Arshile Gorky a retrospective exhibition banner

Introduction

Arshile Gorky was one of the most remarkable American painters of the twentieth century. This exhibition traces his career from his committed apprenticeship to modern art in the 1920s, to the 1940s, when he occupied a pivotal position between Surrealism and the American artists who would be associated with Abstract Expressionism.

Exploring an Old World sensibility in the New World, Gorky constructed for himself an artistic history that drew upon, but somewhat obscured, his origins. He took the name Arshile Gorky in homage to the writer Maxim Gorky, and allowed people to think that they were related. At various times he claimed to be Russian or Georgian, or to have studied in Paris. Behind his mysterious bohemianism, however, lay a history that haunted and inspired his art. He was born around 1904 – the exact date is unknown – as Vosdanig Adoian on the shores of Lake Van, in Armenian Turkey. His father left for America when he was still a young child. The remaining family were driven out of their home by the pogroms of 1915, which are widely recognised as the century’s first genocide*. Together with millions of Armenians, his family fled to Russian Armenia, where in 1919 his mother died of starvation. He and his sister Vartoosh then began a long journey to join their father in the United States, arriving in February 1920.

Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective is curated at Tate Modern by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Ben Borthwick, Assistant Curator. The exhibition is organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Tate Modern and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Exhibition texts by Matthew Gale and Ben Borthwick. All quotes from Arshile Gorky are taken from Arshile Gorky, Goats on the Roof: A life in letters and documents, edited by Matthew Spender (Ridinghouse, 2009).

* The texts associated with the exhibition are careful to qualify the emotive term ‘genocide’ in relation to the tumultuous experiences of Arshile Gorky’s early life. We are aware that the British Government has found no pre-meditation and that, therefore, the wartime events of 1915 do not constitute a ‘genocide’ in the legal definition. However, we are also aware that other bodies, including the European Parliament, have reached a different conclusion. We recognise that the ways in which the events have been described and the histories written remain contentious, and it was for these reasons that we described them as ‘widely held to be a genocide’ in recognition of their differing reception.