Bitter Life of a 'Bitter' Artist
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The life of Arshile Gorky, one of the most famous mid-century American artists, was marked by tragedy from the very beginning. Born around 1902 in an Armenian province of Ottoman Turkey, he and his family experienced the horror of the 1915 Genocide, during which more than a million Armenians were massacred. Somehow, he, his mother and three sisters escaped, though a few short years later, his mother died of starvation. At the age of 16, he managed to find his way to America, eventually settling in New York in 1924. In the following twenty plus years, this self-taught painter absorbed the lessons of a number of great artists, from Cezanne to Picasso to Miro. Along the way, he found his own artistic voice and created some of the most profound paintings of the 20th century, which continue to powerfully resonate, sixty years later. He also became close friends with and mentor to another European escapee, Willem de Kooning, who, as a stowaway, sneaked into New York at about the same time as Gorky.
The remarkable retrospective of his works - previously seen in Philadelphia and London - just arrived in LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and what an exhibition it is. For sure, you'll want to see it more than once, because the story it tells is so big, so complex, and so dramatic. And I will talk about this exhibition in the coming weeks, but for now, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk and look at the two heartbreaking images. One is the old, faded photograph of him as a child, standing next to his mother. The other is his best-known painting - a haunting image of Gorky and his mother - based on this black and white photo, but finished decades later. In the famous, defining scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Prince is visited by the ghost of his father; Arshile Gorky had to live his entire life with the painful memory of his childhood and the ghost of his dead mother.
In true American fashion, when he arrived here as a youngster, he reinvented himself, claiming to be the cousin of Maxim Gorky, the famous Russian playwright, whose surname he adopted. Not a lot of people know that the Russian word gorky means "bitter." And god knows, the personal life of this Armenian émigré started and definitely ended on a very bitter note. Overwhelmed by a series of tragedies, including a fire destroying a number of his paintings, a car accident which broke his neck, and a betrayal by his wife with his best friend, Arshile Gorky committed suicide in 1948. The story of his life makes you want to cry. His art - and this beautifully installed exhibition – makes your spirit soar.
There have been many artists who came to America to find their artistic identity. For most of the 20th century, their destination was New York, but in the last few decades, Los Angeles has become the city of choice for foreigners pursuing an artistic career on these shores.
I was thinking about that while going on Saturday to Chinatown to see the exhibition of French-born, LA-based artist Pierre Picot, who in his fantastical landscapes fuses traditions of Asian scroll paintings with the art of the European avant-garde.
A few miles north is the studio and garden of well-known Japanese-American sculptor and ceramicist Mineo Mizuno, whom I visited the same day to see the latest surprises coming out of his kiln.
And lucky for me, the day ended with a conversation with Uta Barth, another LA-based European expatriate, a wonderful Berlin-born photographer with a current exhibition at 1301 PE Gallery on the Miracle Mile.
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 20
PIERRE PICOT & Pierre Picot collaborations with ...
On view at Jancar Gallery through June 12
On view at 1301 PE through July 2
Banner image: (L) Arshile Gorky and his mother; (R) The Artist and His Mother (detail)