ARSHILE GORKY was already a legendary figure when I met him early in 1934. Even then he meant a great deal to the small group of searching but isolated young American painters. There were otehr culture-heros in New York to inspire us - Stuart Davis, John Graham and somewhat later Milton Avery and Hans Hofmann - but Gorky played a special role.
He was the indispensable bridge figure; he absorbed, even imitated to some degree, the great European masters from Ingres and Cezanne to Picasso and Miro. Yet he talked darkly about a new art that would go beyond anything previously done; he seemed to be struggling to make himself worthy of what was to come. No other artist in New York matched him in intensity of desire, in contempt for halfheartedness, in force as a personality.
Gorky could hardly fail to be conspicuous in any gathering. He was well over 6 feet, with a high flat forehead, long lank black hair and a longish, gently blurred nose. His black eyes smoldered; they shaded toward hostility or vulnerability. His black moustache had the true Fu Manchu droop. In the company of a few like-minded friends, he could be tender and considerate, if always uncompromising in principle; but at larger assemblages, he was clearly reluctant to submerge his unique identity in the leveling mass. Gorky was the quintessential nonjoiner, the heckler from the sidelines. Crowds of artist irritated him; he was disruptive at early meetings of the Artists' Committee for Action (forerunner of the Artist' Union), at the American Abstract Artists (which refused to consider him as a member), and even at informal gatherings at the Stewart's Cafeteria on 14th Street at 7th Avenue, which became a favorite hangout for artists after 1935.
My studio was diagonally across Union Square from Gorky's. I would occasionally see him in a small dim cafeteria on 5th Avenue near 14th Street talking art with older artists, usually of Slavic origin. In this company I remember David Burliuk sporting his gypsy earrings, the soft-voiced Raphael Soyer, the gravel-voiced Mischa Reznikoff and Ary Stillman with his remarkable accent made up of equal but clashing elements of Russian, French and English. Gorky's own use of he English language was marked by the absence of definite and indefinite articles.
At one early meeting of the blood brothers Gorky said, and the others nodded approval, that the surest way to know what painting was all about was to haunt the museums. At this point I was sitting at an adjoining table trying to remain anonymous. I had just turned 24. But a door had been opened; I plunged in, saying, " And copying the paintings is even better," then added that I had copied about 15 old masters in New York museums from the age of 18 on.
Gorky seemed pleased, wanted to know what artists I had copied, then asked whether my parents came from Russia. They were both from Eastern Russia, my mother from the Crimea, not too far from Gorky's Armenia. Gorky thawed. Later he came to my dingy studio and offered constructive criticism: flatten the forms; think in terms of shapes. Above all, he said, I must trust my unconscious. Before leaving he asked if I would pose for a painting.
Several days later at 10 a.m. I knocked at his green door on the fourth floor (walkup, of course) at 36 Union Square, two blocks from my own studio. Gorky appeared. A short dark corridor loomed, but in the brilliantly-lit work area I could see the great classical "Artist and His Mother," unframed. It dominated the studio with its monumental and delicate presence - the only painting on the walls. Post-card color reproductions of Uccello, Ingres, Matisse and Picasso, as I remember, lay on a table or were tacked casually on the wall. The studio was enviably clean. I heard later that Gorky swept if every day and washed it down every week. He treated his studio like a shrine at which to performed his devotions, making ritual obeisances to the masters while at the same time stubbornly asserting his own troubled perceptions.
Gorky sat at his easel under a large low skylight, selected a small canvas, and had me pose seated at a threequarters angle, leaning my cheek against my left hand. Even then I knew the pose came from Ingres and Cezanne. Gorky concentrated. Not a word was said. No breaks for a rest. After about an hour, I rested my hand. Gorky waited impatiently a minute or two for me to resume the pose, and the session continued.
We went out to a lunch of coffee and doughnuts in a nearby coffee shop. Gorky took out an India-ink fountain pen and drew parallel lines on a sheet he took from an inner jacket pocket, lines marvelously sure. At a nearby table two girls could be heard, one thin, animated and twittering, the other beefier, her voice low and soothing. Gorky listened, ruminated, then got up. In his patched velvet jacket he towered over the young ladies.
"You," he said to the thin one, "are like bird - tweet, tweet, tweet. And you," he said to the other, "are like cow - moo, moo." I heard a resounding slap and Gorky returned to our table, eyebrows raised. "I don't understand. What's wrong with cow?"
Gorky had a sense of humor, but I don't think he meant to embarrass anyone or to show his intellectual superiority to shopgirls. A perception had come to him that he felt ruinous to suppress. He kept the valves of instinct open; he rarely censored his tendency to make parallels between art and life. More than once he told me, "Painting is making confession." And he would make confession verbally as well, with a singular obliviousness to the nuances of social situations.
I posed for about eight painting sessions, each a week apart to allow the paint layer to dry. Each time I returned Gorky would scrape down the dried paint surface with a straightbacked razor and lay on the same colors again. What he wanted was a thick, even paint film, "smooth like glass," as he put it, similar to that in the earlier version of "The Artist and His Mother" (now in the Whitney Museum of American Art. The other version has just been acquired by the National Gallery of Art.)
At this time Gorky was not scraping and smoothing other canvases but loading on paint, layer on rough layer, sometimes piling up the paint an inch thick, making innumerable changes while he fought to project enigmatic abstract images. Yet at the same time he was doing serene classical figure subjects.
After some of the sessions, we would walk along 14th Street, always toward the east. Gorky took pleasure in the unexpected felicities of the physical world, pointing to the cracks and freak textures of the sidewalks and curbs, the chance spatters of liquid mud on the sides of subway entrances, the bleached and tempered residues of paint on old wooden houses and the predatory character of rooftops and facade-tops seen in profile.
I had posed in a nondescript jacket and tie, partly from natural squareness and partly because I detested the phony colorfulness of Village types. Gorky began in a monochrome key of ochre and olive. He liked the crisp curve of black hair against the temple, the flaring jacket lapels, but something about the work seemed to bother him. He was spending time just looking and I wasn't surprised when he told me I wasn't needed for further posing. Abruptly, he offered me two spendid drawings, unsolicited. It had never occurred to me to ask for anything.
By this time I knew John Graham pretty well, and in the next few years he took me along on visits to Gorky. Graham, born Dubrovsky, was a provocative theorist of modern art and a magnificent, still-underrated painter, a figure too complex to be described in a paragraph. Gorky admired him deeply. At each visit I would make some hint about my painting (it wasn't really a portrait) and Gorky would be evasive.
When Gorky committed suicide in 1948 and subsequent books on him by Ethel Schwabacher and Harold Rosenberg failed to reproduce my portrait, I assume it had been lost or destroyed. Then Julien Levy's well-illustrated book appeared and I discovered my painting, titled, "Portrait," wrongly dated "c. 1929." Gorky had made numerous changes since 1934 (his widow Agnes Gorky Phillips says he continued to work on it until 1941-42), but the subject and the pose remained exactly as they were originally. He had painted out the tie, narrowed the waist, varied the colors, rounded the face and the lapels, and thickened the neck impossibly. Begining with my portrait he had created a Gorky image.
In 1976 my wife and I visited Sunderland, a town in the North of England, to see my portrait in a Gorky exhibition circulated by the Arts Council. What struck us about the show was that all the paintings were uniquely and unmistakably Gorky. Any matter of infuence by other artists seemed irrelevant, like the influence of Perugino on Raphael or Raphael on Ingres or Ingres on Picasso. Or Picasso on Gorky. So what? Gorky had complex roots, ethnic and artistic, but he now comes through as one of the best painters American has produced. We must remember that at the time of his death Abstract Expressionism wasn't yet a concept.
I moved to Washington in May 1942 to join the Division of Graphic Arts of the Smithsonian Institution. A year or so later I met Gorky by chance in the National Gallery of Art. He was standing before a painting by Ingres, the severe profile portrait of the architect Dedebans, on loan from the Louvre for safekeeping during the war. I remarked that friends in New York told me that Gorky was now painting in thin color washes. "Yes," he said, "I can paint thin now because I painted thick for so many years."
Later, when I saw his last works, I could appreciate Gorky's courage in breaking with the traditions of Western painting to make a leap into the unknown. Rubs of color, running washes, thin exquisite lines and off organic forms had replaced his formerly solid, classically-balanced compositions. Gorky's unconscious had finally taken over, and that unconscious was filled with an endless menace. Gorky knew the risks he was taking; he had prepared himself well. CAPTION: Picture 1, Gorksy's "Portrait" of Jacob Kainen; courtesy of Agnes Gorky Phillips.; Picture 2, Gorky and his mother, photographed in 1912. Hirschhorn Museum