Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanik Adoian, in the village of Khorkom, province of Van, Armenia, on April 15, 1904. The Adoians became refugees from the Turkish invasion; Gorky himself left Van in 1915 and arrived in the United States around March 1, 1920. He stayed with relatives in Watertown, Massachusetts, and was finally reunited with his father, who had settled in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1922, the young artist enrolled at the New School of Art & Design in Boston and became a life drawing instructor there within two years. By the Fall of 1925, Arshile Gorky had changed his name and relocated to New York City, where he began an important affiliation with the Grand Central School of Art and served as a faculty member from 1926 to 1931. Located on the seventh floor of the East wing of Grand Central Station, the school was founded by businessman and art collector Walter Leighton Clark, and celebrated painters Edmund William Greacen and John Singer Sargent.
Throughout the 1920s, Gorky’s painting was influenced by Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. He fully discovered the artistic values of Paul Cézanne, whose painting and watercolor technique he taught his own students by way of visual reproductions. He identified personally with Cézanne, with whom he shared the sorrow and solitude they both deemed requisite for the production of quality work. Such forces would ultimately overwhelm Gorky.
In 1930, Gorky’s work was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Around that time, he was introduced to Stuart Davis by John Graham. As Willem de Kooning joined the group, they became so close that he nicknamed them the “Three Musketeers”. Gorky was awarded his first solo show in 1931 at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia. The artist’s first solo show in New York was held at the Boyer Galleries in 1938. From 1935 to 1937, Gorky was commissioned to create murals for Newark Airport under the WPA Federal Art Project. Later in the decade, he shared a studio with de Kooning and continued to work in relative isolation. The San Francisco Museum of Art exhibited his work in 1941.
A perpetual student of art, Gorky admired both the monumental machine-age Cubism of Fernand Léger and the attenuated, tonal version of Amédée Ozenfant. During the late 1920s, Gorky’s canvases may have included elements of Picasso’s increasingly open Cubism or alluded to the Spanish master’s Neoclassicism. By the early 1930s, the fluidity of Matisse’s graphic work can also be detected in Gorky’s works on paper. And his obsession with Cézanne’s use of negative space and his delight in elegance of Ingres’ women never faded. Nevertheless, it was the advent of Surrealism, in poetry and in art, that most affected him and ultimately steered Gorky away from the calculated, intellectual structure of Cubism into the nebulous world of the unconscious, where dreams and reality become isochronous and indistinguishable.
In the 1940s Gorky was profoundly affected by the work of the European Surrealists, particularly Joan Miró, André Masson, and Matta. By 1944 he met André Breton and became a friend of other Surrealist emigrés in this country. Gorky’s first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York took place in 1945. From 1942 to 1948, he worked for part of each year in the countryside of Connecticut or Virginia. A succession of personal tragedies, including a serious operation, an automobile accident, and a studio fire that destroyed much of his work, preceded Gorky’s death by suicide on July 21, 1948, in Sherman, Connecticut.