There have been many stories about the tragedy of the artist, but perhaps none are quite so extreme as the story of Arshile Gorky, a story of tragedy that even continues nearly a quarter of a century after his death.
The artist was born Vostanik Manuk Adoian on April 15, 1904, in Khorgom, a village situated on the shores of Lake Van in the Ottoman Empire. In later years Gorky was vague about his date of birth, and would change it from year to year. In 1908 the artist’s father Setrag Adoian emigrated to America to avoid the draft, leaving his family to fend for themselves.
The Armenian people had been ruled by the corrupt and tyrannical Ottoman Empire for three centuries, and their history of subjugation by Turkish peoples extended back to the fifteenth century. The beginning of the twentieth century marked end of the Ottoman Empire, resulting in mounting debt and political corruption. Turkish leaders found a scapegoat in the Armenian people, gradually taking away their civil rights until in 1915 the systematic extermination of Turkey’s Armenian population was officially declared.
On June 15, 1915, Gorky’s family was forced to embark upon a death march of 150 miles, travelling north to the border of Russian Armenia. They reached the city of Yerevan on July 16, struggling to survive, the family lived on the brink of starvation, with Gorky taking odd jobs as a carpenter and printer’s assistant, and carving women’s combs from bull and ox horns. In 1919, when Gorky was a mere 14 years old, his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms.
Gorky fled, leaving the horror of the Armenian Genocide behind him, arriving in America in 1920, the 16-year old Gorky was reunited with his father, but they never grew close. The separation from his father caused Gorky to feel abandoned and he was estranged from Setrag for the rest of his life. This increased Gorky’s nostalgia for home and especially for his mother, whom he described as “the queen of the aesthetic domain,” forever influencing the artist’s work.
Gorky was mostly self-educated, and took some painting lessons in the early 1920s from a woman who told him that an Armenian could not be a painter; whereas Russians were considered chic and artistic. Gorky thus invented a new identity, and a Russian past for himself, the artist even claimed on occasion to be a Georgian prince. After much consideration he settled on a name that he felt would reflect his real past and true identity: “Arshile” which is Russian for Achilles, and “Gorky” translates into “the bitter one.”
Gorky was renowned for being as uncompromising in his personal life as he was in his art. the artist spent many years looking for the “perfect” woman, falling in love three times, and getting married once before he finally found the woman of his dreams. She was Agnes Magruder, a wealthy American socialite, by this time the artist was 40 and Agnes was only 20. After the two had married, Gorky embarked upon the most productive period of his career, beginning in 1941 with the Garden in Sochi series, and continuing up to his death in 1948, Gorky created such masterpieces as The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, One Year the Milkweed, and Waterfall.
The couple enjoyed half a decade of marriage, and had two daughters before tragedy again reared its ugly head. In January of 1946, Gorky’s studio, a converted barn on his wife’s Connecticut property, caught fire. The blaze destroyed many of the paintings, drawings, and books Gorky owned. One month after the inferno, the artist was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent a colostomy. The operation left him physically handicapped and emotionally scarred. By now Gorky’s marriage was deteriorating, and finally collapsed when the artist discovered that Agnes was having an affair with Gorky’s friend the surrealist painter Matta Echaurren.
Soon thereafter, Agnes walked out on the ailing Gorky, taking his beloved children with her. The same week as his breakup, the New York gallery owner Julien Levy brought the artist home by car, while driving under the influence of alcohol. Levy crashed the car. Gorky suffered a fractured back and neck, and was placed in an enormous leather neck brace to hold his head up.
By now the artist was a broken man both spiritually and actually, shattered and betrayed by his wife, and estranged from everyone he most loved. Gorky retreated to his house in Connecticut, where he hanged himself from the rafters of the barn on July 21, 1948. His last words to the world – presumably for his children – were found written in chalk on a crate: “Goodbye, my loveds.”
Image: Example of an American airlines boeing 707, Bridgetown (Christ Church) – Grantley Adams (Seawell) International (BGI / TBPB), Barbados
If the terrible series of disasters and tragedies of Gorky’s life were not enough, his art had its own dramatic fate. Nearly 24 years after the artist’s suicide, on March 1, 1962, 15 abstract paintings by Gorky were en route to Los Angeles for an exhibition. American Airlines Flight 1, a domestic, scheduled passenger flight from New York International (Idlewild) Airport, now John F. Kennedy International Airport, took off for Los Angeles International Airport. The plane – having just taken off two minutes earlier – rolled over and crashed into a swamp, killing all 87 passengers and eight crew members on board. All 15 of the artist’s paintings were also destroyed.
Aside from Gorky’s 15 paintings the disaster claimed a number of notable passengers, Admiral Richard Lansing Conolly, retired Chief of Naval Operations, George T. Felbeck, vice president of Union Carbide, W. Alton Jones, multi-millionaire former president and chairman of Cities Service Company, and close personal friend of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Louise Lindner Eastman, whose daughter Linda Eastman would later marry Beatle Paul McCartney, and Emelyn Whiton, 1952 Olympic sailing gold medalist.
Gorky had faced more than his share of misfortunes, which began in his early life and had even brought him to an early death. A misfortune so great that it appeared to outlive the artist. It’s a story that you couldn’t make up.