Arshile Gorky was born Vosdanig Adoian around 1902 (there are conflicting accounts of his birth date) in the village of Khorkom, near Lake Van, in an Armenian province on the eastern border of Ottoman Turkey. As a teenager, Gorky witnessed the systematic ethnic cleansing of his people, the minority Armenians, by Turkish troops in 1915, which drove Gorky’s family and thousands of others out of Van. These traumatic events culminated in the tragic early death of his mother from starvation in December 1919, during a winter of severe deprivation for the Armenian refugees. Gorky and his sister Vartoosh eventually immigrated to the United States in 1920, where he changed his name to Arshile Gorky (in honor of the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky) and invented a new life for himself.
After living with relatives in New England, Gorky settled in New York City in 1924 and enrolled at the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art (where he also became an instructor). Despite having some formal art training, Gorky was essentially self-taught, and obtained most of his education through visits to museums and galleries and reading art books and magazines. By doing so, Gorky became familiar with avant-garde European art and embarked on a systematic study of its masters, most notably Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró. To friends and colleagues who criticized his borrowings as having a lack of originality, Gorky stressed the importance of tradition and continuity, maintaining that an artist can mature only after having experienced a period of apprenticeship.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Gorky’s prominent position in the New York art scene brought him into contact with several members of the Surrealist group, who had been forced to flee Europe during the Second World War. His close friendship with the poet and leader of the group, André Breton, made a deep and lasting impression on the artist. The Chilean-born painter Roberto Matta also contributed to the development of his mature style, encouraging Gorky to improvise and experiment with biomorphic forms, and introducing the artist to the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, which he deftly mastered. In the numerous innovative landscapes that Gorky produced in the early 1940s, his abstract vocabulary embraced natural and organic forms, which he conveyed with explosive, erotic energy.
Until his death in 1948, Gorky painted highly original abstractions that combined memories of his Armenian childhood, especially the gardens, orchards and wheat fields of his rural homeland, with direct observations from nature. A string of tragic events beginning in the mid-1940s, however, would leave the artist in both physical and emotional agony. A fire in his studio, a painful operation for rectal cancer, a debilitating automobile accident, and marital troubles led the depressed Gorky to commit suicide on July 21, 1948. Although his life was tragically cut short, the unique and impressive body of work that Gorky left behind made a profound impact on American Art, securing his reputation as the last of the great Surrealist painters and one of the first Abstract Expressionists.