By the early 1940s, the largely self-taught, Armenian-born Arshile Gorky had formed close friendships with several members of the Surrealist group in New York, including Roberto Matta, who encouraged him to develop his own personal abstract language through experimentation with automatism and biomorphic forms. Gorky turned to the subject matter of fertility and nature; at the same time, he frequently visited the Connecticut and Virginia countrysides, which reminded him of his homeland.
Combining these ideas around 1944, the artist began to work on the theme of The Plough and The Song (1946). Though the organic forms and sinuous, curving lines here seem spontaneous, Gorky planned the composition very carefully, systematically developing the imagery of this canvas in at least three drawings and three oil paintings.
Arshile Gorky (1904 – 1948) based this portrait of himself and his mother on a photograph taken in his native Armenia in 1912, when he was eight years old. Three years later, during the Ottoman Turk campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians, Gorky, his mother and his younger sister all survived a death march. Tragically, his mother never recovered her health. She died in 1919 from starvation — one of the estimated one million to one and a half million victims of what is now widely referred to as the Armenian genocide. The following year, at the age of fifteen Gorky emigrated to the United States with his sister. As Gorky established his career as an artist, he became preoccupied with the photograph. The Artist and His Mother, made over the span of ten years (1926 – 1936) does not attempt to reproduce the camera’s image precisely, but instead reduces it to broad areas of muted, softly brushed color. The mask-like faces and undefined hands of the figures at once suggest their loss of physical connection and the difficulty of accessing memories over time.
In the 1940s, Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997), with his artist friend Arshile Gorky, frequented the Metropolitan Museum to study portraits by 19th-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. this seated figure, which belongs to de Kooning’s first series of Women paintings, demonstrates his interest in the human form. Awkwardly posed, the woman’s arms, legs and breasts exist as abstract shapes in a flattened space. Like other Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was interested in portraying nature as simultaneously creative and destructive. Although the figure is recognizable as a woman, de Kooning arrangements of form, line, and color gives the effect of a body coming together and falling apart.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.