Matthew Spender, who married Arshile Gorky’s older daughter, Maro, has followed the advice of art historian Giorgio Vasari in trying to give “a vision of the artist’s early life and the confraternity among which he lived.” In Gorky’s case this meant capturing the life a hundred years ago in the tiny Armenian villages near Lake Van in Turkey and the ordeal of the Armenians who fled to Yerevan in the new Armenia. Gorky was born in Khorkom, on the coast of Lake Van near the monastery of Charahan Surp Nishan, where his mother, Shushan der Marderosian, was born. Gorky’s father, Sedrak Adoian, was a poor farmer who had two children by his first wife before marrying Shushan, already the mother of two daughters by her first husband. Gorky, who was born Vostanig Adoian, had an older sister, Satenig, and a younger sister, Vartoosh, who settled in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Vostanig Adoian’s reason for choosing the name Arshile Gorky early in his career in America is something of a mystery. Gorky originally spelled his new name “Arshel,” which may have come from the Armenian word aysaharel, meaning “possessed by an evil spirit.” Attempts to pass himself off as a relative of Maxim Gorky were embarrassing, since the Russian writer’s real name was Peshkov. Throughout his life Gorky made up stories about his past, and not even his wife knew until after his death that he was an Armenian born Vostanig Adoian.
Gorky’s childhood around Lake Van was grim. The Armenians in eastern Turkey competed for living space with their Kurdish neighbors, who were favored by the Turks and consequently abused the Armenians. The first spouses of both of Gorky’s parents died during a massacre in 1896, and the 1915 genocide killed all the Armenians who were not driven out of Turkey. These two events shaped the world that Gorky grew up in. His father, Sedrak, was in his late thirties when he married the teenage widow with two daughters, Shushan der Marderosian. Sedrak emigrated to America when Gorky was a child, and never sent money for his family’s passage. In the years preceding the genocide, Gorky apparently enjoyed much of the village life, and he delighted in the stories his mother told him. The years from 1916 to 1919 were a nightmare existence in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, a country born May 26, 1918, and hunger and illness killed Shushan in 1918. The Armenian refugees adopted a strong faith in Russia as their salvation, and Gorky remained an ardent Russophile all his life. Spender speculates that the awfulness of these years was too painful for Gorky to accept, and perhaps explains “the tall tales with which he later camouflaged the past.”
On March 1, 1920, Gorky and his sister Vartoosh arrived in Watertown, Massachusetts, where they lived briefly with their half sister Akabi and her husband, Muggerdich Amerian, who had paid for their passage. Gorky also lived off and on with his father and his half brother, Hagop, in Cranston, Rhode Island, and he studied briefly at the Technical High School in Providence. In 1922 he started studying at the New School of Design in Boston, and in 1925 he moved to New York City to teach at a new branch of that school. A year later he rented a Sullivan Street loft and taught at the Grand Central School of Art. His paintings during this period strongly imitated Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.
Two artists who influenced Gorky’s thinking at this time were Stuart Davis and John Graham. One of Gorky’s earliest significant works, Nighttime Enigma and Nostalgia, begun in about 1931, derived its illusion of three-dimensional, interlocking shapes from Davis’s inventive still lifes, and Gorky’s “key canvas” of the mid-1930’s, Organization, was probably conceived during a visit with Davis. As for John Graham, Gorky did him the honor of stealing his past—that is, Gorky told friends that he had fled from a small village in Russia during the civil war between the Reds and the Whites in 1920. Graham, who actually had fought as an officer with the White army, came to New York at about the time Gorky did, and they fell into the same circle of artists and émigrés. Graham was an even more flamboyant liar than Gorky and taught him certain emotional responses to painting, especially a contempt for “originality.” An important friendship with painter Willem de Kooning began shortly after Gorky moved to a new studio on Union Square in 1931, and Gorky exerted a powerful influence on de Kooning for years.
For a few months in 1933-1934, Gorky participated in the federal Public Works of Art Project, which provided him a small weekly dole, and during this period he married an art student, Marny George, in a mismatch that lasted about a year. As a member of the...
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