The perils and boredom of second rate abstract art….
My mother and I went round the Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern yesterday. I had wanted to see it after being taken in by the portrait of the artist and his mother, in pastel colours, each with doleful eyes, that’s on the posters in the Tube.
Once there, it turned out that Gorky – real name was Vostanik Manoog Adoyan (changed as the artist liked the association with Maxim and was happy to escape his tragic past) – was more about what they call abstract art. More about bridging the gap between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism, than about beguiling portraits that easily speak from one human hand to another human eye, 50 years later.
My mother and I walked in and immediately felt that we were not only out of the realms of understanding, of grasping something that was potent enough to make the art what we would call “good” (Chris Ofili at Tate Britain is a prime example of art that is both non-literal and utterly arresting), but that we were also and decidedly in the presence of the second rate. We stared at the globs of paint, thickly, unattractively layered in what the critics love to called “bio-organic forms”, next to titles that seemed as connected to the paintings as the number 13 to the number 4.5 trillion (there may be a connection, but only a numbersmith would get it). They lacked the ingredients needed for the uninitiated, the naïve among us, to – yes – enjoy it. Abstract is ok, if it has the intrigue, the strength, starkness and the symmetry or mis-symmetry of Rothko. Or the technical brilliance and optical strangeness of Picasso’s or Juan Gris or Picabia. Or portraiture that arrests you with those multi-dimensional expressions of woe, mystery or grief, from Velasquez to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to early Picasso to Ingres. Or beautiful landscapes – Monet, Turner, Rousseau.
Archile, sadly, was an Armenian refugee whose only access in the States to the European art he so doggedly copied in his earlier years, was through the museums of New York. The first half of the show is a clear imitation of that. The second, which is work done after a transformative period in the country when the artist loosened up a bit and let the paint and his subconscious work more freely, is somehow gelatinous in meaning, underpinned by the sinister shapes of bodies and organs. There is reference to colourful landscape in the titles, but the effect looks nightmarish, random, and finally, unattractive.
My mother couldn’t stop reading entries in the Encyclopedia about Gorky’s life. It was by far the most moving aspect of the show. Which raised the question of how much weight we should even attach to biographical and historical context when looking at art. The same can be asked of literature and music. And how much of the final impression of the show, which seemed to chart a Freudian progress from beginner, repressed Gorky to fuller emotional being, more skilled and ultimately more distraught Gorky, was simply down to curatorial whim? And thus the question: can we look at art as just art, and dismiss or enjoy or appreciate it as such, or is it – like so much else in life – primarily expression of personality in the continuum of history?