Review of “From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky,” by Matthew Spender
The painter Arshile Gorky was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. At the time of his suicide, in 1948, neither his wife nor most of his friends knew his real name (Vostanig Adoian). Almost no one was entirely certain whether he was Armenian or Georgian or Circassian. Those who believed themselves to be his intimates were mostly unaware that as a child he had witnessed and nearly been the victim of a terrible genocide when the Turks slaughtered the Armenians of northeastern Turkey. Even his wife had never been told that Gorky’s father lived in the United States (she thought he had disappeared during Gorky’s childhood) and was in touch with Gorky until his own death in 1947. Though it was generally understood that Gorky made up his history as he went along, many of his friends thought that he had attended Brown. Gorky did not merely augment his experience, as many artists have done; almost every fact he ever shared about himself was a complete fiction.
The matter of sorting truth from lies was not helped by the first Gorky biography, written by his friend Ethel Schwabacher, which relied on information from the artist. Gorky is further obscured by his nephew’s translation of Gorky’s Armenian correspondence with his sister, which blatantly misrepresents the contents of many of the letters. Even determining the details of Gorky’s adulthood in America is tricky, since most of the people around him were subject to, or accomplices in, his habits of self-obfuscation. The search for the historic Gorky is a matter of wading through misinformation and disinformation, trying to extract slivers of truth from the panegyrics of admirers and the tirades of enemies. There do not seem to be any people who had neutral feelings about Gorky, and so there is no one who speaks of him directly and honestly.
Much has been written about Gorky’s art, and a number of fine exhibitions in the last 35 years have compensated for the mixed (if sporadically rhapsodic) reception given to it when he was alive. There is no question that he is among the greatest painters who have worked in the United States in this century. Unlike many whose personalities seem almost to overshadow their work, he was an artist whose paintings exist quite independent of his celebrity. Anyone who has stood in front of his paintings will have wondered what intensity could have led to such highly worked canvases, what singularity could have spurred such meticulous yet wild compositions, what inspiration could have created such complex, meaningful abstraction. They will not be disappointed by the man behind the curtain. Who he appeared to be is fascinating, nearly as interesting as who he was; and in the interaction between the seeming and the being is a terrific story.
Gorky witnessed real horrors in his very early life; he migrated with his mother and his sisters from Turkey to the Armenian city of Yerevan in the Soviet Union, where his mother settled into a debilitating depression. After her death, he, at the age of 16, came to the United States in 1920 and determined to be an artist. He set up in a studio in New York, and engaged with the ideas of Cezanne and Picasso at a time when those artists were not fully appreciated in this country. He went on to become a founding Abstract Expressionist, inventing the vocabulary that would be used in the predominant postwar American art. His pictures are eerie, dense, organic, often vast and as mysterious as the artist himself. They are full of details that seem to overflow with meaning, but the specifics of that meaning remain largely inaccessible. He never sold enough art to pay for his life; he lived always on the generosity of his friends and admirers — a large group that included Andre Breton and Willem de Kooning.
In his personal life, he was given to passionate, consuming love that tended to overwhelm those on whom it was focused; it was a magnificent but self-centered form of adoring dependence that seems not to have differed much as it found new objects. After enduring a number of abandonments, Gorky found Agnes Magruder, whom he called Mougouch. They soon married, and produced two daughters. Their lives were romantic, complicated, exhilarating, richly lived and joyful, and then richly tragic. After a surgery for colon cancer that left Gorky dependent on a colostomy tube, the accidental incineration of his studio with much of his art in it, some humiliations at the hands of art critics and a wildly agitated depression during which Mougouch distanced herself from him, Gorky hanged himself, at the age of 44, leaving a chalkboard on which he had written, “Goodbye my loves.”
Matthew Spender, the author of From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, is a sculptor who is married to Gorky’s elder daughter, Maro. It is, by the author’s own account, his love for his wife that led him to Gorky’s problematic career, and this point of origin gives his biography a certain easy intimacy. He does not write a memoir of his own, for Gorky was long dead when he met Maro; but he does have a casual way of referring to the lives of the Gorkys as though they were people we all know in common. This can be charming, and it gives one that same privileged feeling that comes with reading someone’s correspondence.
Spender has managed to fit together the bits and pieces of Gorky into a narrative that is astonishingly coherent. He convincingly settles, once and for all, the line between fact and fiction in Gorky’s biography — which is no mean feat. Anyone who has wondered about the artist will have, with this book, that final-chapter-of-a-mystery feeling: here, at long last, is what was actually going on. Spender makes no pretense of being an art critic, but he gives very capable exposition of the techniques and styles that Gorky used, and of the critical response to these styles. When Spender does occasionally venture an opinion on a picture, he does so in an attractively quiet way, throwing in his own view to let you know he has one, but never insisting on it.
This is a kind book and a gentle one, more benevolent, perhaps, than Gorky would have felt he deserved. A story such as Gorky’s invites those who untangle it to place a lot of blame, and Spender resists this impulse; his writing is judicious and even decorous. He tells what Gorky said and what happened without putting himself in the way of his subject. He exercises little power of characterization, and so it is left to the facts to bring the man alive for you. Unfortunately, the facts are not up to this task. At the end of From a High Place, you know a lot about Gorky, but you would be fooling yourself to say that you know Gorky. You understand that he was lonely, but you have no window into his loneliness. You would be hard pressed to shed an actual tear at the narrative of his suffering, though Spender gives you the feeling that he has at some private time shed tears of his own.
It is clear that from the time he met his wife Spender thought continually of a man who was truly great, and that he has tried to wrestle with the greatness. It is also clear that he himself does not have the force to measure up to the artist he describes; the superhuman scale of Gorky’s life dwarfs Spender’s civilized narration of that life. The emptiness at the center of the book seems to reflect the author’s difficulty in conjuring a personality so radically different from his own.
The Gorky whom Spender describes — to whom “unless a fact evoked an emotion or an image, there was no point in bothering about it” — would have loathed From a High Place. He would have found it literal-minded, boring, self-conscious, unimaginative and stunted. Gorky’s is a tale of magnificence and tragedy and love and death, the sort of story that cries out to be written in a lush expressionist style related to Gorky’s own. Spender’s meek, polite voice is drowned by Gorky’s booming, which it represents but cannot incorporate. The essentials of something important are present here, but the book doesn’t live up to itself; this is, perhaps, what it would be like to see Hugh Grant performing King Lear.