Art Criticism journal, volume 25, number 1&2.
Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof; A Life in Letters and Documents, Matthew Spender (ed.), Ridinghouse, London, 2009.
Goats on the Roof documents the story of Arshile Gorky's life through personal letters, private correspondence between family and friends, and significant contemporary reviews. The volume includes many previously unpublished texts by and about Gorky, compiled and introduced by Matthew Spender (author of From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky," artist, sculptor, married to Gorky’s daughter Maro, and the son of poet Stephen Spender).
This collection of notes, papers and documents shows Gorky's devotion to his family, his Armenian heritage relationship, and his struggle for recognition. In the village on Lake Van in Armenia where Gorky was born and raised, goats could disturb a night's sleep by jumping onto the flat clay roof to steal the precious drying apricots. Gorky used this phrase to express his feeling of odds with his new world. Gorky's gradual reception by the art world is seen implicitly through art reviews, personal accounts, and interviews. Shortly after his death he was acknowledged as a seminal figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism and an essential part of American culture.
No startling new revelations, such as how Gorky managed to afford a plethora of the best art materials or a separate studio when most artists worked in makeshift quarters, their kitchens, or bedrooms. But certainly Gorky is rendered in a more human and personable temperament before his tragedies. When he talked about his past, he never referred to the siege, the Genocide, or his grave conditions. Instead he talked about “my country,” meaning the village of his boyhood where all sorts of wonderful and exotic things had taken place. His stories were not meant to be categorically comprehended and they were certainly not meant to be probed by questions; he preferred to talk about “goats on the roof”.
Beyond the near-impossible task of establishing the facts of Gorky's early life, we have no knowledge of his attitude to his Armenian heritage. In a succession of books published in the 1970s, Karlen Mooradian, the son of Gorky's younger sister Vartush, published translations of some letters allegedly written by his uncle. Gorky’s success enabled many Armenians to claim “external validation” for their national identity. After Karlen's death, the original letters could not be found, and most scholars agree that they were fabricated by Karlen. Vartush and her husband Murad were Communists in a predominantly Armenian Revolutionary Federation family. Murad was a U.S. citizen and had fought in World War I; Vartush was not a U.S. citizen and had no right of return but Gorky arranged passage through a refugee association.
The present book contains the letters from Gorky to Vartush “that we know are by him.” These include fresh translations of his letters with transcriptions of the original Armenian in an appendix by Father Krikor Maksoudian. This makes clear that Gorky's writings are everything that the Karlen letters are not. For better or worse, a complex vision of Armenian history, political beliefs, and cultural identity is conspicuously absent from Gorky's authentic documents.
Spender’s book is divided into fifteen chapters, from “Childhood and Youth” to “After Gorky’s Death,” followed by “Language: Gorky’s Armenian Writings”, a thorough elucidation of Armenian syntax edited by Father Krikor Maksoudian, Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in New York City, where Gorky’s letters, in the original Armenian, are located. Father Maksoudian discusses Gorky’s “mastery of Armenian and the level of education this implies.”
In 1915 Gorky’s tranquil childhood came to a traumatic end when the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey was slaughtered or sent into exile; thousands of Armenians starved to death, including his mother. Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanik Adoian in 1905, and
stayed with relatives in Massachusetts after his arrival in America in 1920. He completed his education promptly and set about turning himself into a painter. He attended the New School of Design in Boston, moved to New York City and changed his name to Arshile Gorky (a reference to Maxim Gorky). Although he occasionally pretended to be related to Maxim Gorky and to have studied with Vasily Kandinsky in Paris, in his last résumé he describes himself more accurately as “self-taught."
As a young teacher of painting at the Grand Central School of Art in New York, he was bright, humorous, and confident, “walking back and forth … telling his long fanciful delightful tales of his boyhood in Russia.” During the early 1930s, when he had abandoned teaching at Grand Central School, Gorky took on two private pupils, Ethel Schwabacher and Mina Metzger, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of his life. In the mid 1930s he became a leader of abstract artists of NY, a minor hero who had completed the largest commission of abstract art financed by the Federal Government, the WPA mural for the Newark Airport in New Jersey
Throughout the 1930s there was a prevalence of meetings, petitions, picket lines, detentions, Artists’ Committee for Action, Unemployed Artists’ Group, and other artists’ activities. But Gorky’s interest waned as the political agenda of these groups took over. In Stuart Davis’s recollection of Gorky in Magazine of Art, February 1951, he wrote, “I was in these things from the beginning and so was Gorky. I took the business as seriously as the situation demanded … Gorky was less intense about it and still wanted to play.” “Play” has been interpreted by many critics to mean Gorky was less interested in politics and more interested in developing his painting. A footnote by Spender further explains that the break between Davis and Gorky was deeper than either side admitted.
Gorky met his first wife Marney George at an exhibition at the Municipal Gallery in the Rockefeller Center, which was an attempt to create a museum of contemporary art. But the show was dogged by scandal. Nelson Rockefeller, who loaned the premises, withdrew his support when he was harassed by protesters for destroying the mural he had commissioned from Diego Rivera. The fact that the protests were backed by Communists was unacceptable to Rockefeller and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Marney George writes an interesting account of their days together in a 1951 letter to James Thrall Soby: “How many personal symbols in his last paintings have an unbearable clarity for me.”
Agnes Magruder’s father was a Commander in the U.S. Navy; in 1938 the Magruder family was in China where she heard reports of the Long March and the declaration of war against the Japanese by Mao Zedong. Agnes could not understand why the U.S. insisted on backing the Nationalists. Eventually she rebelled against her tradition–bound parents and eventually traveled to New York in 1940 to study painting. There, she met Willem de Kooning who introduced her to Gorky. During the early months of her relationship with Gorky she worked for China Today, a magazine supporting the Communist cause. Gorky gave her the name 'Mougouch' an affectionate Armenian term meaning “strong little one;” she thought he meant Mickey Mouse. They were married in 1941.
Many personal letters shed unexpected light on Gorky’s paintings. Visiting her parents’ farm in Virginia, Mougouch wrote to Jeanne Reynal in the summer of 1944, always in a stream-of-conscious style, that “Gorky has been thrashing over two particular canvases & having now ravaged & worn them down like an angry sea he has left them to go out and draw - draw - draw. Today he is heart broken because the farmer has cut the weeds to let the grass grow for the cows & all looks too park-like for Gorky who loved the purple thistles & great milkweeds & ragweeds - Poor dear he always gets slugged - He stood on the hill watching the tractor down in the bottom land moaning `They are cutting down the Raphaels...`”
Mougrouch recalled that Gorky overheard someone remark about a flour mill, and mistook “flour” for “flower.” Gorky said about his Water of the Flowery "...down the road, by
the stream, that Old Mill, it used to grind corn, now it is covered with vines, birds, flowers." In his Introduction Spender mentions how fellow painter Roberto Matta Echaurren had tossed turpentine over his canvas to wipe it down and start over; he liked what he saw and continued working. “Such openness to accidents was unknown to Gorky.” The effect was liberating; the "flowery" title echoed the use of brilliant hues and the thin application of paint applied like liquid watercolor. “The titles of his paintings were Gorky’s own, chosen haphazardly because to him a title was a superfluous addition … The Diary of a Seducer
is an exception, there Gorky did ask Max Ernst for a title, he always admired Max’s titles and was delighted with this one.”
In letters to Ethel Schwabacher, Mougouch explained: “… G drew directly from nature, a group of trees, hills, a telephone pole and never used people in nature. He saw fantastic animals and menacing heads in the shapes of trees and felt the earth as a swell, a bosom, an expansion like a sigh. many of the shapes in the final drawings or paintings were arbitrarily picked out or unconsciously drawn from the tensions he felt between the branches of different trees for instance. The tree completely not seen as a tree. there are some drawings which I can actually see as a certain place, the fundamental arrangement of shapes in nature serving as a base. The song and the plough is of a field that goes up from the barn or what was the barn. there is no waterfall the intestinal shape or whatever you call it (Maro called it a big worm to Gorky's delight) was a collapsed haystack. Haystack field and sky are the elements.” Perhaps this refers to The Plough and the Song.
“G himself did not always know what he intended and was as surprised as a stranger at what the drawing became after an hour of work. it seemed to suggest itself to him constantly, the way it does to children except of course he had all the techniques and mastery of his art and other idioms at his fingertips.“
“The aesthetic intention as seen from Gorky's point of view is practically impossible to define .. in the first place G himself did not always know what he intended and was as surprised as a stranger at what the drawing became after an hour of work. it seemed to suggest itself to him constantly, the way it does to children except of course he had all the techniques and mastery of his art and other idioms at his fingertips … When he painted from his drawings it was different from drawing from nature because he was editing his own emotion and adding and using all his conscious knowledge of his art. This produced some wonderful paintings but he sometimes said he wished he could eliminate that art and make the painting as direct on the canvas as the emotion was within him in front of the nature.”
In January 1946, many paintings, drawings, art books, etc., were completely destroyed by fire in his Connecticut studio. Mougouch wrote a moving account to Jeanne Reynal: “I sobbed and cried … Gorky sounded so hollow I think my heart broke … I was so afraid for him - & when he walked into the studio [in New York] … he was wonderful – he has been wonderful ever since He says it is all inside him … Gorky is a most awesome phoenix. … The fire was awful, breathtaking, but I have never seen Gorky so strong, so calm, so free as he was that next day. The studio was destroyed but the paintings, he said, were all in him. He would make better ones.” Gorky repainted many canvases for his scheduled exhibition, and some of the paintings, such as Plough and Song, were replacements for works lost in the studio fire.
Then in February Gorky was stricken with a colostomy for rectal cancer. Mougouch sent a letter to Jeanne Reynal, “… he had the very best surgeon. Several doctors were there. 2 of them friends of ours & they have told me it was a very fine piece of surgery – Jesus What an expression…” She writes explicitly and in considerable detail about breaching “a hole on the side of his belly to make up for what they had to take away … I wish this had happened to me. I love him more than I have ever dreamed it was possible to love …”
Two years later an automobile accident left his neck fractured and his painting arm paralyzed (Julien Levy, his dealer, was driving but was uninjured). Mougouch, worn out by his rage, depression, hostility, and violent behavior, and out of desperation rather than betrayal, had a brief affair with Matta. His jealousy and aggression were made worse by his tragedies and the marriage failed under the strain. On 21 July 1948, he wrote, “Goodbye, my beloveds” in chalk on a wooden crate in his Connecticut studio and hanged himself. In a footnote Spender remarks that another version is “Good-bye my `loveds` … Levy’s words, including the odd quotation marks, are more consistent with Gorky’s writings … `Goodbye, my beloveds` were words Alexander Pushkin wrote “the night before he was killed in a duel.”
In Clement Greenberg’s review in The Nation, in early 1945, he had written, “He has had trouble freeing himself from influences and asserting his own personality. … He became one of those artists who awaken perpetual hope the fulfillment of which is indefinitely postponed.” Almost as soon as Gorky died, Greenberg wrote that he regretted “a good many of the things I said then, largely out of pedantry. “ Spender adds: “The word 'pedantry' covers the numerous questions that Greenberg was trying to answer, as it were, through Gorky. Once the artist himself was no longer there, it became clear that these questions had no bearing on Gorky's work.“ Indeed, Greenberg reviewed the Whitney Museum Annual exhibition in The Nation, 10 January 1948: The Calendars ”is the best painting in the exhibition and one of the best pictures ever done by an American.”
Interestingly, there is no mention of Harold Rosenberg or Thomas B. Hess in the letters or documents.
In a very candid and unpublished critique of Ethel Schwabacher’s biography of Gorky (1957), Mougouch, no longer in her stream-of-conscious writing, wrote a synopsis of their life and times, and took exception to much of what Schwabacher wrote. “Mrs Schwabacher’s book does not make clear how passionately American Gorky was. Gorky had hoped the Surrealists’ attention would bring him the recognition he wanted. … when Breton went back to Paris, Gorky turned hopefully toward Europe – surely they would call him? – but they didn’t.”
If Gorky had lived ten years longer and joined Breton in Paris as he had planned, he may well have been eliminated from the history of American painting. “I can only say of Mrs. Schwabacher's account of his early life and the 1930's that its just as he told it to me - with a few exceptions - his ommissions [sic] but very important ommissions to him. I never knew, for instance, that his true and given name was not Arshile Gorky until after he died - nor that he had a father in Providence, Rhode Island, until I read Mrs. Schwabacher's book. The father he told me of had given him a pair of little red shoes at the age of five on the edge of Lake Van and ridden away into the morning mist never to return. No joy, no black despair ever wrung from him the admission that he was born Vostanig Adoian: he was the painter Arshile Gorky to the very limit of his life, of his love, entire personality a pure creation of the will to paint. … When Mrs. Schwabacher says on page 133 that by the Fall of 1947 Gorky was exhausted, emotionally bankrupt, she should say no more; she shouldn’t drag it on for another 15 sordid pages. … To live beyond this is hell on earth, and hell he was in.”
Filled with valuable information about American culture in the early twentieth century, the art public will learn much about the livelihood and business of being an artist, or being married to/living with one. With an informative Introduction, a Bibliography, Sources, and Index, this is an important book for scholars and writers of the rise of Abstract Expressionism, a valuable addition to any university library, and an adjunct to Matthew Spender’s and Hayden Herrera’s biographies of Gorky.
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