“I tell stories to myself while I paint…My mother told me many stories while I pressed my face into her long apron with my eyes closed. All my life her stories and her embroidery keep unraveling pictures in my memory.” – Remark by Arshile Gorky recalled by Julien Levy.
The above quote was from the chronology at MOCA’s retrospective on Arshile Gorky, and it references the seminal, tragic events in his youth that infused his work. There were other paintings at the Gorky retrospective that are more famous, influential, or just plain provocative, but this painting with its diluted paints and aggressive brush strokes was an artist trying, years later, to cling to the memories of comfort and peace from an early life of abandonment, loss and chaos.
Rather than fading, the colors are translucent, giving them an ephemeral quality. Like they exist in their full, vibrant reality but are just beyond his reach. Similarly, the memories he’s trying to recall and express, through the image of her embroidered apron, are vivid in his mind but are smudged and tumultuous on the canvas. The stories of his life, his mother’s stories, are all blending and circling above and around him and he’s trying to bring them all together but is instead unraveling them.
A lot of this painting’s power and emotion comes seeing his earlier paintings titled The Artist and His Mother based upon a photo of Gorky and his mother wearing the embroidered apron. In the paintings from the 20s, the apron is abstracted. It’s a simple white smudge across his mother’s torso and lap, obliterating the thing that gave him comfort. The earlier paintings capture his mother and preserves her, but the apron, which held so much meaning for Gorky, doesn’t exist. The later painting tries to reclaim the apron and the power it had over him in his childhood.
The retrospective is a comprehensive examination of an influential, if somewhat forgotten, artist and I have some other things to say about it as a whole, but looking at this one painting with its watery colors and almost childlike composition, I felt like Gorky was not just a figure who existed solely through his paintings, but at some point was also a living, breathing, fragile being.