Arshile Gorky’s Art of Bliss Remembered

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In certain drawings from 1944, he literally seems to be down at grass level, nosing around, pencil and crayon in hand. He finds a fantastical, earthbound world of abstract forms resembling slugs, fungi, pods and bulbs, glommed together parasitically and erotically. It’s a mesmerizing vision, vivacious, but hungry and scary, the way the drawings of Samuel Palmer, that keyed-up Romantic soul, can be.

Then within a few years, the forms thin down, grow lighter. A 1946 drawing titled “Virginia-Summer” is an allover web of scraps: like a centerless scatter of stems, clods and hard-shell insects turned up by a rake. (This allover tactic influenced Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, for some of whom Gorky was a mentor.) Elsewhere, the view tends upward. A succulent green pastel drawing called “Apple Orchard” suggests buds and leaves on a branch, maybe one of the trees in his father’s Armenian orchard, in sudden, miraculous bloom.

And in several large pieces, Gorky appears to pull back to take in whole landscapes, as in a pair of oil paintings, both titled “Pastoral,” from around 1947. Even the messiest, most impetuous of his graphite drawings have a sense of precision and fineness of detail. But these two “Pastorals,” one dark (a field of brown-black with pink-white patches), the other light (chrome-yellow and white with green scribbles), are so loosely painted as to seem unfinished. (The yellow-white one, at least, isn’t: it’s conspicuously signed on the front.)

This effect is partly from a change in painting method, possibly learned from Matta. For most of his career Gorky had applied paint thickly and precisely, within outlines, in a way that made his forms look inorganic, overly deliberated. But in the 1940s, he started to thin his oils with turpentine to a watercolor consistency, which brought a relaxed softness and fleetness to his art.

“I prefer not to see the strength of my arm in the painting but only the poetry of my heart,” he wrote of this change. “The trouble is everyone uses their arms too much. I want to leave only the ghost of the painting to spur imagination.”

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