A year or so after he finished Charred Beloved I, Arshile Gorky suggested to a friend that there were two kinds of painters: sun painters and moon painters. Ethel Schwabacher, who wrote an important book about Gorky, had come upon the artist standing in front of a canvas by Vermeer in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Vermeer,” Gorky explained to her, “is not a sun painter, but rather a moon painter—like Uccello—that is good, it is the pure, final stage of art, the moment when it becomes more real than reality.” Charred Beloved I is a moon painting. This enigmatic canvas, with its shimmering hieroglyphs, is full of light. But this isn’t daylight. It’s an indirect light. It’s moonlight. Or an abstraction of moonlight.
The strokes and counterstrokes of pale violet pigment that fill Charred Beloved I end-to-end set the stage for a midsummer night’s dream—a moon painter’s dream. And the vertical orientation of the canvas, less common in Gorky’s later work than the horizontal formats that inevitably evoke a landscape, draws us into that dream, invites us to look up, to an antigravitational realm. Apprehensions and experiences are untethered. There’s something of the spirit of the old Chinese painters, who loved a vertical format and knew to stop before they revealed too much. Whatever we see in Charred Beloved I—a line, a shape, a color—is unique, an event unto itself. Consider the burst of soft, inky black in the distant upper right, as inscrutable as the stain on a wall that Leonardo da Vinci believed might offer an artist some inspiration. That black shape is rising—and escaping the painter’s enclosing rectangle.
Gorky will not decide a form’s fate. His compositions, casually but purposefully arranged, have some of the fascination of drafts or rehearsals. He’s constructing a private cosmology—impossibly ambitious, forever unfinished and unfinishable. There are matters, so Gorky suggests, that are beyond a painter’s control. His title, Charred Beloved I, memorializes the horrific fire in his Connecticut studio that had left much of his recent work burnt beyond recognition. There’s a ferocity about this title; it startles me. The title introduces an autobiographical dimension into a painting that yearns for the epical, the mythological. The title can’t help but remind us that the painting’s halcyon beauty—any painting’s beauty—is hard fought, hard won. Charred Beloved I was one of three paintings to which Gorky gave the same title and the same composition. If Charred Beloved I is a moonlit moment, then the other paintings, with their dominant grays and blacks, disclose equally but differently challenging aspects of the nighttime world.
But I risk making Charred Beloved I sound more literal than it is. Gorky’s metaphors refuse to stand still. They decompose. They recompose. He’s less interested in certainties than uncertainties. His forms hover between animal and vegetable and mineral and the purely Platonic—and then, when we’ve settled on a meaning, Gorky defeats our speculations by reminding us that what we are seeing is the beauty of paint on canvas, nothing more, nothing less. The light may or may not be moonlight. What’s certain is that it’s painted light. Looking at Charred Beloved I, I’m tempted to describe the single meandering stroke of thin green paint as snakelike. But it isn’t a snake. As for the strong horizontal blast of red, I see that it’s echoed or accompanied by a much smaller vertical stroke of red. The relationship between these two reds has a prelapsarian immediacy.
Nothing in Charred Beloved I is more singular and more ambiguous than the plant or bone shape that Gorky has drawn, lightly overpainted, and redrawn. This is less a shape than an invocation of a shape; the magician pulls back the curtain and allows us to see how he does what he does. I am reminded again of something that Gorky said to Schwabacher, when they were looking at a portrait by Ingres in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Yes, the surface of the painting is smooth, finished and incorruptible as a diamond, but under the accomplished surface are pentimenti—see there at the shoulder, how the line of the black dress was lowered a fraction and the hand was extended to give greater elegance.” The revisions of the plant or bone shape in Charred Beloved I suggest both the yearning for the “accomplished surface” and the necessity of the pentimenti, without which the painting can never be as “incorruptible as a diamond.”
Darkly handsome, quietly charismatic, and burdened with a melancholy that his extraordinary energy and charm could never defeat, Gorky was a man who refused to fit in. There’s a quality in his work, definitely in Charred Beloved I, that draws us back, at least draws me back, to the romantic optimism and free-spirited symbolism of European culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I find echoes of art nouveau’s dreamy arabesques in Gorky’s unfolding, unfurling, meandering lines—and something of the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie’s Gymnopédies in Charred Beloved I’s insistent evanescence. There’s no question that Gorky learned a great deal from Cezanne’s hesitating, questing, furiously intelligent strokes of paint. And however profound his exploration of Picasso’s hard-edged distortions, I suspect that what Gorky loved most in Picasso was the delicacy of the Rose Period and the intrepidness of his neoclassical lines, those reincarnations of Ingres’s incorruptible surfaces.
Gorky’s gracefulness, so much on display in Charred Beloved I, brings to mind not the shock tactics, hyperbolic comedy, and scabrous irony cultivated by the poet André Breton and Gorky’s other supporters among the Surrealists of the 1940s, but the poetry of an earlier period in the great modern adventure. I’m thinking of T.S. Eliot’s “whispering lunar incantations” and “violet hour,” Ezra Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough,” and, from another poem by Pound, one dedicated to the American painter James McNeill Whistler, this stirring line: “You had your searches, your uncertainties.” So Gorky did. Charred Beloved I is all searches and uncertainties, but pursued with a steadfastness that turns searches into discoveries and uncertainties into certainties.
Arshile Gorky’s Charred Beloved I (1946) will be offered on November 9 in the 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York
Jed Perl is a New York-based art critic and the author of Calder: The Conquest of Space