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Arshile Gorky's status as a painter essential to the development of contemporary art is indisputable, and he has long been acknowledged as the vital link between European modern art and Ameican Abstract Expressionism. Stylistically, as well as chronologically, he fits that role perfectly, having reached artistic maturity in the 1940s by blending certain elements of Cubism and Surrealism into his own unique style of painting. Gorky, in turn, provided inspiration and stylistic direction for the painters of the New York School that followed.
Gorky's historical importance has not always been perceived this clearly. In fact, prior to the 1950s he was frequently regarded as a highly eclectic painter showing little promise of originality. His devotion to a succession of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists--including Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Joan Miro--was generally misconstrued as mere imitation by those critics and the public who did not perceive the purposefulness of Gorky's eclecticism. Harold Rosenberg in 1962 attempted to put this criticism of Gorky in a more positive light when he stated that the artist's originality lay in his deliberate rejection of that concept. Furthermore, Gorky's preference for modern European art at a time when native subject matter and realism prevailed in this country was in itself a form of originality and a sign of independence.
Gorky's passionate interest in the European masters reflected his old world concept of art education. Traditionally, painters had been trained by serving as apprentices to recognized masters. Because America had not yet produced any great modern artists, this type of trainingwas not available to Gorky. To learn modern painting, he had to educate himself in the next best manner: by analyzing the works, imitating the styles, and reading about the ideas of the European artists he venerated. In borrowing their styles and perfecting his technique, Gorky hoped to cultivate his own style, which would then advance the history of art. As his sister Vartoosh has said, Gorky wanted to add his name to those of Cezanne and Picasso as part of the progression of great modern masters.
Gorky achieved his ambition of becoming a link in the art historical chain. Maturing between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, he was connected to both movements without belonging entirely to either one. In his use of certain Surrealist techniques and imagery he clearly relates to the Europeans, but his goal of translating into poetic vision his feelings, memories, and responses to the natural world was a far cry from the theories of the Surrealist painters. The fact that he painted his personal visions in highly abstract forms, evocative colors, and painterly strokes associates him with the Abstract Expressionists, but Gorky's images and colors are based on nature and did not arise spontaneously from unconscious impulse. Moreover, Gorky's work descends from the European tradition in which beauty and craftsmanshhip are primary concerns, as opposed to the rawness of Jackson Pollock's canvases and those of some other New York School painters.
In spite of these differences, Gorky exerted a considerable influence on the Abstract Expressionists. His commitment to self-expression, his individuality, his idealism, and his courage to forge a new style inspired ohers. Without Gorky's heroic example, the art of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and Clyfford Still would be almost unimaginable. Yet the direct impact of his style has been comparatively modest. Of the primary Abstract Expressionists, only de Kooning has visually and verbally acknowledged his debt to Gorky's shapes and line. It was not until the 1950s that Gorky's stylistic influence became more obvious in the lyrical abstractions reminiscent of natural landscapes that were created by such second-generation Abstract Expressionists as Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Sam Francis. Gorky's style was also indirectly perpetuated through de Kooning's monumental impact on others of the second generation.
Gorky's position as a pivotal figure in art history became apparent only after Abstract Expressionism had been recognized as the first American movement of international importance. Such an assessment based principally on style is accurate, but it represents only one approach to Gorky's art. Any comprehensive account of Gorky and his work must consider many factors rather than depending exclusively on one single element that would distort rather than clarify. A purely stylistic evaluation, for example, ignores the significance of Gorky's Armenian heritage in determining the course of his artistic development. The painter's nephew Karlen Mooradian has provided valuable information about Gorky's early life in Armenia and has presented a persuasive case that this heritage lay at the heart of Gorky's creativity. On the other hand, Harry Rand and a few others have offered thought-provoking iconographical interpretations. Such an approach to Gorky's art is appropriate but problematical, for Gorky left few clues, either visual or written, that enable us to identify the specific meanings of his abstrat images or to trace the transformations from what he observed to what he painted. The process of abstraction seems to have been an intangible interaction of vision, fantasy, memory, and emotion, with no intermediate stages made visible. A rare exception in Drawing (1946), which reveals how some of Gorky's images evolved during the process of abstraction. The cows in the lower half of the picture have been drastically simplified, with their udders, legs, and tails so distorted in shape and size that they are virtually unrecognizable out of context. There is no doubt that Gorky's other images are similarly rooted in nature, but without visual or documentary evidence, specific readings of his images must remain speculative. As for Gorky, he was content to let the viewer see and feel what he or she wished, though he was hopeful that the message conveyed by his paintings would parallel the feelings he had experienced while creating them.
Arshile Gorky's canvases have enduring power, as evidenced by the fact that nearly forty years after his death his pictures speak poignantly to new generations of viewers. But they also beckon those who have seen them many times before to look again and again, and each time something new is revealed.