Huffpost Arts
Mat Gleason Headshot

The Arshile Gorky Retrospective at LA MOCA

Posted: Updated:

I am so sick of convenient museum narratives that emulate movie plotlines in laying out an artist's oeuvre. Curators have stopped trying to make interesting exhibits, because what they really want to do is direct.

I got wind that MOCA's Gorky retrospective followed the same pseudo-drama chronology that is castrating the art of curation everywhere and decided to see the show from end to beginning in order to privilege the art over the screenplay.

Arshile Gorky's final works are urgent reworkings of form. Viewed start to finish the exhibit makes the case for an urgency brought about by life's frustrations, aka, the tortured starving artist syndrome. But the final third of the show (or for me, the first third of the show) is, with frothy life narrative removed, one artist comprehending, digesting and attempting to work with the radical reinvention of pictorial form that Picasso churned out in the 1930s.

The problem with museum placards and their convenient dates and titles and media is that they don't reference when the artist first saw the thing that forced him to make that painting. Walking through this exhibit (either backward or forward) with a volume of Picasso's work would be pointless were there not extensive exhibition notes that could be pegged precisely to Gorky's whereabouts. With only placards, we perhaps forget that a painting made in France in 1938 might not be seen, or even known about, until a decade later in the United States. There are anecdotes about Jackson Pollock yelling when he saw a then decade-old Picasso drawing on display in New York. The painter's fury was that Pablo had arrived somewhere ten years ago that the artist himself was just approaching.

And so we can see the tattered remnants of form in Gorky's late paintings. He is trying to reassemble pictorial stability after Guernica as a still life. Gorky's wedding paintings are a desperate attempt to paint joy as reassembled form in a world that Picasso continued to reveal as too shattered to have a delicate side.

The exhibit's mid-section is a rich collection of abstract paintings. Gorky abstracted from nature to the point of illegibility, but the grounded landscape structure of so much of his mature work owed a debt to Dali. An idiot working today would not be capable of such modesty. This pre-Pop genius, though, knew to draw the straight horizon of the picture at the top 1/5th mark of a horizontal plane because Dali had done so. This is the most enjoyable stretch of the exhibit as the artist invents new approaches and tries to find form in material experiments. One wonders, if Gorky had found Pollock's breakthrough pouring technique and had abandoned the easel altogether, would he have met such a dark fate? Well, Jackson fared almost as badly about a decade later, so no need to ponder that "what if" too deeply.

The early abstraction of the artist was flat and indistinct, too clunky to be an homage to Stuart Davis, too derivative to be much of anything else.

Now, if there was a worry that the show of an artist who had committed suicide might drive someone to such a dark decision, fear not. The show was uplifting as a drama of what form can be when it is constantly being re-imagined by a competent master with a fearless need to find the new. But one room did not drive me to thoughts of suicide so much as murder. The infamous portraits of the artist and his mother are stuffed into a small phone booth sized room (kids, go ask your mom what a phone booth was -- it was not a place to hang legendary artworks). Worse, there was an education lecture occurring in these cramped quarters during my visit. A vile bland piece of whitebread-docent was singsongingly asking the group of mouth-breathers, "Why would an artist paint himself as shorter than his mother?" Of the ten idiots on standing stiff in her gaze, a child answered the question, "because he loves her?" Why isn't Thomas Kinkade chauffeuring this dumb MOCA docentry to work? Whenever I hear the word education, I reach for my revolver.

Working backward to the very beginning of the exhibit, you basically get the artist making the same student work you would see today. How inspiring then, for artists to see this show backwards - you are confronted with inexplicable masterpieces of abstracted form based on human scenes drenched in tradition and you end up escaping a re-education camp in time to realize that the same garbage you and your classmates are churning out qualifies you as a potential immortal... as long as you commit suicide or add a similar dose of drama to your story so the museum can get grants to its education department to dumb down your greatest moments. That is what institutions do best.