Arshile Gorky is a pivotal but enigmatic figure in the history of Modern Art — specifically in the alleged shifting of the narrative center of Capital-A Art from Paris to New York somewhere around World War II. Gorky was a quintessential example of American self-reinvention: a figurehead to the ab-ex pioneers in his spongelike eclecticism and existential heroicism, but at the same time a haunted European cast from the Old Master mold — with a psyche rooted in peasantry, Catholicism and genocide, and almost pathologically addicted to biographical fabrication.

When Gorky was working the Manhattan art world of the 1930s and '40s, nobody knew that he was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Nobody knew he was born Vosdanig Adoian and was not, as he claimed, related to Russian writer Maxim Gorky (whose real name in any case was Aleksey Peshkov). Nobody knew that he had never received the professional training he claimed, and was, in fact, largely self-taught through study of reproductions in library books and visits to public museums.

The man they knew as Gorky was, arguably, Vosdanig Adoian's greatest artistic creation — an evolving pastiche of behaviors, narratives and props coalescing into something approximating the persona of The Great Artist — as envisioned by an untutored immigrant's imagination and molded by the inchoate expectations of the emerging East Coast cultural elite. He was a tall, brooding, handsome, mustachioed foreigner; a passionate advocate of modernist painting; a preternaturally gifted draftsman and aesthetic chameleon who created credible translations of Cézanne, Picasso, Léger, Miró and a raft of surrealists over the course of his career.

Ultimately, the power of this fiction overtook his life, and Gorky sealed his canonization by hanging himself at the age of 44, after a series of tragic setbacks, including bowel cancer, a paralyzing car crash, a disastrous studio fire, and his wife leaving him for his good friend (and last and most significant artistic role model) Roberto Matta.

It's the same martyrific formula that launched Jackson Pollock and the New York School into the stratosphere a decade later. Maybe Gorky's whole-cloth-cut persona was his most influential contribution to subsequent generations of artists; by the late '50s the public role-playing aspect of artistic practice had become so ingrained as to be invisible. To become players, artists since Warhol have had to erect hall-of-mirror identities — artistic personae constructed by their artistic personae constructed by …

But the structure of storytelling was simpler in Gorky's time, and his continued appeal owes much to the public's appetite for a good yarn.

When one is confronted with a mishmash of abstract forms, it is a comfort to be able to say, “His use of charcoal references his burnt-out studio,” or “These shapes resemble the artist's bulging colostomy bag.” Not that these autobiographical elements aren't present, but verbiage is always looking to crowd out sensual data, and when the encompassing narrative is as patently fictional as Gorky's, it begins to take on an almost postmodern centrality over the actual, tangible artwork.

All this makes the viewing of Gorky's current retrospective at MOCA a complex and layered experience that needs some teasing-out to distinguish the merits of the work itself from the legend and its impact on art history.

“Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective,” traveling from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a generous, if not comprehensive, survey of Gorky's truncated oeuvre, tracing the autodidact's progression of hypothetical apprenticeships from his early infatuation with the postimpressionist protocubism of Cézanne to his latter-day osmotic absorption of Masson, Tanguay and Matta.

The Picasso influence is enormous, encompassing several periods from the restless Spaniard's stylistically hectic early career. Initially forgoing the challenges of outright cubism, Gorky channeled Picasso's earlier rose and subsequent neoclassical periods to modernize his figurative work of the late '20s and early '30s — including the self-portrait The Artist and His Mother series, which he worked on intermittently from 1926 on.

This haunting crowd-pleaser is accorded a small dedicated gallery of its own — and this is where the biographical entanglements really kick in, as we learn that Gorky watched his mother starve to death as a refugee in Yerevan in 1919. Seven years earlier, the pair had posed for a photograph in their Sunday best. Another seven years later, and Gorky found the photo in his half-sister's Massachusetts home, “borrowed” it and began obsessively copying it.

Cubism reared its beautifully ugly head in due course, with Picasso's various strains tempered by the more graphic impulses of Léger and the direct influences of Gorky's friends Stuart Davis and John Graham. The resulting body of work is among Gorky's most convincing, due in part to a superabundance of white space that interrupts the claustrophobic nostalgia of his earlier and subsequent styles.

By the late '30s, Miró's biomorphic surrealist abstraction soon began to bend the rectilinear structures of these starkly cheerful homages toward the more organic, volumetric forms that would become Gorky's signature.

In 1939, Gorky met Chilean Roberto Matta, part of the Parisian surrealist diaspora, and the elements of his triumphant and tragic end run fell into place. Matta taught him the chance-based surrealist technique of automatism, and how to thin down his oil paints to a drippy wash.

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

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