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Arshile Gorky
Probably the most misunderstood style of painting ever to confound the non-art world is that which came out of what art historians refer to as the New York School. It was, of course, not a school, except in the most informal sense that everyone was learning from everyone else. It was a hard lesson. It was new. It was daring. It was controversial. It was Abstract Expressionism, though not all of it was abstract nor was it all expressionistic. It grew out of a number of influences, from German Expressionism, from Cubism, and from Surrealism. And lastly, it grew out of the fact that a number of practising European artists, at the height of their careers and creative output, were politically astute enough to foresee the turmoil of World War II as it was about to engulf Europe. They quietly packed up their paints, easels, brushes and most of all their individual styles for the trip to New York City.

The time was the 1930s. Life, even in this country, was not easy. At first, somewhat like fish out of water, they were a bit muddled. But gradually they integrated themselves into the New York world of art. They were men like André Breton, Salvador Dali, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Max Ernst. Here they found a number of earlier émigrés such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, and Arshile Gorky. They also joined with their American counterparts in a sort of loose, intellectual alliance and survived as best they could, more or less waiting out the war. However, even during the war, quietly, anonymously, some of the first Abstract Expressionist paintings were being committed to canvas. And quite possibly bearing the honour of being the first Abstract Expressionist was Arshile Gorky.

Gorky was born in Turkish Armenia in 1904. His mother died of starvation as Turkey brutally evicted its Armenian population during WW I. He fled the country and eventually ended up in New York about 1925. Here he migrated once more through a number of styles from Cézanne to Miro before coming under the influence of Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. As early as 1940, he began preparatory drawings for a painting not finished until some three years later entitled Garden in Sochi. The work is rendered on a white ground with thin, black outlines, splashes of red, yellow, black, and green. It's filled with fluid, organic shapes somewhat reminiscent of a painted, Calder mobile. Also noticeable are influences dating back as far as Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare, a mixed-media abstraction of 1923, and that of Joan Miro's peculiar brand of Surrealism from the 1930s. Though Rothko, Lee Krasner, and others were working simultaneously on their own Abstract Expressionist paintings during the war, it was from Arshile Gorky that many of them drew their inspiration.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
17 August 1998


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