Arshile Gorky—Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist Painter

The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky was a powerful proponent for informing/persuading/educating the audience to see not only the efficacy of the abstract imagery in Modernist works of art but also the need to sustain the audience’s gaze and convince them to “willingly suspend their initial disbelief”.  Not an easy task in the third decade of the 20th century!  In his Creative Art (1931) Gorky states:  “The critics, artists, and public (are) suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century.”  Of course we know, blessed by our 82 years of historic distance, that Modernism and Modernist attitudes of the experimental artists would indeed prevail!  But Gorky, like so many artists, knew the transformation would not be easy and a heavy price would be enacted on those experimental artists who were brave (or foolish) enough to push for change.  What are your thoughts on Gorky’s statement?

Gorky photo

Photograph of Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky

Gorky working in studio


Arshile Gorky Working in his Studio on Activities on the Field, part of the Newark Airport mural, 1936 (part of the Federal Art Project)


Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944




26 thoughts on “Arshile Gorky—Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist Painter

  1. It seems to me that most things seem to make sense in hindsight, but never at the moment of. Having worked in an art gallery for some time now, I have noticed that most people LOVE nonthreatening art like Impressionism, but revile contemporary art (solely on the basis it’s ‘too modern’ or ‘too out there.’) Of course, if we look back in time, it turns out that the vast majority people initially did not take too kindly to Impressionism, passing those works off as mere impressions or incomplete scenes. Typically, work that is progressive or different usually warrants a plethora of responses from people of its time, some of which can be quite derogatory. Quite often, many people will attack the art of their time, as if vultures. Nevertheless, art always seems to find a way to progress and change, never remaining static. Looking at the works of Arshile Gorky and his contemporaries does require some degree of suspending one’s own disbelief and longing of nostalgia. In doing so, one can appreciate the progression of art and what the future holds for art.

  2. There are good things that come with “waiting in the air” on certain things. In my opinion, I think of that saying (in a positive way) as people trying to pick apart what is wrong with my art and me seeing it as a way to avoid those wrongdoings in my future pieces. Obviously, it isn’t the case here. These critics were waiting for this kind of art to die off–which it didn’t. I think when Gorky says to “willingly suspend their initial disbelief,” he means that it should be given a chance, and the critics, like most people, are opposed to change. As MKua said already, in hindsight, the change makes sense; nothing stays the same forever. In that particular moment, however, the thought behind the change is different.

  3. I have to agree on Gorky’s opinion about how “The critics, artists, and public (are) suspended in the air” because usually the public themselves do not force change upon themselves at times. Because change is a really hard concept to grasp for people who are extremely comfortable about where they are right now. Even though Artist’s want change to happen to them, at times, they just follow the trend. They do not fully bring upon change at times. Some of the few artist who are daring for risks would take the leap of fate and try something new that has never been seen or heard of by the neither the public nor critics.
    The artist who did successful push the change were granted recognition and a pat on the back for their accomplishment.Because it was them who had the courage to put upon a different plate on the table.

  4. Gorky states, ”The critics, artists, and public (are) suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century.” I agree with Gorky’s statement because history shows that whenever something new in art is introduced it is torn apart and rarely accepted with open arms. The public tend to criticize what they don’t understand and with this attitude a new style of art have a difficult time surviving. I blame this more towards the critics rather than artists and the public. The personal opinion of a critic will affect the opinions of others. The public tends to listen an absorb a critics opinion because many assume that being critics, they are trained to know what they are talking about. We see that today a lot in the movie industry. Many movies rely on good critiques by critics to ensure a profit. I personally believe that the opinion of a critic will affect wether a new change in the art world would be widely accepted or pushed away in shame.

  5. Gorky is clearly waiting for the attack from all sides. He knows that anything new, especially when it is so different from the previously accepted norm, will be derided and rejected and that those who were foolish, or brave, enough to be the first in the line of defense would be mowed down and annihilated. We do have hindsight to know that in the end Modernism would prevail. I wonder if it would have been a comfort for those artists to know that what they did changed the direction of society not just the art world. I also sometimes feel that they left nothing for future artists to fight. They so completely decimated preconceptions of art that since then artists have struggled to find something new to say or do. So much of art from the past 50 years can be traced directly back to what happened in one movement or another during the first half of the 20th century. Do we have anything “big” left to say?

  6. I can kind of understand what Gorky is saying. As someone who doesn’t care much for abstract art, I, too probably would have been waiting for the death of that art so that something better would come in to fill its spot. However, it seems that Modernism stuck and we still have very modern trends today including geometric forms and certain angularities. However, I do see a new transition today from angular pieces to more organic forms, but I do believe that there will always be a place in the modern world for clean angular pieces.

  7. Society as a whole, is resistant to change and new ideas. That which challenges one’s perceptions is often perceived as a threat. Instead of being excited when encountering new ideas and forms, people seem to become defensive and put up a wall. Ultimately, I think it stems from a lack of exposure. A lot of people develop concrete notions of what is and isn’t art quite early on in their lives. Much to my dismay, a friend of mine once told me she didn’t want her young son to view modern art. She described it as visual junk food. I feel as if those more inclined to a narrow view have formed this opinion in large part by lack of experience and contact early on in life with art that is not representative of realism.

  8. After what we have seen in class thus far, Gorky’s statement definitely rings true. Society in general tends to be unwilling to accept new art forms. Experimental art is seen as a threat, rather than a progressive movement. Anything that is out of the ordinary is harshly criticized by the aptly named “vultures” Gorky mentions. Given this pattern, it is not surprising that Modernist art would face the same scrutiny and challenges as the previous art forms we have discussed. Luckily, despite the difficulties they have had to face, each art form we have studied has withstood the test of time. Art always manages to prevail and evolve, surviving the attacks of the vicious vultures.

  9. Of course his assessment was spot-on. As with anything new or “not like the rest of” ; be it art, medicine, technology, or whatever, someone is downplaying its importance and readily looking and almost happy if it fails. Human nature/ego control us, so he was insightful. Luckily, as with most innovative things; change prevails!

  10. Gorky acknowledges that the art from this era would struggle to be accepted by critics or the general public. He knew that it would be a tough road to pursue yet he persisted in pushing his modernist ideas of art. Gorky describes the critics as vultures, waiting for the death of distinctive art. Not only during this era, but from the past, artists whose work appeared different to the mass was dismissed and not considered “art” by many critics. Gorky’s statement carries optimism as he states, “…experimental artists would indeed prevail!” He is emphasizing the idea of society slowly moving forward and opening up to new forms of art, though it would take some time and effort to achieve.

  11. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, so they reject it. They also need a social cue of acceptance to embrace it themselves. Art is no exception. Gorky alludes to this sentiment with his vulture metaphor. Without the artists making innovative creation, the critic cannot stir the pot of what is accepted and therefor art cannot be created. It “dies”. People want to progress but when progression happens quickly, they tend to push back.

  12. I agree with all that has been said here that critics and the public are reluctant to understand anything new. However, I also think that resistance to new forms and sharp critique is what drives progress. Art critics occupy a rather undesirable position of documenting social change. If new art precedes changes in other social forms, then art critics find a way to articulate those changes, and often cannot fully articulate it until it over. So the quote “suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century” also implies that before we can take something apart and analyze its pieces it has to stop moving.

  13. My thoughts on Gorky’s statement are that he expects people to criticize his art. He knows that its inevitable because people are scared to accept new forms of art. He describes them as vultures and I feel like that’s exactly what they are, they’re just waiting to criticize and see him fail. Little did they know that this style would change the art world. Abstract expressionism keeps inspiring artist till this day.

  14. Gorsky expected people to criticize his art and he expected the Modernist values to fail. He mentions the artists and critics waiting in the air to see who would make a move first. Calling them vultures is completely accurate as they were waiting to watch him fail. The resistance sometimes fuels movements like that though and I feel like Gorsky was almost inspired to continue in defiance of the critics.

  15. The art of the abstract was something that couldn’t be compared to any art unless it was prehistoric. Art from its true beginnings. In the 30’s moving forward, art was starting a new beginning in a sense and abstract was emerging. People for so long only knew art as the pretty little paintings, sculptures, and drawings that everyone thinks of in a Classical or perhaps Renaissance manner. Gorky knew that people, including artists, would not accept something so different and distinct which is why he says that “public (are) suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century.”. The artists that were creating this work needed to stand their ground and encourage people to believe in them and in the art and also help those to understand the meaning of these works.

  16. As had been said in other posts, change is usually met with resistance or criticism. Gorky understood that it took more than reactionary artistic expression to “sustain(ing) the audience’s gaze” and “willingly suspend their initial disbelief.” An artist can chooses his “potion” so to speak. If art does not have visual depth of either content or craft it can be passed by without further consideration. The challenge of every artist is being true to one’s vision, experimenting with how the vision is expressed and often being able to survive physically (make a living) as well as work in light of the inevitable criticism.

  17. I personally smiled at the fact that user MKua said that people like nonthreatening art like Impressionism when in fact Impression was dismissed and ridiculed by contemporary critics and the general public alike. The term “impressionism” itself was initially a derogatory term that the artists of the movement took and used for themselves. It took a few more decades for the mass audience to more fully embrace the work of the Impressionist (and post-Impressionist) artists.
    I believe that this makes a good example of how people tend to see art. Usually a grace period is needed for people to absorb what is new and the have time for adjustment. This should not discourage artists to continue pushing the envelope. Art is art, incredibly subjective and depends on the viewpoint of the individual observing the piece. With time one can learn more about not just the piece but of the artist who created as well. Deeper insight allows better understanding, and with understanding comes acceptance.
    As far as with Arshile Gorky’s quote, I would agree that there tends to be negativity that people have when looking at something new. It is a challenge that the artist takes on to impress them. Overall, people focus on the negative rather than the positive for many situations. If an artist appears challenges the status quo or appears weak, people will tear them apart (usually figuratively). This challenge sometimes is a challenge to culture. To challenge the typical art is to challenge the typical way of life, as if it is not good enough, which can be offensive. Change is hard to adjust to sometimes, but with time we can look at work with a level eye and determine its merit with a coolness. Since we are not taken over by the politics of the time we can become an unbiased viewer.

  18. I feel that Gorky knew that with any sort of change or new idea that there would be people that did not, would not accept any sort of change. It would be foolish to think that any type of new idea, expressly in art, would be welcomed by everyone. Some people feel that any form of change is not a good think. They may have the ideology of, “if it’s not broke, why fix it”. But without trying new things or coming up with new ideas; how can we as a society developed/evolve our artwork into something different and new.

  19. I think that Gorsky must have been that pleasant breeze of air that most of the artists in that era needed. He was somebody that understood that the world was rapidly changing. He saw that the new ideals people stood for are now being reflected into new artworks. Because of his attitude and persistence; today we enjoy the artistic benefits that the Modernist movement produced. Art is subjective and sometimes, if you dig a little deeper, you can find that there’s more than meets the eye.

  20. My thoughts on Gorky’s statement is that it is true. The critics, artists, and public are waiting for the distinctive art of the century to die out and a new change of art to start up again. People are sometimes afraid of change and won’t take action to be apart of it, unless what is going on completely dies out then they start taking a step forward into being a part of the transformation.

  21. Gorky was certainly ahead of his time and showed an uncanny wisdom regarding contemporary acceptance of the “distinctive art form of this century.” [Abstract Expressionism was a new language on the art scene, akin to bebop on the jazz music scene.] Then and even now, perhaps educating the public on this new art form, may have helped to assimilate it more readily in to the consciousness of the general public. After all, people fear what they do not understand.

  22. Gorky’s statement certainly fits with the way many critics viewed the style of art that was being done by those brave/foolish experimental artists. Those who criticized the style that was both distinctive and innovative at that time surely were people who valued the traditional styles of the past and would rather have stayed in that time period of art rather than move on and let art flourish. Fortunately those who would prefer to move on to more innovative and non-traditional styles prevailed over the critics through their perseverance.

  23. Gorsky’s statement is very much true. He was exactly what artist needed in his era because of the he new the world was advancing. The ideals of all men and women were shining through in art and it mirrored the artwork. Gorsky was able to give an art student like myself to enjoy the benefits of modern art for the past sixty years. Art is always going to be subjective but when you peel back the layers you start to find what is actually beautiful about it.

  24. I feel that Gorky’s statement is not at all apart from what most artists must have felt within their own time. It is easy to think that when involved in a movement unlike any other, that there is no way your way will survive – that the trend won’t catch on. Non-traditionally made artwork is more common or popular now than I believe it has ever been. People are quick to embrace the strange – though perhaps not in the most ideal ways, as some hold the strange just to say that they have held the strange. Despite that trend in audience members though, the creators seem to be more willing to step over lines and dig a little deeper in a genuine way and that is quite satisfying.

  25. It’s interesting to hear of an artist’s take on the art world so many decades ago. I guess even in that time, the art world was just a calculated and corrupt as it is today. I definitely agree with him on the “the critics, artists, and public suspended in the air like vultures”, people from then on wards always seem to be wanting to seemingly throw away the old and latch onto the new and trendy of anything really. But it’s not like people just accept anything, they are very quick to judge and either it’s in or out. But I guess with the rise of new technology, globalization, and a plethora of new ideas and concepts this is bound to happen.

  26. As Gorky stated ”The critics, artists, and public (are) suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century.” there are many challenges that must be overcame when it come to making any substantial change both in the art world or otherwise. However , these changes play an important role on how humanity evolves as a whole. thought it is rare for anyone on the cusp of great change to know just how was the rabbet hole goes it is imperative that they keep faith and see the change run its course as you can never totally be aware of its lasting impacts.

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