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Gorgeous Gorky in Philly: Michael Taylor Explains It All

Curator Michael Taylor at the Philadelphia Museum’s recent press lunch

Let’s remain in Philly, but switch moods from my habitual skepticism to unmitigated pleasure and admiration: The Arshile Gorky retrospective (to Jan. 10) that opened this week at the Philadelphia Museum is one of my favorite kinds of exhibition: It greatly strengthened my appreciation for an artist whom I’d previously underestimated.

Michael Taylor, the museum’s indispensable curator of modern art (fresh from his Venice Biennale triumph), is deliberately setting out here to prove that Gorky deserves a “place alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as one of the most daring, innovative, and influential American artists of the 20th century.” In that mission, he largely succeeds.

The large gallery that you’ll come upon about two-thirds into the show, with works from 1943 and 1944, is an audacious array of breathtakingly lyrical beauty. The dark paintings in the final galleries are heart-rendingly tragic—saturated with the angst and despair caused by a 1946 fire (two and a half years before his suicide) that destroyed the works in Gorky’s studio:

“Charred Beloved,” I, II and III, 1946, David Geffen, National Gallery of Canada and Mr. and Mrs. Meredith Long, respectively

The early galleries clearly demonstrate Gorky’s intense study and close imitation of modernist forebears
(including Cézanne, Picasso, Miró). But in case that’s not enough,
the museum also draws upon its own rich collection in a meaty related
exhibition, contiguous with the retrospective, that puts Gorky’s work in
the context of European, Russian and American modernism (including some
specific works that he likely saw and studied).

Taylor is also intent on some revisionism—a scholarly agenda that’s emphasized more in his catalogue essay than in the wall text: Traditionally lumped with the Abstract Expressionists, Gorky, in Taylor’s informed opinion, belongs instead with the Surrealists. He was no “action painter,” but meticulously prepared for his major paintings in suites of detailed drawings, many of which are in the show.

This obsessive preparatory work came as a revelation to someone who knows his oeuvre intimately—Gorky’s daughter, Maro, one of my tablemates (along with the always ebullient Joe Rishel) for the press lunch. Also with us was Maro’s friend, Lisa de Kooning, daughter of Willem, an undisputed member of the Abstract Expressionist club.

Maro Gorky, right, with friend, Lisa de Kooning

But I need to stop typing and let Michael do the talking. Below are my two videos shot at the press preview. In the first, Taylor provides fascinating (and tragic) detail about the works for which Gorky is perhaps most famous—the two versions of “The Artist and His Mother” (from the Whitney Museum, which you can now see below, and the National Gallery, which you’ll see later, on the right). This video also shows the photograph that inspired these paintings:

In my second video, Taylor effuses over Gorky’s greatest works—the
lyrical abstractions of 1943-4. He focuses here on “The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb,” 1944, (behind him) from the Albright-Knox Gallery:

an ArtsJournal blog