Tate Modern presents the first major retrospective of Arshile Gorky (c.1904–1948) to be seen in Europe for twenty years. Celebrating one of the most powerful and poetic American artists of his generation, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective examines the extraordinary contribution of this seminal figure in Abstract Expressionism. The exhibition spans Gorky’s 25-year career and offers the opportunity to see this complex and moving body of work as a whole. It includes more than 120 paintings and works on paper, many of which have not been shown in the UK previously.

With little formal academic training, Arshile Gorky absorbed European Modernism through both his studies and teaching and went on to become a pivotal figure in mid-century American art. In New York in 1941, Gorky encountered the exiled European Surrealists, whose leader, André Breton, welcomed him as part of their movement. His lyrical abstractions anticipated Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in 1940s New York amongst a circle of artists who valued spontaneity of expression and individuality, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Gorky’s assimilation of European and American influences resulted in a distinctive synthesis of artistic cultures. Paralleling the Surrealists’ idea of automatism – the free-flowing release of the hand from conscious control of the mind - he forged an entirely new type of abstract painting.

Structured around a number of significant moments in Gorky’s oeuvre and arranged broadly chronologically, the exhibition reveals the evolution of Gorky’s visual vocabulary. It reassesses work from the 1920s and 1930s throwing light on the significance of early developments in his practice. Highlights include the remarkable pair of paintings The Artist and his Mother (c.1926–36, Whitney Museum of American Art, and 1929–42, National Gallery of Art, Washington) which act as memorials to Gorky’s lost childhood and confrontations with exile.

The show also brings together many of the renowned works from Gorky’s artistic breakthrough in the 1940s. After his marriage in 1941, Gorky spent much of his time in the countryside. His experience of the American landscape, combined with memories of his father’s farm near Lake Van, inspired lyrical works of nature-based abstraction.  Examples of this period include Waterfall 1943 (Tate), one of Gorky’s most luscious abstractions from the landscape where biomorphic forms, rendered with thinned-out washes of paint, create veils of colour marked with gestures. Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective includes other key works from this period of radical development demonstrating the balance Gorky found between energy and fine control in his mature work. Highlights include Landscape Table c.1945 (Centre Pompidou) and the three paintings of The Betrothal series 1947 (Yale University Art Gallery, MOCA Los Angeles, and Whitney Museum of American Art).

Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian in Western Armenia, probably in 1904, and fled the massacres of 1915. Arriving in America in 1920, he reinvented himself as Arshile Gorky. He became friends with many of the city’s emerging avant-garde artists, including Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, John Graham, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith. He studied at the Grand Central School of Art, later becoming an art instructor there at the age of 22. 

The exhibition was conceived by Michael R. Taylor, at Philadelphia Museum of Art and is curated at Tate Modern by Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, assisted by Ben Borthwick, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. The exhibition comes from Philadelphia Museum of Art (21 October 2009 – 10 January 2010) and will travel to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (6 June – 20 September 2010). The exhibition is accompanied by a book by Matthew Gale.