By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
From Matta, Gorky also learned to rely on his greatest technical strength — his sinuous, dynamic, inventive line. Over the next eight years, although still relying heavily on his gift for mimicry — with focus shifted to Matta, Tanguay and other assorted surrealists — Gorky came closest to finding his own voice in the complex, erotically charged systems of the dislodged diagrammatic fragments that populated his late canvases. Maybe if he'd lived another couple of decades.
But probably not. Gorky's most puzzling and frustrating anomaly as a card-carrying modernist was his manifest disbelief in originality. In this he stands as a prescient voice in the critique of modernism's insistence on authorial individualism and relentless novelty. Or rather, his work does.
But that stand is in direct odds with the cultural archetype of The Great Artist, which was Gorky's guiding principle. Two works in this show — 1944's One Year the Milkweed and 1945's Diary of a Seducer — seem to eradicate the fictional remove across which Gorky was gesticulating. The rest, while very good, are invariably outstripped by their models — his Cézannes aren't as good as Cézanne's, his Picassos and Mirós aren't as good as Picasso's and Miró's. His Mattas aren't as good as Matta's. Then the bastard steals his wife. What a life.
If you're unaware of Gorky's derivations, or just don't care, the work offers a stellar précis of avant-garde painting fashions leading up to the triumph of the abstract expressionists, and a richly satisfying aesthetic experience. But there's a sense of desperation and deliberateness to Gorky's pursuit of Greatness that is his bitter Achilles heel; for me the signal piece in the exhibition isn't The Artist and His Mother, or Study for "The Liver Is the Cock's Comb" (1944), or even One Year the Milkweed.
Instead, it is Study for "Dark Green Painting" — a gridded-off template drawing for one of Gorky's last (and best) paintings, which — at least in retrospect — proclaims an improvisational spontaneity its anxious "Study" belies.
One of the over-ridiculed clichés regarding abstract expressionism is the equation of "action painting" with the philosophy of existentialism proposed by critic Harold Rosenberg — one of Gorky's biggest fans. The bottom line of studio practice is the artist's need to stand outside any sense of reckoning, confront the Void and make his mark. Except for a couple of instances, it seems to me Gorky never stood in that place. His work nevertheless becomes Great in spite of his best efforts — as the masterful visual component of an elaborate and profound theater piece: Vosdanig Adoian is Arshile Gorky.
ARSHILE GORKY: A RETROSPECTIVE | MOCA | 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. | Through Sept. 20