Venetian Promenades. Arshile Gorky’s Birth in the Cultural Reality of Italy

Anna Galstyan

There is no longer an opposition of ugliness to beauty,
the conflict of the material and the spiritual,
consciousness to unconsciousness, sex to eros.
If we think properly, Gorky was the last neoplatnoian.
C. G. Argan

On May 2019, to everyone’s great delight, the Venice Biennale will host Arshile Gorky’s large-scale exhibition, which will take place at the opulent, baroque palace of Ca’ Pesaro. Since the end of the 19th century the palace has served as a gallery of modern art and is known to art lovers firstly for its rich collection of Medardo Rosso’s wax sculptures, as well as its striking works by the surrealists. The presence of names such as Miro, Kandinski, Tanguy and de Chirico, makes the palace even more hospitable for Gorky’s reception, and more logical for the exhibition of his art in this space.
What is singled out and emphasised in all the news media, is the idea that this is Arshile Gorky’s first retrospective exhibition in Venice or Italy, and it is precisely due to this aspect that the forthcoming exhibition is valorised. Whereas, it is the Venetians themselves who should remember clearly that Gorky’s first Italian retrospective took place in Venice itself, back in the days of the 1962 Biennale.

Thus, Italy’s initial discovery of Gorky occurred in frameworks of the 1962 Biennale. This exhibition was put together with rigorous theoretical and curatorial elements. The concept of the 2019 show has been developed under the shadow of its predecessor’s overall influence. It is precisely this notion that I’ll be attempting to examine below.

The beginning of abstract expressionism’s triumphant march in Europe – in which Gorky’s art was a part of – began earlier, when the American avant-garde was introduced at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1950. The American pavilion that year was one of those sweeping strategical efforts through which the USA showcased the achievements of the American avant-garde on an international scale. This was a two-tier exhibition: one section was comprised of works by the classical modernist painter John Marin, while the exposition’s other half was made up of the trio that became the nexus of abstract expressionism – Gorky, de Kooning and Pollock – and received the heaviest critical onslaught by the Europeans. The selection was made by Alfred Barr, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, at a time when Clement Greenberg had written his essays ‘The Decline of Cubism’ and ‘The Crisis of The Easel Picture’ in 1948, where he argued that according to both aesthetic and socio-economical standards, the best expressions of European art were now on the American continent, while even further back, in 1940, Harold Rosenberg had already proclaimed the ‘fall of Paris’.

Perhaps, Gorky’s inclusion in the frameworks of the Biennale back in 1950 was conditioned by the fact that, Samuel Kuts - one of the most famous American collectors of the day who marketed abstract expressionism to the middle classes - had organised the exhibition ‘Selected Paintings by the Late Arshile Gorky’ ahead of the Biennale, and it became a revelation first of all for the Americans themselves. In the catalogue foreword, Adolph Gottlieb wrote: ‘For [Gorky], as well as a few others, the essential issue was the marriage of abstraction and surrealism. Something new could have been born out of these superimpositions and Gorky’s works are a testament that this is precisely what happened.’ 

The nervous, more than subjective and at times indifferent reaction of the Europeans towards the art of the new Americans was natural in the context of the Marshall plan. As noted by Greenberg (who cites the words of another writer) in his review of the Biennale’s American pavilion, the European attitude arose from the habit of still considering the Americans as cultural barbarians as well as the resistance towards their dependence on American military and economic help.2  On the other hand, the British critic David Silvester favoured Hartung and Eugène de Kermadec over Pollock and Gorky.3  At the beginning of the 1950s, the British didn’t yet have a clear idea of abstract expressionist works. This lasted until 1956, when the exhibition ‘Modern Art in the USA’, organised by MOMA, was presented at the Tate Gallery, which reignited the cultural dialogue between the two countries.

The dawn of the 1950s is considered to be the deciding and most precarious stage in the realisation of Arshile Gorky’s status as a ‘fully-fledged artist’. The art critic of the widely-circulated international newspaper Herald Tribune, Emily Genauer considered Gorky a ‘second-rate painter’, since his progress in art was dependent ‘on the money in the pockets of certain people’. According to Genauer, Gorky’s biggest shortcoming was that he copied and simulated other painters.4  
During the 1950s, the cultural politics involved in the work of presenting modern American art, emphasise this spontaneous, audacious, monumental and fervent style of art born out of abstraction, surrealism, cubism and expressionism. What often became the backbone of the exhibitions of those years were the canvases created during the last three years of Gorky’s life, which stood closest to abstract expressionism. It is precisely these works that were entirely abstract and, most crucially, almost completely devoid of direct European influences.

Busy making a case for the American trio at the Venice Biennale was Alfred Barr who, in his famous 1936 diagram and the seminal essay ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, had already outlined the developmental model of modern art. He considered abstract art its highest achievement and in turn, divided it into geometrical (cubism) and sensory (Kandinsky, Miro) branches. Following the critic’s line of thinking it can be deduced that abstract art reached its peak in the USA, with Barr mentioning specific names of practitioners working there only in his essay written on the occasion of the 1950 Venice Biennale.

Noting in the foreword that the more daring art is created in culturally more liberal, that is, not totalitarian countries, he goes on to define these artists. In Gorky’s case Barr stresses the fact that the painter had freed himself from various stylistic dependencies since 1940, becoming an abstractionist whose works were typified not by the thick and dense brushwork used in the past, but by misty semitones.5  It is this last factor that Greenberg singled out in Gorky, unofficially affirming him as the founder of post-painterly abstraction. Thus, we should note once more that during the years of abstract expressionism’s international popularisation and spread in the 1950s, Gorky’s ‘dependent’ style of the 1930s was veiled in favour of his abstract works created at the end of his career en plein air.

We should note that the Italians were the first in Europe who saw the works of New York school of painters, since Peggy Guggenheim had already moved to Venice in 1947 together with her enormous collection, which was followed by the 1948 and 1950 Biennale editions.

In contrast to the French and the English, the Italians were not only not indifferent, but were largely fascinated by the new American pictorial style, albeit, there were of course exceptions, such as Giorgio Morandi’s observation of Gorky as ‘a little French’, as well as ‘a little tone-deaf’.6  The first Italian artist to have truly admired and been influenced by Arshile Gorky’s art was a representative of Italian Arte Informale, Afro Basaldella.

Meanwhile, the Arti Visive magazine dedicated one of its 1957 issues entirely to Gorky, with the inclusion of exerts from the still unpublished first biography by Gorky’s student Ethel Schwabacher, and an essay on the artist by the no less famous Italian abstractionist Toti Scialoja. The later became the director of the influential Fine Arts Academy of Rome and artists such as Jannis Kounellis valued studies during his tenure very highly.

In general, the 1950s were special for the critical thinking on Gorky’s art, since his international image was being shaped and simultaneously consolidated outside the American territories. If 1940s criticism was located in the context of American modernist formalism and viewed Gorky as a brilliant representative of the New York school, then the 1950s constituted an attempt to view him outside of the American perceptions – something that would prove to be very beneficial for the changes in later American critical views on Gorky’s art. The Europeans focused their attention especially on the manifestations of melancholy and tragedy in Gorky’s work, the reasons for which they tried to seek in the artist’s biography: a particularity that was absent in American criticism of the 1940s. Aside from this, the Italians were the first to consider Gorky’s art in the context of philosophical categories, a striking example of which are Giulio Carlo Argan’s words (see epigraph).

And so in 1962, at yet another edition of the Venice Biennale, the American side made an appearance with Gorky’s retrospective exhibition. I will quote from MOMA’s website: ‘In addition to the works in the U.S. Pavilion, America will also be represented by an exhibition of 30 works by the late Arshile Gorky, presented in the Central Pavilion at the invitation of the Venice Biennale. This is the first time a 20th Century American artist has been honoured by a special invitational exhibition organized by the Biennale itself.’7  The exhibition was curated by Lloyd Goodrich and the text was prepared by Ethel Schwabacher, who had begun their collaboration back in 1951 having organised Gorky’s large-scale retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Of course, if we consider that in the 2019 Biennale Gorky will not share the American pavilion with any other compatriot, then from this viewpoint, this will truly be his first retrospective in Venice. However, we should point out the fact that already in 1962, to the surprise and delight of the Americans, the Italians themselves had proposed to organise the artist’s retrospective exhibition, which would have given a complete overview of Gorky’s artistic development, even only with the presentation of 30 works. This exhibition already aimed to showcase not so much the force and vitality of the New York school, but to reaffirm via Gorky that the abstract expressionist could also have a causative relationship with European art and create art that was intellectual and spiritual.

The retrospective exhibition organised at the MOMA right after the Biennale, presented already 121 works, giving equal space to both the canvases and the preparatory sketches. William Seitz, the author of the catalogue text, carefully phased Gorky’s creative trajectory, considering the early period of ‘influences’ as necessary as the final ‘original’ abstractions. He noted that Gorky intuitively mixed the artists that he admired and was totally committed to them and that was perhaps sufficient for these works to have a definite value.8 

The appreciation of this ‘imitational’ phase would probably be delayed were it not for the significant changes that took place in art criticism in the course of one decade. In 1955 Greenberg wrote his ‘American Type Painting’, where he challenged Harold Rosenberg - the other critic of importance in the becoming of abstract expressionism. He preferred the above-mentioned term to the definition ‘Action painting’ coined by Rosenberg, since the latter inclined the Europeans further towards considering American art as some violent, barbaric and furious activity in which there was no place for the intellectual and the spiritual. Thanks to his battle with Rosenberg, Greenberg’s essays turned from mere critiques of exhibitions to an entire theoretical and critical discipline: the critic’s textual legacy became polished, pivotal new studies regarding the definition and the development of American modernism emerged, and the book series ‘Art and Culture’ was created.

In that same year of 1962 Rosenberg published his first monograph – one that was dedicated to Gorky and is possibly one of most successful texts about the artist. It is from this point on that we begin to view Gorky also as an artist with public and political interests. Once again, Rosenberg speaks about abstract expressionism through Gorky and denies the ‘myth’ called ‘action painting’, which he himself had put forward. He is the first to consider Gorky’s art as the art of an outsider, which later served as the basis for formulating the post-colonial critiques around Gorky’s identity. Among the abstract expressionists he was the artist who amalgamated art with life by working in the loin of nature, en plein air. This aspect becomes very important for the post-Greenbergian criticism of the 1990s, particularly in Barbara Rose’s and Rosalind Krauss’ theses regarding Gorky.

It was also in 1962 that the Artforum art journal was established in the USA, which essentially turned American art criticism into a serious discipline. Artforum was that critical space that stood for the impregnable position of the Greenbergian model, while simultaneously creating conducive grounds for the deconstruction of that very same model. Greenbergians, such as Michael Fried, Barabara Rose and Rosalind Krauss first emerged on this platform, with the latter two going on to become renowned anti-Greenbergians. The subjective aestheticism espoused by Greenberg gave way to more open-minded thinking, although nearly all of the critics who published in this magazine studied under or were influenced by the former.

In the same year, English critic Lawrence Alloway – the advocate of pop-art’s concepts in art history and theory – become Artforum’s editor, having relocated to the USA from England prior to that. As is widely known, he was taken with abstract expressionists and attempted to interview nearly every one of them. His interpretation, however, differed from Greenberg’s analysis and the first essay with which he marked this commitment to the American movement was devoted to Arshile Gorky. In it, he underlined the fact that American formalist criticism esteemed Gorky’s works from the late period. And they rose in esteem even further, the dimmer the clarifications of the reasons behind his suicide became. So it turns out that the originality and value of the artist’s paintings increased in relation to the reiteration of his torment and suffering of the final years. Alloway points out that the works of the late period continued to be singled out in importance over the works that were created in the earlier stages when the artist ‘felt himself better’. And he concludes that Gorky’s portraits of the 1930s are among the very best in his oeuvre.

According to the English critic, what was important was not the suffering of Gorky’s final days, but that he was the first member of the New York school to have died. His death sobered up the still living artists, reminding them that life is very short and one had to sum up one’s practice in a very tight timeframe. Indeed, it took only two years for Gorky to see his art’s appraisal in Venice, which began to swiftly grow both on American and European soil. But this would also be probably delayed, had it not been for his premature death.

American critical thinking of the 1980s-90s is largely founded upon the anti- and post-Greenbergian legacy of the authors who published in the same journal. Rethinking the already revisionist approaches, they began to employ other means for presenting the social context. At the end of the 1960s, Barbara Rose was the first to question the ‘sanctified’ territory of American modernism, since it discounted the historical significance of artistic movements such as dada, surrealism and pop-art. In a 2004 textbook on 20th century art compiled under the direction of Kraus, Marcel Duchamp – who was closely acquainted with Gorky – is also listed amid the influences on the latter’s art. Having seen Duchamp’s ‘Bride’ in Levy’s apartment, Gorky had exclaimed ecstatically that ‘This is for a man who rejects painting…’10

The above-mentioned book makes the effort to free itself off the shackles of American formalist criticism. As an alternative to Greenberg, the book’s authors turn for help to Meyer Shapiro. In this ‘Kraus & Co.’ compilation, Gorky brings surrealism to a full stop when he bids farewell to Breton, unwilling as he was to become a member of the surrealists’ army. Although it incorporates a much wider range of views on Gorky’s art, this study, nevertheless, remains faithful in its structure to the stable and weighty, ‘golden axis’-like pivot anchored by Clement Greenberg: Gorky as a bridge between European modernism and the American avant-garde.

Returning to the actual theme of the essay, we must note that Gorky’s exhibition at the 2019 Biennale will take place from 8th of May to 22nd of September. The title – ‘Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948’ – is neither ambitious or binding. It is saddening that apparently none of the curatorial and theoretical developments to have occurred since the 1960s, have made an impact on this 2019 exhibition. Arshile Gorky’s year of birth, for example, has been put under doubt since a long time ago. In the thick, 2009 catalogue published by the Philadelphia Museum of Arts – the latest collection of most important research articles on Gorky – this issue is given special consideration. Today, there is more of an inclination to consider the year of the birth as 1902 (Gorky’s sisters used to corroborate this) or 1903 on the basis that the documents of the ship which brought Gorky to the USA put his age at seventeen.

The 2019 retrospective also defines the artist’s creative trajectory as a bridge from surrealism to abstract expressionism, which once again attests to the unassailability of the Greenbergian position. Gabriella Belli, the director of Ca’ Pesaro and Edith Devaney of London’s Royal Academy of the Arts act as the curators. The latter is known for organising the large-scale ‘Abstract Expressionism’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2016, and she authored an essay for the book focusing on the paintings included in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition ‘Arden Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943-47’ the following year. The collection making up this 2017 show brought forth the lesser-known variations and sketches of the more famous abstractions, and emphasised Gorky’s principle of studying nature in the open, with no heed paid to cultural or social subtexts of his art.

It is likely that this very same collection will travel to Italy in its expanded form, but bearing the issues that were raised back in the initial phase of Gorky’s critical appreciation. Speaking about their respective outlooks on the future exhibition, the curators again turn to the problem of influences, considering that Gorky’s identity is observable from the earliest stages of his creative practice, as well as the artist’s subsequent approaches.11  Again, it must sadly be noted that the enormous critical material, which has accumulated from Gorky’s death until the 1960s, is not reflected in the curatorial principles and theoretical structuring of the exhibition. This will, of course, be obfuscated by the mystical, melancholic and oversaturated atmosphere of the painter’s famous and not so famous works. But there is hope that the visitors’ impressions will open up a new page for us in Arshile Gorky’s Venetian outing, and even in regards to the essentialist perceptions of the painter’s art.

* Before that, in 1957, a solo exhibition of Gorky's had been opened in Rome, but in a private gallery.

1 L.Alloway, “Arshile Gorky”, Atforum, Mar. 1963, 28.

2 Clement Greenberg, “The European View of American Art”(1950), in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, (ed. by John O’Brian), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, vol.3.

3 Ibid., p. 60.

4 “Gorky: Was He Tops or Second Rate?”, The Art Digest, 1951, January 15, pp. 9,30.

5 Alfred H.Barr, Jr. ‘’Seven Americans Open in Venice’’, Art News 69 (Summer 1950), 22.

Abstract Expressionism: The International Context, (ed. by Joan M.Marter), RudgersUniversity Press, 2007, p.147.

Arshile Gorky: Paintings, Drawings, Studies by William C.Seitz, The Museum of Modern Art, 1962, p.23.

9 L.Alloway, “Arshile Gorky”, Atforum, Mar. 1963, 28.

10 Hayden Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2003, p. 573.

11 Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Yale University Press, 2009, p.366.


Anna Galstyan is an art historian, a senior lecturer at the State Arts Academy of Armenia, of which she is a graduate of. Her master’s thesis looked at the study of Arshile Gorky’s art in the history of American art criticism. Currently she still works on the issues surrounding the appreciation of Gorky’s art in both the international and Armenian cultural contexts. Anna lectures on a variety of academic subjects including modern and contemporary art, history of art criticism, the art histories of pre-Columbian Americas, pre-colonial Africa and Australia.