Blackpaint 68


Arshile Gorky

So, after reviewing the (Sewell) review, I’ve now seen the show.  There are 12 rooms, so I’ll take them one by one.  Room 1, I made no notes, but remember an imitation of a Cezanne still life. 

Room 2 showed how AG had “abstracted” a Picasso-like portrait of “Woman with a Palette” several times over the years. 

Room 3 displayes some fine drawings, obviously influenced by Picasso. 

Room 4 continues this with a number of paintings which are Picasso imitations, using a lot of white. 

In room 5, still unoriginal, I have made the following notes: “awful colours; fluffy whites; putty effect of painted background.  Drawings, however, are delicate and subtle.”

In room 6, the influence of Miro is very apparent – although the first painting recognisable as a Gorky appears, dated 1943, with the characteristic leaf/butterfly/biomorph shapes, circled and linked by the thin black lines.

Then, oddly,  Room 7 takes you back in time; portraits of AG with mother, and sister and friends.  The portrait of AG with his mother has been reproduced in all the reviews of the show, I think – and I don’t understand the interest.  They would have been of huge significance to Gorky himself, of course, and should be in the show – but why here, half way round?

Room 8, smallish drawings, from a distance look like people grouped on ice or by a lake, with pastel “washes” of colour.

Room 9, and “Waterfall”, and at last the famous Gorky.  There are several waterfalls, in fact, one of them named; the notes I have made are; “thin paint, sometimes running.  Pirate 1 resembles a Graham Sutherland!”

Room 10, Landscape.  I’ve noted two; “From a high place – looks like a picnic!” and “Apple Orchard”, with an orange background that is a blend of yellow, reds and greens close up.  The thin black lines are much in evidence and the shapes are reminiscent of Matta, Masson maybe – some of them also remind me of the late de Koonings, the same deadness and emptiness, but only sometimes.

Room 11, “Betrothals”, the bad luck room – the fire and the cancer.  What I noted was that there are three versions of “Betrothal” and in each, the figures are identical (although the colours are different).  This seems to be his way of working; compose in a sketch and develop by trying out different colours.  So again, a painter whose work can appear spontaneous and who is associated with a movement which prizes and promotes spontaneity, turns out to work in a formal, considered and wholly traditional way.

The final room is called “the Limit”, the title of one of the paintings.  The other bad luck room; the car crash and the suicide.  Again, there are four studies of a work called “Agony”, although this time the final version contains some changes.  One, the Black Monk(?), called Last Painting – the equivalent of Van Gogh’s crows over the cornfield, maybe; the “suicide” painting.

So, some beautiful works and a lot of mediocre ones.  It strikes me that his importance was perhaps more as an influence on de Kooning, Pollock and the others, rather than as a painter himself.  His thin paint surfaces are never as rich and interesting as de K, Pollock or Joan Mitchell; sometimes you get “dead areas”.  He brings to mind Matta and sometimes Kandinsky, with his little entities fluttering around.  But I think the historical significance justifies the exhibition.

Was Sewell right?  Yes, about the drawing – it is very skilful and does sometimes resemble etching.  Yes, about the Picasso and Miro imitation.  And yes, about his significance to the Ab Exes (although they acknowledged that themselves).  I think he is wrong in his assertion that Gorky was ignorantly copying others  and did not know what he was doing – he may not be a de Kooning or a Pollock but he has an instantly recognisable style, from 1943 onwards.  And for a painter who “abdicates formal responsibility”, he spends a lot of time doing drafts and sketches of his major works before producing the final version.  I felt a little cheated by this, as by Kline and Hartung before – I like my AbExes to give birth in a trance-like creative frenzy, improvising and composing as they go; I don’t want them doing formal sketches first!

Blackpaint

14.02.10

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