BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
LOS ANGELES—One of the most significant exhibitions of Arshile Gorky’s work will begin Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which presents Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective through September 20 at MOCA Grand Avenue.
This major traveling retrospective celebrates the extraordinary life and work of Gorky, a seminal figure in the movement toward abstraction that transformed American art in the middle of the 20th century.
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective positions Gorky as a crucial forerunner of abstract expressionism, and as a passionate and dedicated artist whose tragic life often informed his groundbreaking and deeply personal paintings. The first full-scale survey of Gorky’s art since 1981, this exhibition includes more than 120 works spanning the artist’s 25-year career.
It features the artist’s most significant paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, including two masterworks from MOCA’s permanent collection—Study for The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1943) and Betrothal I (1947).
During a press preview on Thursday, MOCA’s new director Jeffrey Deitch, who began his tenure at the museum just Tuesday, praised the exhibit and highlighted its significance not only to the art world, but also because of the large and vibrant Armenian-American community living in Los Angeles.
Exhibit organizer Michael Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which hosted the exhibit from October to January, before it traveled to London’s Tate Modern, said he was delighted that MOCA came on board to host this leg of the exhibition and praised MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel for his commitment to the project.
I met up with Schimmel at MOCA last month and discussed the exhibit and its significance. Below is the transcription of an interview, which was videotaped for a segment on Horizon Armenian Television:
Ara Khachatourian: What makes this exhibit different from others that have been in the US?
Paul Schimmel: Gorky has always been highly prized. The value of his works have never been higher. His importance as the seminal figure—as the father of abstract expressionism—has never been more widely acknowledged.
But, in fact, it is a specialist collection. Meaning, it’s not a very large oeuvre, since he died at a very young age. The greatest works, which are from the 30s and 40s constitute an even more limited body of work, and, the last truly great retrospective was well over 35 years ago. Given that reality, this will certainly be, for most of us, the only time in our lifetime that we will see such a comprehensive and complete retrospective that surveys his entire career from the 20s to the time of his suicide. And, it [the exhibit] does so with a kind of depth that other much smaller projects have not been able to do.
A.K.: What about it coming to Los Angeles… What is the significance of that for the art world?
P.S.: For the art world and for MOCA, we have here the most important collection of abstract expressionism on the West Coast. We have major holdings of Mark Rothko—in depth. We have three Jackson Pollocks up on view. It’s fascinating to note that in 1945 fully four years before abstract expressionism was even ever acknowledged, an exhibition was organized [featuring] Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky. And the question was posed: “Is this a new American Art? A Question for Critics.” And, to a large degree, that pantheon from that moment in time represents the critical moment between Europe and America. And, probably no artist more so than Gorky was so enamored with the “European heritage” that he embraced… So in love with the traditions, whether they be [Jean-Auguste-Dominique] Ingres, [Pablo] Picasso, [Joan] Miro, that he should be the figure that straddled both worlds—literally, in terms of him coming here as a survivor of the Genocide, but also figuratively in terms of his profound love for Europe, and ultimately, for the last ten years of his life, a desire to invent a new American painting.
A.K.: Gorky’s works are going to be on display for three months in the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia. What are your expectations from the community? There is a big buzz going on right now, but how do you think that interaction is going to play out?
P.S.: I am half Armenian. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Gorky twice before in a very serious way. Once, almost 25 years ago, in a show down in Orange County that placed Gorky—rightfully so—as the central figure between abstract surrealism and the emergence of abstract expressionism. The show was called “The Interpretive Link.” And, even within that very specialized context, where he was seen with large groups of works by Pollock, Rothko, [William] Baziotis and Barnet Newman and [Joan Bergos] Masso and [Roberto] Matta and Miro as that figure, the Armenian community—understanding that this was the world seen according to Gorky—came out in a way that truly surprised me.
Just last Friday night (April 30) I spoke to a group of seven organizations that frankly don’t get together except for once a year to acknowledge the Genocide… They were all there, some 300 people, and the level of interest, enthusiasm and knowledge about Gorky was breathtaking. I think they not only see Gorky as the greatest visual artist to have come out of Armenia, period, but they also see themselves as American Armenians in a way that was very meaningful, even to Gorky.
I was surprised to learn that it was only in 1939, on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that Gorky finally became a US citizen. And two years later, he was teaching camouflage courses and he got so interested in trying to contribute to America’s war effort that he even wrote a letter trying to join the military service, which he was declined for age reasons. But, I think in his life story… The fact that his father, to a large degree, abandoned him and his sister and mother… That his mother died of starvation in front of him… That he emigrated here over a long period of time… And then, literally, reinvented himself in a way that, I think, many American Armenians understand. So, it’s the story of his art, his special place in the history of art and his personal autobiography—filled with both the tragedies and the extraordinary heights of his success. This is a story that the Armenian community embraces in so many ways.
A.K.:What are some of the events attached to the exhibit that the community should look forward to?
P.S.: Because it’s such an important exhibition to MOCA and the community we’ll be having a series of upper-level member events of both Friday [June 4] and Saturday [June 5] night. If members of the Armenian community want to become members of MOCA, this would be great occasion to join us in celebrating Gorky, along with a very enthusiastic group of your own community. On Sunday [June 6], we’ll begin a very rich educational program with Michael Taylor, the curator of the exhibition, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I know we are showing films, we are having a symposium, we are having lectures, including myself and artists from the community like Jeremy Gilbert… All talking about Gorky from different standpoints. So, while the educational program focuses, first and foremost, as it should and as Gorky would want it to be, on him as the artist, it is far more expansive than we normally do, to really put him into a social and political context that informed his art.
The issue of the Genocide, which has been a subject of some discussion during the showing of the exhibition at the [Modern] Tate [Museum] in London… This is a different issue in this community. As you’ve pointed out, this is the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia and the acknowledgement within Los Angeles has been already done. Our own City Council has come to appreciate it. It is not going to have the same, I believe, issues that have come up in London. And, I think—I hope—first and foremost, it will see something celebratory coming out of something terribly tragic.
It is certain, although Gorky was a talented young man (he drew when he was just a teen), he became an artist as he became an American by inventing himself here. He made great advances, having come here in 1920 at 18 years old and by 1925 he was already teaching at a distinguished school in New York City. His next really 15 years of struggle developing as an artist was a struggle he shared with many artists of his generation from America. It was an American struggle no different than the struggle that a Pollock and a Rothko had. And, yet—and this is so remarkable—the inspiration for his greatest works, from the 30s, whether it is memories from the town of Khorkom, where he grew up… His imagination about the garden of Sochi, which he never saw… But, most importantly, in the 40s, after he had two girls, and he saw in them the continuation of his own heritage, his own history… And, it was through nature, through spending time in Connecticut, spending time in Virginia, that all the memories of his unconscious, encouraged by his activities with the surrealists, allowed him to revel in a kind of beauty and magical quality that was the gardens of his childhood.
A.K.: These are exciting times for the museum. MOCA just turned 30 last year and you has a new director coming in. What’s coming up for the museum and how can the community become a part of it?
P.S.: The extraordinary thing that happened with the financial crisis that many not-for-profit institutions experienced over the last 18 months, was for the community to understand both how delicate these public organizations are—how fragile they are—but also how important they are and how vital they are.
The outpouring of artists, collectors, foundations and, most importantly, our own board of trustees, with the challenge grant the museum received from the Broad Foundation allowed the museum to go on whole and independent and to continued to present a very rich and diverse and balanced program. To that end, MOCA has always taken great pride in the range of activities. We will have, for example, an opening, within weeks, Arshile Gorky, opening in the beginning of June and a month later a survey of works by the great filmmaker, actor and artist Dennis Hopper. I think that kind of mixing is going to characterize, as it always has, MOCA’s very dynamic program.
A.K.: Thank you. We are very much looking forward to this learning experience.
P.S.: I cannot emphasize enough the power of objects themselves. For everyone who thinks they’ve seen Gorky, they’ve frankly seen reproduction or seen a painting here and a painting there. Gorky would want, as any artist would, for you to come in and spend the time necessary to get lost in his imagination. Come do that with us here at MOCA.