Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky

Nouritza Matossian, Author
Nouritza Matossian, Author Overlook Press $40 (576p) ISBN 978-1-58567-006-2
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-1-58567-285-1
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An admired outsider among the New York school of painters in the 1940s, Gorky (1902-1948) has long been a cipher as a person, in part due to his constant self-disguises. Born Manoug Adoian in Armenia, he survived the horrific 1915 massacre of Armenians by Turks, as well as subsequent famines, only to disguise his past once he reached America in the 1920s. Presenting himself as a cousin of the writer Maxim Gorky, he convinced friends he was Russian, despite his ignorance of that language. Now arts journalist Matossian (Iannis Xenakis) clears up a good part of the mystery, armed with a reading knowledge of Armenian that past writers have often lacked. Matossian proves that past sources on Gorky's life, such as letters published by a nephew, were forgeries. She probes deeply and without sentiment into the tragic life, which included a devastating studio fire, a colostomy after rectal cancer was diagnosed, followed by a broken neck in a car accident. These mishaps, along with his wife absconding with the ""`bright and glib'"" surrealist painter Matta, may have compelled Gorky to hang himself at age 46. At times, Gorky seems like an outsized fictional Armenian such as novelist William Saroyan might have created on his darkest day. Still, Matossian reveals lighter moments: in one, the artist-as-suitor pays clumsy compliments to one woman by exclaiming, ""Oh, what charming little wrinkles you have around your eyes."" Little space is devoted to describing the art, but by bringing us closer to Gorky the man, this book makes his life's tragedies all the more immediate and appalling. (Feb.)
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