Arshile Gorky, Agony, c. 1947
October 21, 2009 – January 10, 2010
The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a major traveling retrospective celebrating the extraordinary life and work of Arshile Gorky (American, born Armenia, c.1904-1948), a seminal figure in the movement towards gestural abstraction that would transform American art in the years after World War II. The first comprehensive survey of the work of this artist in nearly three decades, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective will premier at the Museum and present 180 paintings, sculptures and works on paper reflecting the full scope of Gorky’s prolific career. Drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe, this retrospective will reveal the evolution of Gorky’s unique visual vocabulary and mature style. It is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will be accompanied by a major publication, published in association with Yale University Press. The exhibition will travel to Tate Modern, London (Spring 2010) and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Summer 2010) following its debut in Philadelphia.
“Gorky built upon the achievements of the early modern artists he greatly admired and broke new ground during a remarkable moment to become an inspiration to a new generation of American painters,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director-elect and CEO of the Museum. “The exhibition and catalogue will offer a deeply moving reassessment of the artist’s entire career, including his struggles and his triumphs—personal as well as artistic—and the powerful legacy of his work.”
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is the first major exhibition of its type since 1981 and the first to benefit from the publication of three biographies of the artist: Nouritza Matossian’s “Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky” (1998), Matthew Spender’s “From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky” (1999), and Hayden Herrera’s “Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work” (2003), all of which shed new light on the artist’s Armenian background and his central role in the American avant-garde. This will be the first major museum exhibition to highlight the artist’s Armenian heritage and examine the impact of Gorky’s experience of the Armenian Genocide on his life and work. The retrospective and its accompanying catalogue have also benefited from in-depth interviews with the artist’s widow, Agnes “Mougouch” Gorky Fielding, who has generously supported the project from the start, through key loans and first-hand accounts of Gorky’s artistic practice as well as his cultural milieu. Among the works to be included are such renowned paintings as the two versions of The Artist and his Mother, 1926-36 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and about 1929-42 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery), the artist’s largest easel painting; Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which demonstrates his deep absorption in nature-based abstraction; The Plow and the Song series,1944-47, which reflects Gorky’s continuing engagement with memories of his rural Armenian childhood; Agony, 1947 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Gorky’s haunting late painting, a product of his increasingly tormented imagination in the late 1940s; and The Black Monk (“Last Painting”) (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which was left unfinished on Gorky’s easel at the time of his death in 1948. Some of the works included in the exhibition have not been on public view before, among them the wood sculptures, Haikakan Gutan I, II, and III (Armenian Plow I, II and III), of 1944, 1945, and 1947 (collection of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), on deposit at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon), as well as the Museum’s recently acquired Woman with a Palette (1927).
Michael Taylor, the Museum’s Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art and curator of the retrospective, stated: “Gorky was a pivotal figure in modern American Art who has since come to be known as the quintessential artist’s artist. It is our sincere belief that this landmark retrospective will secure Gorky’s place alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as one of the most daring, innovative, and influential American artists of the 20th century.”
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective will be presented in a generally chronological sequence. Thematic groupings will represent each phase of Gorky’s career, which underwent an astonishing metamorphosis as he assimilated the lessons of earlier masters and movements and utilized them in the service of his own artistic development. Beginning in the mid-1920s with Gorky’s earliest experiments with Impressionism and the structural rigor of the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and continuing through his prolonged engagement with Cubism in the 1930s, the exhibition ends with the Surrealist-inspired burst of creativity that dominated the final decade of Gorky’s life and left us with so many breathtakingly beautiful paintings and drawings. In the 1940s, Gorky’s contact with Surrealism informed his breakthrough landscapes in Virginia and the visionary works made in his spacious, light-filled studio on Union Square, which he called his “Creation Chamber.” Several galleries in the exhibition will serve as “creation chambers” in their own right, highlighting the artist’s working process by presenting Gorky’s most significant paintings alongside the numerous painstaking studies that informed their making.