By LEE AVDOYAN
Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) is included among 10 abstract expressionists honored by the U.S. Postal Service in 2010 with a series of stamps. Featured on the Gorky stamp is his painting “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”, created in 1944 during the height of the abstract expressionist period.
Gorky’s work was the subject of the 15th Annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture held in September at the Library of Congress. Sponsored by the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, the lecture titled “The Story Behind the Stamp: Arshile Gorky and the Development of Abstract Expressionism” was delivered by Kim S. Theriault, associate professor of art history, theory and criticism at Dominican University.
Theriault earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia with her dissertation titled “Re-Placing Arshile Gorky: Exile, Identity, and Abstraction in 20th-Century American Art.” Her interest in Gorky led to her participation in a major retrospective of his work in 2010 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and to the publication of her book, “Rethinking Arshile Gorky.” The book elaborates on the themes of displacement, trauma and memory, as well as identity, originality and mourning in Gorky’s work.
Gorky was born Vostanik Adoyan in Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the 20th century. A survivor of the Armenian genocide of 1915, he emigrated to Watertown, Mass., in 1920. After being told by an art teacher that an Armenian could never be a painter, he created a Russian past for himself and changed his name to Arshile Gorky. Over the next three decades, Gorky continued to develop as an artist. His works have hung in every major art museum in the U.S. and many museums abroad. Yet the misfortunes that began in his early life, coupled with estrangement from his wife and his own illness, led to his suicide in 1948.
During her illustrated talk, Theriault interspersed an exegesis of Gorky’s works with photographs of his seminal paintings, along with objects that might have influenced their conception and execution.
“The subjects of his painting became hybridized images of the observed and the remembered, but Gorky neither replicated a scene in front of him nor exactly depicted a place from the past or present,” said Theriault.
Of his work titled “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” Theriault said it “epitomizes the way that Gorky’s interests and techniques culminate in the painting.” The similarities between the terms ‘cock’s comb,’ ‘cockscomb’ and ‘coxcomb’ reflect the various connotations of the term—a rooster’s crest, type of flower or jester’s cap. Ultimately, Gorky’s work represents “the decay, erosion and processes of the natural world, which are in a perpetual cycle of birth and death.”
The theme of his mother’s death is depicted in his well-known painting “The Artist and His Mother.” In real life, Gorky’s mother starved to death in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. In the painting, Gorky portrays himself standing over his dead mother. According to Theriault, Gorky displayed a budding modernist’s concern for “conception over perception” as “forms in his paintings are reduced to essential parts and removed from the real-life detail of the photograph upon which they were based.” Theriault explained that mere reproduction was never Gorky’s intent, just as he depicted him as a “cultural collage.” Taken as a whole, his art was driven by modernism.
A webcast of Theriault’s lecture can be viewed on the Library’s website.