a day at the museum: arshile gorky
As often happens around the Holidays, the various members of my family are starting to get on each others' nerves, so I took a couple of hours off to visit the Phila. Art Museum. Having seen most of the permanent collection maybe thirty times or so, I decided to take in a special exhibit on Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-American painter who produced an astonishing range of work before his self-inflicted death in 1948. As a good exhibit should, the visit inspired me to think not only about Gorky's own accomplishments, but the broader question of artistic greatness and the relationship between different fields.
One of the interesting things about Gorky is that, rather than attempting to seem "original" for its own sake, he consciously borrowed from the styles and techniques of others, always expanding and modifying these techniques for his own artistic ends. Thus one set of paintings looks a lot like Joan Miro: but not really, because human subjects, reflecting Gorky's preoccupations and perhaps his demons (more on this later), keep intruding on the otherwise abstract forms. Another series departs from a painting by Giorgio De Chirico, wisely included in the exhibit, but by the end bears little resemblance to the De Chirico original. One can thus observe in Gorky's work much of the history of Twentieth Century art, but also the tension between the general and the particular, between the artist and his or her surroundings, that make art at once so rewarding and unpredictable.
The exhibit also offered a chance to meditate on the relationship between great art and suffering, a cliche perhaps but rarely on such vivid display. Plainly Gorky was troubled: by the Armenian Genocide which took his mother's and countless others' lives; by his own depression; by physical ailments (notably cancer) and family problems. Yet many of the things that troubled him--his cancer, a fire in his studio, his wife's affair and ultimate departure--and things that happen to ordinary people, as well. Some of his work, notably his American landscapes and his murals for the old Newark Airport, were cheerful or downright whimsical in nature. Did Gorky really suffer more than other people, or did he simply respond with more intensity: and is there really a difference between the two?
I am reminded here of the debate regarding Primo Levi, who (like Gorky) lost numerous friends and relatives in a twentieth century genocide and took his own life, decades later, after countless intervening events. Levi's biographer, Carole Angier, is convinced that Levi's psychological problems (especially with women) predated the Holocaust and that the latter cannot be blamed for his suicide. Undoubtedly there are Gorky biographers who have debated the same question. All that can be said for certain is that there is a certain something that leads artists and writers to perceive the world a bit more intensely, a bit more sardonically, than the rest of us: which does not appear to make them any happier, but which leaves the rest of us incomparably richer.