The show of 140 drawings, some never before exhibited publicly, is too big for its own good and can be an exhausting experience even for Gorky fans. Quite often less is more, a lesson some enthusiastic museum curators have yet to learn. But even so, the Gorky show is well worth a visit before it closes Feb. 15.
Viewers with limited time should concentrate on the works of Gorky's greatest years, beginning in the 1940s when he was first exposed to the beauties of rural America.
It was then he began to embrace natural and organic forms into his abstract vocabulary of symbols, turning out multiple variations of each image of leaves, grasses, petals, and insects in large drawings highlighted with transparent washes of muted color. The symbols are generally believed to relate to the triumphs and tragedies of his troubled life and to subconscious sexual fantasies.
The drawings, usually graphite or crayon, have a light, ephemeral quality that is quite beautiful and on close examination seem to depict a world of floating biomorphic forms linked together by tenuous lines broken by splatters of color. The artist left most of them untitled, leaving it up to the viewer to guess the meaning of his work.
But he did title others, such as the ink drawing "Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia," a complicated composition of large, dark abstract forms with considerable tonal weight.
Some of the drawings show signs of erasures and under-drawings, and often color is separated from an outlining line, resulting in a playful counterpoint that is pure Gorky.
However, it will be obvious to anyone acquainted with modern art that Gorky was more often an imitator than an initiator of style, for there are overtones of Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Giorgio de Chirico, Vassily Kandinsky, Andre Masson, Roberto Matta, and Stuart Davis throughout his drawings. The influence of these artists has been well digested and subjected to Gorky's own individualistic artistic gifts.
The artist emigrated to the United States in 1920 at age 15, a refugee from the Turkish campaign of genocide in 1919 that wiped out his Armenian family, including his mother, who starved to death to give her children food. He changed his name from Vosdanik Adolian to Arshile Gorky (meaning "bitter" in Russian), and threw himself into the New York art scene.
An outstanding draftsman, Gorky began teaching art and haunting museums and galleries where he absorbed the style of the Old Masters, the modernists, and the work of his contemporaries. The Whitney show includes many examples of his early work, illustrating his borrowing of negative space from Cezanne, line from Picasso, and metaphor from Picasso.
One of his most famous works, a 1926 drawing of his mother, Shushan Adolian, is an homage to Picasso's classic period. She is depicted with sad, hooded eyes, a turned down mouth, and a sweet but vacant expression. That he lifted this image from a photograph of himself and his mother taken in happier times is proved by display of the photo, showing little Vosdanik offering a bouquet of flowers to his parent.
Gorky's self-portrait, a drawing dated 1936, shows a sad-eye man troubled by memories and facing down loneliness. He didn't fall in love until five years later, marrying Agnes Magruder and spending summers thereafter on her family's Virginia farm with their two daughters. Later the couple established themselves happily in Sherman, Conn., but Gorky's studio there burned down in 1946, destroying much of his art.
From then on life went downhill for the artist. A bout with cancer sent him into severe mental depression, his wife had an affair with Matta, he broke his neck and his painting arm in a car crash, and he was plagued by insomnia and headaches. After a drunken marital showdown in which he pushed Agnes down a flight of stairs, he hung himself at the age of 43.
His suicide in 1948 came at the very time his fellow abstractionists such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, whose work was indebted to his example, were winning serious attention in New York. If Gorky had lived longer he probably would have been one of the central figures in the Abstract Expressionist school of painters that dominated world art for the next 20 years.