ARSHILE GORKY by Hayden Herrera


His Life and Work
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A lucid life of the émigré Expressionist painter.

Born in 1900 in eastern Turkey, Gorky regaled American friends with tales of an idyllic childhood among mountains and rivers. That much was true, as far as it went, though that paradise would be shattered by the onset of the Turkish war of genocide against ethnic Armenians within the Ottoman Empire—and, though he claimed Russian descent and kinship with the writer Maxim Gorky, the man born Mooradian was Armenian through and through. Biographer and art historian Herrera (Matisse, 1993) spends a full hundred pages discussing the Armenian milieu that Gorky took pains not to remember before landing his subject, in 1920, in New York and thence Watertown, Massachusetts, where he lived in a neighborhood called Little Armenia and set about training himself as an artist. Gorky soon emerged as an apostle of European modernism, introducing his painting students to the works of his beloved Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque; and though his early work was clearly derivative, he soon developed a distinctive style that earned many admirers. As Herrera writes, Gorky was capable of bohemian excess, although he maintained higher standards of behavior than some of his comrades in art, especially the surrealists; as art patron Jeanne Reynal would recall, “He didn’t understand the surrealists’ fascination with sexual perversion.” Though a dedicated family man and, by the early ’40s, quite successful as an artist, Gorky suffered from his own demons, and the collapse of his marriage and calamities such as a studio fire that destroyed much of his archive helped lead him to suicide in 1948. Herrera’s biography is competent and well-written, and, while it presupposes familiarity with major trends in modernist art and demands patience for sometimes unhelpful analysis (“We are not outside looking at the scenery but rather in the midst of stems, petals, leaves, branches, and twigs”), it serves its readers well.

A welcome introduction to the work of a painter famed in his day but now largely forgotten.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-374-11323-8
Page count: 688pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2003


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