FROM A HIGH PLACE

A Life of Arshile Gorky

By Matthew Spender

Knopf. 417 pp. $35

Reviewed by Robert Storr

Only in America could an Armenian refugee who never set foot in France become the last great exponent of School of Paris painting and the first great exemplar of the postwar New York School of modernism. So this is an American story, and a classic immigrant's story, too -- one of dislocation and self-discovery, of the tension between inbred and acquired identities -- played out not in tenements or on Main Street but in the lofts and salons of the art world.

Born Vosdanik Adoian in 1904 in the village of Khorkom -- after which he titled several of his canvases -- Arshile Gorky arrived in Providence, R.I., in 1920 and soon settled in New York, where by the mid-1930s he had distinguished himself as a colorful character and an uncommonly gifted artist who counted among his friends the veteran modernist Stuart Davis and the charismatically up-and-coming Willem de Kooning. By the end of the decade, with the public crucible of the WPA mural program behind him and World War II looming ahead, Gorky withdrew into himself to produce some of the most luxuriant abstractions of his time. These pictures prompted the exiled French tastemaker Andre Breton to claim him for the flagging cause of Surrealism. Encouraged by that recognition, Gorky went on to develop a lyrical gesturalism that opened the way for Abstract Expressionism, but he did not live to see its triumph, dying by his own hand in 1948.

For the better part of his short career, Gorky painted in the manner of the artists he most admired, first Cezanne, then Picasso and Miro, and finally Matta. On occasion, his variations on their signature styles were so close as to resemble forgeries. In the same self-effacing and self-dramatizing spirit, Gorky wrote love letters cribbed from Surrealist literature, and pretended to be related to the Soviet novelist Maxim Gorky. Rather than indicating a fundamental inauthenticity, however, the artist's multilayered impersonations were the sign of his peculiar genius. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," his idol, Picasso, once said. Gorky faked a lot in the process of realizing himself, but the results possessed an idiosyncratic and uncanny eloquence. Just as his improvisatory English inflected his plagiarized verbal flights of fancy with a genuine poetry, Gorky's unmatched abilities as a studio technician gave his borrowed images a strange and unprecedented richness. Like the imaginary author in Jorge Luis Borges's fable who "wrote" Cervantes's Don Quixote from scratch, with utter conviction, Gorky limned the classics of modernism as if for the first time.

What Gorky lacked in iconographic originality, he more than made up for in pure painterly range and refinement. To Picasso's often hurried formal inventions he lent harmonious weight and measure. To Miro's thinly brushed biomorphs and Matta's skeletal figuration he gave a full-bodied sensuality. Thus while his work looked like that of other established artists, it never felt like theirs. Starting out as a pictorial "orchestrator," by the end of his life Gorky had evolved into a great "composer" in his own right. He is one of those painters of mid-century who usefully oblige us to make the distinction between academic modernism -- stale, formulaic iterations of style -- and the modern tradition -- the creative reinterpretation and transformation of a still vital heritage.

Gorky's approach to his medium was that of a sure-handed eroticism. His approach to life was achingly, awkwardly romantic. At times almost the caricature of a Bohemian -- his folkloric dancing and singing, and his explosive discourses on art are legendary -- Gorky suffered real hardship. Abandonment by his father, who came to America before him, the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the death of his mother during their exodus shadowed his youth. Then there was the continuous poverty and scant attention to his growing achievement. His final, Job-like years culminated in severe injury in a car accident, rectal cancer that ate away at his strength and pride, a failing marriage and suicide.

Given all this, we can be grateful that this new biography does not cast the artist as a latter-day Van Gogh. Instead Matthew Spender tackles his subject with a respectful but demystifying zeal, providing background on Gorky's childhood in Armenia, a generally reliable account of his aesthetic apprenticeship and a sometimes intimate description of his troubled but fertile last years. The husband of Gorky's eldest daughter, Maro, Spender has benefited from insider knowledge of the artist's homelife and seven-year marriage to Agnes Magruder -- affectionately nicknamed Mougouch -- but this perspective entails compromises as well. While a memoirist speaks for himself, Spender sounds like he is speaking for others. When, for example, he writes about Gorky's domestic rages, or the affair between Mougouch and Matta that took place just before Gorky hanged himself, Spender's retelling of events seems cramped by discretion.

Spender's understanding of art history also centers on familiarity and secondhand opinion more than in-depth research. An interview with de Kooning and sometimes delicious bits of art-world gossip enliven the text, but he is seldom critical of his sources, and gives short shrift to crucial issues such as Gorky's debt to Miro, who is not mentioned in the biography until long after his influence has showed up in Gorky's work. Spender also takes sides in ways that seem to echo family grudges and loyalties. Gorky's dealer Julien Levy is subtly and, I think, unfairly disparaged, while, in places, de Kooning is treated as a kind of Gorky "wannabe." Spender's readings of Gorky's paintings also have the ring of received wisdom, but what he has to say does make one want to look hard at the work, and that is the important thing. Happily for Washingtonians, the Hirschhorn boasts an specially strong collection of Gorky's paintings.

Overall, there is much in this readable book to enjoy, and one appreciates the effort made to return Gorky to center stage. Gorky's peers certainly knew that he belonged there. Thus in a 1949 letter to Art News oddly omitted from Spender's book, de Kooning wrote, "In a piece on Arshile Gorky's memorial show, it was mentioned that I was one of his influences. Now that is plain silly. When, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Arshile's studio for the first time, the atmosphere was so beautiful that I got a little dizzy, and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately. If the bookkeepers think it necessary to continuously make sure of where things and people come from, then I came from 36 Union Square (Gorky's studio). I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence. As long as I keep it with myself I'll be doing all right." Such testimonials are rare in art history, but rarer still with regard to "artists' artists." Gorky was a major rather than a minor master.

Robert Storr is senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

CAPTION: Detail from "The Artist and His Mother," by Arshile Gorky, ca. 1926/1936