First Italian Retrospective for Arshile Gorky to Open in Conjunction with Biennale di Venezia 2019


Opening 8 May 2019, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia presents the first retrospective survey of the American artist Arshile Gorky in Italy, entitled ‘Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948’, at Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art. Bringing together over 80 works, this major exhibition explores the full breadth of Gorky’s oeuvre. From his interrogation of modernist masters in the 1920s, to his late paintings of the 1940s, Gorky’s singular vision was present throughout, defining him as one of the pivotal figures of 20th century American Art, alongside Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

On view through 22 September 2019, ‘Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948’ is curated by Gabriella Belli, a celebrated art historian and Director of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, and Edith Devaney, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where she recently collaborated on the lauded exhibition ‘Abstract Expressionism’.

‘Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948’ has been realized in close collaboration with The Arshile Gorky Foundation and members of the artist’s family, and includes works which have rarely been exhibited. The exhibition incorporates important loans from The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.

Through this first monographic exhibition in Italy, Gorky’s extraordinary creative persona will illuminate areas still in the shadows of the history of the art of our country, allowing us to explore in depth the osmosis between European and American painting, of which Gorky was undoubtedly one of the most important innovators”.  
– Gabriella Belli, Director, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

In bringing together a number of Gorky’s most important works from across his entire career, this exhibition will serve to reinforce his significance within the development and canon of 20th century American art, and highlight his continuing relevance.”
– Edith Devaney, Curator

A hundred years ago the teenage Arshile Gorky got as close to Venice as he’d ever be in person, when the boat taking him to America stopped in Naples. Spiritually, however, he was never far from Italy – from the art of Pompeii, Uccello and de Chirico, who were among his chosen predecessors. He liked to work as fast as Tintoretto famously did, because as he once said, ‘when we are in tune with our times we do things with greater ease.’ We hope that this exhibition fills visitors with a sense not only of Gorky’s singular stance but also of his prolific energy, and it is the first time that his work will be seen on this scale in Italy. He was a man who rejected borders and labels of all kinds, from his birth name to art historical categories – yet the view from Venice 2019 might confirm that such individual expression could only emerge from mid-century New York.
– Saskia Spender, President, The Arshile Gorky Foundation, and granddaughter of the artist

About the Exhibition

‘Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948’ reveals the evolution of Gorky’s distinctive artistic vocabulary which was forged from his visual and intellectual engagement with European movements, yet unconstrained by any of their directives. He integrated the landscapes of Paul Cézanne, the line of Ingres, the composition of Paolo Uccello, the logistics of Pablo Picasso, and even the buoyant forms of Joan Miró. By absorbing and reacting to the work of past masters and modern artists, Gorky was able to assert his own understanding and imagination; a European sensibility in an American context. The artist’s assured visual language runs as a continuous thread through the exhibition to his inimitable late masterworks.

The exhibition at Ca’ Pesaro begins with Gorky’s early portraiture, made at a time when he met many of New York’s emerging avant-garde artists, including Stuart Davis, John Graham, and David Smith, and was a prominent figure in this creative milieu. A central work is ‘Self-Portrait’ (ca.1937), which references Picasso’s neoclassical portraits of the 1920s. Gorky’s portraiture was not only a method to explore the present – painting family, close friends, and his own likeness – but also a way to pay tribute to the family he had lost.

Gorky went on to synthesize Cubist concerns and structure with Surrealist content and techniques, in particular isolating and elaborating on biomorphic forms in his still life paintings and landscapes of the 1930s. A series of pivotal drawings known as ‘Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia’ represents a crucial development in the artist’s expansion of abstraction, honing his own glossary of motifs from his interrogation of Cubism and Surrealism. Drawing played a fundamental role in Gorky’s practice, forming his ideas and preceding almost every painting. Gorky’s draftsmanship is examined in depth in the exhibition through a dedicated presentation of works on paper, across the span of his career.

By the 1940s Gorky was engaging with the Surrealists, including André Breton, Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, and Roberto Matta. These new relationships would contribute to the development of automatism and the subconscious in his paintings. Works such as ‘Apple Orchard’ (ca.1943 – 1946) display not only his dexterity and a new precise, fluid line, but also a transformed approach. Gorky’s work had been further revitalized by a reconnection with nature, cemented in the summers of 1942 to 1945, which he spent in Connecticut and at Crooked Run Farm in Virginia. This time ‘en plein air’, rather than immersed in his New York studio or museums, allowed the artist to extract universal symbols and motifs grounded in observation. Gorky scrutinized botanical and biological shapes at close range and rendered the unique visual metaphors he saw in nature into new metamorphic forms, capable of expressing his inner psyche.

The final chapter of ‘Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948’ focuses on his late masterpieces such as ‘The Liver is the Cock’s Comb’ (1944), ‘One Year the Milkweed’ (1944) and ‘Dark Green Painting’ (ca.1948). In these works, Gorky’s instinctive symbols have developed into a personal vocabulary of recurring fantastical forms creating, as Clement Greenberg proclaimed in 1947, ‘some of the best modern paintings ever turned out by an American’. The artist imbued these evocative works with memories of his childhood, his close affinity with nature, and the complexities and contradictions that he felt were present in his own life. Gorky’s singular lexicon – a mix of personal energy and empathy, subconscious and abstract imagery – defined him as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism in America.

Gorky lived through an extraordinary era of historical and cultural upheaval, where the unprecedented displacement of people during two world wars was followed by the ascendance of New York over Paris as an artistic capital. This context is explored through archive material loaned from The Arshile Gorky Foundation, outlining not only Gorky’s personal timeline, but also the wider events that had a profound impact on his life.

The artist’s work had a lasting impact on generations, in particular artists such as Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jack Whitten. The exhibition features a film directed by Cosima Spender, granddaughter of the artist, bringing together contemporary artistic voices to reflect on Gorky’s life, work, and legacy alongside previously unseen footage of the artist.

A fully illustrated catalogue, including essays by the curators (Edith Devaney and Gabriella Belli) and Saskia Spender (Gorky’s granddaughter and President of the Arshile Gorky Foundation) will accompany the exhibition, with texts in both English and Italian.

About Arshile Gorky
b. April 15, 1904, Khorkom, Armenia
d. July 21, 1948, Sherman, Connecticut

Born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, Arshile Gorky fled to the United States at the age of 15 with his sister, escaping the Armenian Genocide. Two years later, he attended the New School of Design in Boston, Massachusetts until 1924. Later that year, he moved to New York City and became a full-time instructor at the School of Painting and Drawing at the Grand Central School of Art. Gorky was one of the first artists to join the Federal Art Project in 1935, making a series of murals proposed for the Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which eventually transferred to Newark Airport. That same year he signed a 3-year contract with the Guild Art Gallery. His first museum retrospective opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1941. In the mid-forties he enjoyed a time of significant personal and artistic fruition, marked by the birth of his children and his engagement with nature. Gorky’s work was exhibited in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1948 which was organised by MoMA that year. Following a period of personal upheaval and poor health in 1948, Gorky took his own life.

About Ca’ Pesaro – The International Gallery of Modern Art

The International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice is housed in the magnificent Ca’ Pesaro palace, built in the second half of the 17th century by the Pesaro family, on a project by the greatest architect of the Venetian Baroque, Baldassarre Longhena.

The Palace was donated to the city in 1898 by its last owner, the Duchess Felicita Bevilacqua La Masa, in order to create the first centre of production and exhibition of modern art in Venice. Founded in 1902 by the City Council, the International Gallery of Modern Art acquired the works purchased at the Venice Biennale and exhibited, between 1908 and 1924, the historic Bevilacqua La Masa’s exhibitions, giving rise to a generation of artists, including Umberto Boccioni, Felice Casorati, Gino Rossi and Arturo Martini. The collection has grown in time through acquisitions and donations; today it comprises 5,000 works in total including paintings, drawings, etchings and sculptures. Since 2013 the museum has hosted the internationally renowned Ileana Sonnabend Collection on a long-term loan.

Since the Seventies, Ca’ Pesaro has presented significant solo exhibitions on Italian and international artists, including Mark Rothko in 1970 and Robert Rauschenberg in 1975, and in recent years has held many exhibitions dedicated to the masters of 19th century and contemporary interdisciplinary subjects, including ‘Cy Twombly Paradise’ (2015), ‘Culture Chanel, The Woman Who Reads’ (2016), ‘William Merritt Chase, A Painter in New York and Venice’ (2017) and ‘David Hockney, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life’ (2017).

Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art
Santa Croce 2076, Venice


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