ARSHILE GORKY 1904 – 1948

May 9th – September 22nd, 2019

Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice


For the first time in Italy, Ca’ Pesaro celebrates the genius of Arshile Gorky, one of the most prominent figures in the history of 20th century American Art.

The exhibit includes 80 works on canvas and a selection of drawings on paper from the beginning of his career in the 1920’s to his late works in 1945, when he lived in the countryside of Virginia and Connecticut. 

The significant paintings were loaned by prestigious public institutions and private collectors: the Albraight-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo, the National Gallery of Washington, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art of New York, the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, and in Europe the Tate London and the Centre Pompidou of Paris.

Presented as an exhaustive retrospective survey, the curator displays the detailed phases of his singular career, from his interest in Cézanne style that provided the basis for his peculiar research to the development of a personal approach to painting, based on new modes of abstraction.

Gorky was a migrant who escaped from the Armenian genocide. 

In fact he was born Vostanik Manoug Adoian from a poor family in Armenia, which was still ruled by the Ottomans, and his father only emigrated to America in 1908 in the hope to offer his family a better future. 

In 1915 his wife and the four children seek refuge in a Russian controlled area, while the Ottomans were arranging the genocide. 

Unfortunately Adoian’s mother died of starvation a short time later and finally his 16 years old son managed to reach his father to America where he reinvented his own identity, taking the name of Arshile Gorky in honor of a Georgian aristocrat.

The young Arshile was immediately fascinated by the world of art. 

He became student of the New School of Design in Boston, which played a crucial role in his artistic debut and financial sustenance, as he eventually worked as a part-time teacher. 

At that time he didn’t have much money to buy a canvas, so he used painted ones for his new works, layer upon layer.

He gained interest in the post-impressionist painters and particularly in Paul Cézanne, that permeated his early works.

From the beginning he was a tireless worker, as he said “today I painted so much that my knees are trembling from being on my feet or maybe painting so much”….. 

He strongly believed in the importance of education and the sharing of knowledge with young generations, actually at the age of 21 years old he was asked to teach at Grand Central School of Art for 6 years.

His personal style was soon appreciated by some wealthy donor, like John Rockfeller  who bought the Cézanne oriented canvas “Fruit” in 1931 from the Downtown Gallery in New York, and by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project in 1933, which later included artists as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Marc Rothko and Diego Rivera.

In those years the sources of inspiration extended to the latest European Avant-gardes, particularly Cubism and Surrealism which broke out in 1924 in Paris, without ignoring the great masters of French classicism, such as Ingres who provided smoothness and simplicity of line to his portraits. 

He also paid a tribute to Picasso’s work in terms of form and color, who was also a milestone in art of another American painter, Willem de Kooning. 

He met Gorky in 1934 and said that “he had an extraordinary gift for hitting the mail on the head..”: they became great friends since then. 

A few years later World War Two broke out in Europe and a large number of Avant-garde artists moved to New York, among which André Breton, the theoretician of Surrealism. When he saw Gorky’s painting “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”, he was enthusiastic about it, and stated that Gorky was a true Surrealist, the highest compliment for him. 

But great artists refuse labels, and he considered himself neither an orthodox surrealist nor an orthodox abstract expressionist, he wanted to be simply Gorky, which we can deduce from the statement “I want to attain works which are more personal and clean”.

His exclusive interpretation of the great masters of art together with his spontaneous approach to nature gave life to a powerful vision made of surreal, figurative and abstract, combined with private early memories and new perception. 

Gorky’s contribution to the world of art is due to his considerable influence on the New York School and Abstract Expressionist painters. 

In addition to it, next generations will see Gorky as a liberating figure who doesn’t fit into a group or another, but as an free spirit who tested lots of things in order to deliver the true essence of his genius.