Collection Wolfgang S. Schwabacher (acquired from the artist)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (a gift from the above in 1941)
Estate of Arshile Gorky
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Private Collection, United States
Sotheby's, New York, November 14, 2000, Lot 32
Private Collection, Miami
Christie's, New York, May 16, 2007, Lot 49
Acquired from the above
In his tragically brief, but potent and influential career, Arshile Gorky assimilated the pictorial innovations of Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró, the Surrealists and Matta. His synthesis of 20th century modern art's many innovations, combined with his passionate embrace of nature, created a new vision for painting that would inform the work of his fellow artists of the 1940s and 1950s, from Willem de Kooning to Clyfford Still. The poetic and erotic celebrations of nature and artistic lyricism found in Khorkom were in nascent form in his Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia series of the early 1930s, but Khorkom signals Gorky's liberation toward the fertile and lush landscape abstractions of the 1940s. The 1930s were a profound period of gestation and discovery, in which Gorky intensively absorbed the work of the preceding decades with the hunger of a devoted apprentice. Toward the end of the 1930s, Gorky had found his way to a complex formal vocabulary that would serve as the crucial link from European Surrealism to the burgeoning American Abstract Expressionism of the following decade. Khorkom, and related Garden in Sochi works on the same theme, mark this crossroads and are the most important series of in Gorky's oeuvre of the 1930s.
These early masterpieces are predicated on Gorky's profound belief that his art could embody the childhood memories of his homeland of Armenia. As he wrote to his sister Vartoosh in 1942, "Beloveds, the stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of the artist's brush. ...In trying to probe beyond the ordinary and the known, I create an inner infinity. ....Living dreams." (Karlen Mooradian, "The Man from Van," Ararat, vol. 12, Fall 1971, p. 7 and p. 20). After the horrors of his family's flight from the Armenian genocide in 1915 and his mother's death in 1919, Gorky reinvented and rechristened himself in America. He chose the role of artist, and his works eloquently demonstrate the axiom that a strong creative impulse can result from the trauma of dislocation and the loss of a sense of home. Immigrants, such as Gorky and his friend Willem de Kooning, possessed a special gift for forging grand syntheses, whether of one's past with the present or of artistic traditions with radical innovations. Unlike de Kooning, Gorky had no formal art training, and taught himself by copying masters such as Cézanne and Picasso. Traces of Cubist still life can be glimpsed in Gorky's paintings of the 1930s, including the present work, Khorkom, where certain forms, such as a slice of apple, a palette, and the profile of a bird are vaguely identifiable amid the abstraction of the composition. But by the time Gorky painted Khorkom, he was in the midst of identifying his own individual and signature style of painting. In a letter to his sister, Vartoosh in 1938, Gorky wrote, "Nowadays an extremely melancholy mood has seized me and I can concentrate on nothing except my work... Lately I have been well and am working on excessively and am changing my painterly style...I desire to create deeper and purer work." (Karlen Mooradian, Arshile Gorky Adoian, Chicago, 1978, p. 255).
Surrealism was the catalyst that fired Gorky toward this new level of experimentation which merged his interest in Cubist space with his impulse toward fantastical imagery, culminating in his personal artistic style. Gorky was steeped in the writings and works of the Parisian Surrealists many years before they arrived in New York fleeing the war in Europe. He saw their work in museums and visited seminal shows such as Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. He consumed books and journals borrowed from his friend, the artist John Graham. As early as 1932, his work appeared in a group exhibition of Surrealist work in Delaware, in the same month as Surréallisme, Julien Levy's first major show in his new Manhattan gallery. Showcasing the work of Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, Levy was one of the few gallerists in New York at that time and soon became the premiere destination for Surrealist art. Levy's gallery was a major resource and inspiration for Gorky and other young artists of the 1930s and 1940s, Levy would become Gorky's dealer in the 1940s and mount one-man shows of his work, but his earliest and perhaps deepest impact on the young artist may have been his 1936 publication of the book Surrealism. As Michael Taylor relates in his essay for the 2009 retrospective of Gorky's work, Levy recounted that "the artist immediately read the entire volume in the back room of the gallery and soon borrowed it to take back to his studio, where he swiftly responded to its black-and-white reproductions in his own work. Levy's book appears to have encouraged Gorky to move away from his interest in the spatial effects of Cubism, which had culminated in the recently completed painting Organization (1933-36), toward a new form of abstraction that incorporated biomorphic shapes derived from Redon, Miró and Hans (Jean) Arp, while also bearing his own, unique imprint." (Exh. Cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Arshile Gorky: a Retrospective, 2009, pp. 97-98).
Surrealism was the ideal aesthetic doctrine for the expression of Gorky's "living dream" - an intriguingly hybrid creation that was equal parts description, memory and pure abstraction. Gorky's hometown of Khorkom and his childhood garden were the wellspring for his inventions - the forms, rhythms, lines, colors and creatures of his vision that weave throughout the pictorial and stylistic vocabulary of the paintings of 1938 to 1948 which comprise his short but important mature career. As he wrote Vartoosh in 1942, "loving memories of our garden in Armenia's Khorkom haunt me frequently. ...Beloved sister, in my art I often draw our garden and recreate its precious greenery and life. Can a son forget the soil which sires him?" ("A Special Issue on Arshile Gorky", Ararat, Fall 1971, p. 28). In Khorkom, and the Garden of Sochi series of the early 1940s, a related family of images predominates. Influenced by Miró, Gorky integrated figure and ground, expressing his sense of fantasy in abstracted forms that exist as a cosmos amid a vast expanse. Unlike Miró, Gorky's shapes remain relatively flat without modeling and spatial illusionism. In Khorkom, the moon-shaped yellow, soft grey and pink palette, the red and green wedges that anchor the swirling green center, the black eye in profile - all are suspended in a thickly painted and flat white space, linked by a looping or insistent black line which threads from form to form.
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto succinctly described the ambiguity of Gorky's forms on the occasion of a 1945 show at the Julien Levy Gallery. "[Easy-going amateurs] will insist on seeing in these compositions a still-life, a landscape, or a figure instead of daring to face the hybrid forms in which all human emotion is precipitated. By 'hybrids' I mean the resultants....being a combination of the spectacle and a flux of childhood and other memories, ....." (André Breton, "The Eye-Spring: Arshile Gorky," Arshile Gorky, Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1945). De Kooning also paid homage to Gorky as a pioneering artist in American art. Friends since the late 1920s, de Kooning and Gorky shared an affinity for the graceful linear expressiveness, biomorphic forms and lush colors evident in Khorkom. Upon reading a review of Gorky's memorial exhibition in 1949, de Kooning purposefully corrected the impression that he was an influence on Gorky and acknowledged that the opposite was true. "When, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Arshile's studio for the first time, the atmosphere was so beautiful that I got a little dizzy and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately. If the bookkeepers think it necessary continuously to make sure of where things and people come from, well then, I come from 36 Union Square [Gorky's studio]. ...I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence." ("Letters to the Editor," Art News, January 1949, p. 6).
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