Arshile Gorky takes his place among the tragic heroes of art history. A survivor of the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was haunted for the rest of his life by the specters of his lost homeland. His vivid, expressionist masterpieces, which anticipated Abstract Expressionism by some 10 years and pioneered abstract art in North America, reflect his enormous suffering as an exile and outsider in America. His work also shows the depth and breadth of his emotional capacity, and the intensity with which he experienced the brief interludes of joy and peace in his life.
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective celebrates the extraordinary life and work of Arshile Gorky (about 1902â€“1948), a seminal figure in the movement toward abstraction that transformed American art. This exhibition, which includes about 178 works of art, surveys Gorky’s entire career from the early 1920s until his death by suicide in 1948. The retrospective includes paintings, sculpture, prints, and drawingsâ€”some of which are being shown for the first timeâ€”and reveals Gorky’s development as an artist and the evolution of his singular visual vocabulary and mature painting style.
Gorky was one of the first artists to enlist with the Public Works of Art project in 1933, formed to give artists work during the Depression. He joined the Artists’ Union, which began in 1935 as the first attempt ever to organize artists as laborers in America. Much of the art being created showed a social realist influence, and many of the murals being painted by the PWA resembled propaganda. This context of art “for the masses” and artists as “cultural workers” frustrated Gorky, who believed in the hallowed transcendence of the artist over politics. In a lecture at the Artists’ League, he finally broke with the current prominence of overtly political art when he declared it “poor art for poor people!” Despite this antipathy toward political art, he applied to the newly formed Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project in 1935, and began work on a series of murals on the theme of aviation that would occupy much of his attention until he left the WPA in 1939. He also had multiple shows during this time, including a one-person exhibit at the Guild Art Gallery that was highly praised in the New York Post. Around this time he also painted his famous Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia
The highlight of the exhibition is a series of â€œcreation chambers,â€ based on the artist’s description of his studio in Union Square, New York, in which some of Gorky’s most powerful and best-known paintings are being shown alongside their related studies and preparatory drawings. Benefiting from new biographical information that has come to light in recent years, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective will present a critical reassessment of this key figure in modern art. This comprehensive retrospective is the first full-scale survey of Gorky’s work in nearly thirty years, thus providing a new generation of viewers with the opportunity to see this complex, influential, and deeply moving body of work.
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.
In Philadelphia, the exhibition is made possible by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, and by the Neubauer Family Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Dadourian Foundation, The Robert Montgomery Scott Fund for Exhibitions, the Locks Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Hirair Hovnanian and other Friends of Arshile Gorky, a group of generous individuals.
The catalogue was made possible by Larry Gagosian and The Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications, with additional support provided by Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.