bringing ideas and techniques and you ask questions and you try to find answers. Finally, you marry that with who you are instinctively. Then you can do something really extraordinary. And that’s what Gorky did.”

Many scholars consider Gorky the founder of the New York School. “The very fact that his abstract paintings were being shown very early on in the Whitney Museum of American Art, twice a year, attests to his role in New York,” explains Matossian, who has interviewed over 100 individuals connected with Gorky’s life.

“His students say that Gorky was the leader they needed. He gave them the paintings that they needed to study. Artists and students would sit down and listen to him and study his paintings. That’s what created a movement,” continues Matossian. “He was always questioning and criticizing.” Indeed, “in the 30s when people were producing paintings by formula or assigned by the government, Gorky did not follow the norm. He went on to produce some of the most interesting abstract murals of the period.”

Today, Gorky’s paintings hang in some of the most prestigious museums and galleries in the US and England, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Tate Gallery in London. A Gorky painting today could sell for upwards of seven million dollars. Too late for an artist who was barely able to pay for his supply of brushes and paints.

The memory of the Armenian Genocide is the subtext of Gorky’s life in America. And Matossian threads Gorky’s personal experience with the universal dimension of human suffering. “I wanted to see the Genocide through Gorky’s life and experience,” says Matossian. It was important for her to visit his birthplace, the only Gorky scholar to have done so. “It became very clear to me through my research that his whole painting, his style and the way he approached his subjects, based on his memory, always was an attempt to be with his genocide past, with the fracturing of his life and with his loss. You can almost assemble a painting together and reconstruct your life, your past, you can make the shattered pieces of your life come together again. There is also a great tendency in his paintings to dismember things, like the bits of bodies he saw. The bits of the country side which got chopped off,” explains Matossian.

Cyprus-born Matossian, who is also the author of a book on composer Iannis Xenakis, passionately explains that Black Angel has a message of hope despite its sad ending. “I think this book has an amazing message for everyone. For people who are dispossessed, there is a message of survival; Gorky’s life shows that with courage and tenacity you can achieve what he achieved. It is only a message of hope,” she concludes.

[excerpts]

Adapted from Black Angel: The Life of
Arshile Gorky ©2000 by Nouritza Matossian.
ISBN 1-58567-006-5 Reprinted by arrangement with The Overlook Press, New York.

Hratch Tchilingirian
2000-04-01
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