Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern

I enjoyed the Tate's latest retrospective, that of American pre-war artist Arshile Gorky. Where the opening rooms are clearly intended to demonstrate his learning from a handful of select European movements and their major artists, the final rooms exhibit styles which are clearly the forerunners of the celebrated abstract expressionism of postwar American art, as well as resonating further afield, back to the conflict-riven Europe Gorky had fled, painfully, in 1915. Here's the Tate's video (played at the exit of the exhibition)

Of the pastiche pictures, for want of a better term, I liked the thick, confident impasto of the 'Cezanne's and the cross-hatched drypoint surrealist drawings. The self-consciousness of the cubist pictures and surrealist canvases is less appealing.

Gorky benefitted financially from the New Deal at which point he began to develop his own style, producing murals for Newark Airport (although the pictures constitute a personal setback as they were rejected). I rather liked the pungent, perversely as-negative coloured Central Park At Dusk (1936-42, right), which seems to embody the cumulative sense of his study of cubist-surrrealist colourism but under his own formal direction. This personal maturation is confirmed with the MirĂ³-like pictures of the period, unburdened in comparison to their namesake in the way that the Picasso-a-like canvasses are.

The exhibition's marketing focus has been on the two remarkable canvases of his mother in room 7. The pictures are simple but invested with great focus and intent. Compared to the photograph from which he worked (right) his mother is depicted as older, and emotionally distanced with pale skin or obfuscated gaze, whilst Gorky is shown as younger, a boy in the paintings as opposed to the prepubescent man in the photo. The pictures are emotionally opaque, figuration and meaning obscured with a wilful monodimension of colour. In my opinion they show calculated restraint, allusion to great trauma through the subversion of the normal manner of depicting such a portrait.

There's another interesting aside here, notably in cross-reference with a contemporary picture, Master Bill. The outward simplicity of the pictures reminded me of the cartoon art of Elzie Crisler Segar in his Olive Oyl cartoon strip (and, perhaps inevitably, of Disney/Iwerks' Mickey Mouse), surely cartoons that Gorky would have encountered as a young man in the late 1920s. Is it possible that he is consuming and processing the culture of his adopted country in the same way in which he re-appropriated the styles and ideas of the art of the Europe he left - particularly a branch of American culture that absorbed the imagination of youngsters looking to extrapolate and make some sense of their world?

The latter half of the exhibition might help to endorse this, as Gorky combines his new technical freedom with a fresh attention to the landscape of America. The consequent work bears little resemblance to the nominally figurative titles, although the dilute paint and dripping fluidity of the strokes is clearly a techincal allusion to the title of Waterfall (I found myself immediately humming the Stone Roses track of the same name, only to recall the pertinently sub-Pollock art of their eponymous album (right).

The fluidity of the paint and its concomitant strokes is the conflagration of colour and tonal range that the early pastiche canvases didn't achieve; the abstraction circumvents the loaded figuration belligerently uninvestigated in his 'mother' double portraits. The wonderful series of Betrothal canvases are a nice series of compositional works (nice curating by the Tate here) with the ghosts of Wols, Tanguy, MirĂ³, even Duchamp's 'The Bride...' evoked but not copied. Alas this confidence evaporates from the penultimate to final rooms as the warehouse fire destroying some of his work and the onset of cancer clearly wind his impetus.

It's a fascinating exhibition, full of life and colour, marching on through a life started in terror, worked on through the Depression and ended after the war as his younger, acolyte contemporaries (one sees more de Kooning here than Pollock) take his work forward with such spectacular success.

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