36 Union Square

In 1930 Arshile Gorky moved into a new studio at 36 Union Square. Situated on the second floor with long windows, overlooking Manhattan’s 16th Street, the vast space, once a ballroom, seemed perfectly suited to a man who loved to play records of Armenian music and dance with a handkerchief between his fingers, waving it in the air. Visiting the studio for the first time, Willem de Kooning later recalled, he was “bowled over” by the beauty of the space, the meticulously arranged jars and pots and the black and white photographs.[1] Once a week Gorky would slide his enormous easel and his canvases, his art supplies and furniture from one side of the room to the other in order to wash the parquet floor with lye. The studio must have seemed light-years away from the small peasant village near Lake Van in the Armenian province of eastern Turkey where Gorky had been born and raised.

His road to becoming a seminal figure in American art’s gallop toward abstraction may seem an improbable one. He had arrived in the States ten years before, in 1920, at the age of eighteen, labeling himself an artist but having never studied art. While he took courses in Boston and subsequently in New York, Gorky was largely self-taught. He wandered around the museums and the galleries, absorbing everything he saw, prodigiously copying many of the works over and over. He flirted with post-Impressionism and Cubism and Surrealism; he called it his ‘apprenticeship.’ He borrowed and borrowed for his art and “spoke with scorn of ‘originality’ as a criterion of artistic value.”[2] He told the famed dealer Julien Levy, “I was with Cézanne for a long time . . . and now naturally I am with Picasso.” To which Levy replied, I’ll give you an exhibition “someday, when you are with Gorky.”[3]

Now settled in his Union Square studio, he took a moment to consider the works of his friend Stuart Davis, who had just asked Gorky to write an article about Stuart’s art. A series of drawings Davis had made a few years earlier of a pressed-tin eggbeater tacked to a board, in which he outlined the empty areas around the object as if they were objects themselves, projecting outward—”tangible spaces,” Gorky called them—had left a deep impression on him.[4] That may have been what he was thinking about when he decided to incorporate a piece of cheese into a collage—a variation perhaps for his own series he would call Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, a composition of ‘interlocking shapes.’ But alas the work would remain incomplete. In spite of the tidiness of his new digs Gorky had an unexpected guest while he was sleeping. He woke the next morning to find the collage had been rearranged. A mouse had taken the cheese. Gorky flew into a rage; he shouted, who moved my cheese? (Well, maybe not exactly those words.)

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[1] As told to Matthew Spender, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, 1999.

[2] Peter Schjeldahl, “Twentieth-Century Man: An Arshile Gorky Retrospective,” The New Yorker, November 2, 2009.

[4] Spender, op. cit.

Additional sources: Holland Cotter, Art Review: ‘Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective’,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Hayden Herrera, Arshile Gorky: His Life and Work, 2003, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(Image: Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, 1931-32, by Arshile Gorky, Pen, brush, black and brown ink on Strathmore white paper, 18 3/16 x 24 5/16 in, Yale University Art Gallery, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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