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American, born Van Province, Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), c. 1904 - 1948
Adoian, Vosdanik Manook
Arshile Gorky is recognized as a pioneer of the new abstract painting that developed in New York after World War II. He was born Vosdanik Adoian in the village of Khorkom, vilayet of Van, a predominantly Armenian province of the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 his idyllic childhood was shattered by the beginning of the Turkish genocide of the Armenian population within the empire. Gorky's father and other relatives had fled to America earlier, leaving the boy, his mother, and sister to become refugees in Russian-occupied territory. In 1919 his mother died of starvation. A year later, at sixteen, Gorky emigrated to the United States. His was a huge journey, geographically and culturally, which would leave the artist with a permanent longing for the gardens, orchards, and wheat fields of his rural homeland.
From 1920 to 1924 Gorky lived in New England and between 1922 and 1924 attended the New School of Design in Boston. By 1926 he had moved to New York City, where over the next decade he taught painting, met other avant-garde artists, joined the Federal Arts Project, and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.
In New York he studied modern European art, and his work of the 1930s shows the influence of such artists as Cézanne, Miro, Picasso, Braque, Léger, and others. By the early 1940s, through rediscovery of the American countryside and assimilation of surrealism, Gorky had found his own direction. For the next seven years, until his death at the age of forty-four, he painted highly original abstractions that combine memories of his Armenian childhood with surrealist fantasies in works characterized by billowing shapes and exotic colors.
As it defined his teenage years, tragedy shaped the end of Gorky's life. A fire in his Connecticut studio destroyed more than thirty of his works. After an operation for cancer and a debilitating car crash, he was abandoned by his wife and two children. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]