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ART REVIEW

Whistler takes a boarder

Gorky collection finds unusual home in Lowell artist’s museum

Two untitled works by Arshile Gorky show the artist was experimenting with the various styles and idioms of his modernist predecessors. Two untitled works by Arshile Gorky show the artist was experimenting with the various styles and idioms of his modernist predecessors.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 26, 2009

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LOWELL - It’s all a bit bemusing, and not the easiest to explain. But through one historical quirk and another, a small museum in Lowell that commemorates the birthplace of James McNeill Whistler is now in the possession of almost 30 early paintings, drawings, and prints by Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-born progenitor of American Abstract Expressionism.

What does Gorky have to do with Whistler? And is it not a bit strange for a museum dedicated to the memory of Whistler to become a better place to look at works by Gorky than works by Whistler (which are thin on the ground, to put it generously, at the Whistler House Museum of Art)?

These are questions to which I have no particularly illuminating answer. But you can ponder them to your heart’s content as you take in “Drawings & Paintings by Arshile Gorky: Mina Boehm Metzger Collection,’’ a small but fascinating show celebrating a substantial new addition to the Whistler House Museum of Art. (The museum describes it as a “permanent loan.’’)

The works are all from the collection of Mina Boehm Metzger, who studied art under Gorky at the Grand Central Art School in New York in the 1930s and died in 1975. She was impressed by Gorky, and she and her husband started collecting his works. Some they received as gifts, others were purchased.

All of them are early pieces, and many, to add to the air of mystery around the show, remain untitled and of uncertain date. One is a fabulously delicate, softly modeled portrait in pencil on brown construction paper. Another is a painting, based on one by Metzger herself, on cardboard.

Gorky, we’re reminded by improvised media like these, was hard-up. Three of the works have been painted or drawn on two sides. In one case, the image on the reverse was painted upside down, making a mounted display in the middle of the room, with both sides visible, somewhat impractical. Museum director Michael H. Lally has solved the dilemma by taking the unusual step of hanging a photographic reproduction of the reverse side beside the original.

Artistically, Gorky was not quite “Gorky’’ in these years. He was still toying with the various styles and idioms of his modernist predecessors in Europe, especially Picasso, Matisse, and Miró.

Unlike most Americans, even in the art world, Metzger was tuned in to such influences: She frequently accompanied her husband on business trips to Europe, where she kept abreast of developments in modern art. All this helps account for her responsiveness to Gorky’s work. But his personality may have played an even bigger part.

Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, Gorky had come to the United States in 1920 as a teenage survivor of the Armenian genocide. His mother died of starvation in his arms. “The harsh struggles and terrible suffering of his early life in Armenia,’’ write Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in their biography of Gorky’s friend, Willem de Kooning, “gave him an ancient, fated air that he was not afraid to cultivate; he sometimes seemed to play the part of an Old Testament figure who happened to be in New York.’’

Several of the portraits, in a linear idiom reminiscent of Matisse, are of Metzger herself, and there’s a striking portrait of her daughter, Margaret, done in the style of 1920s neoclassical Picasso. There’s also a grab bag of paintings, prints, and drawings inspired by Picasso’s synthetic Cubist and Surrealist styles.

Two crayon drawings attest to Gorky’s search for a savage, childlike simplicity (and the influence of Miró): There’s a secret malice beneath their nursery-room innocence. There are also, to round out the display, still lifes in a freely brushed, Post-Impressionist vein, and a beach scene uncannily reminiscent of Cézanne’s “Afternoon in Naples.’’

Last of all, standing in a corner, is Gorky’s only extant sculpture (he is believed to have made two, but one was destroyed). It’s a head and neck carved crudely from grey-green granite, tilting to one side like a forlorn Modigliani.

So how did all these Gorkys come to be in the collection of the Whistler House Museum of Art?

Metzger’s heirs, it seems, had been looking for a museum to house the collection for some time. They didn’t want the works relegated to storage - their likely fate in a big museum - and according to Lally, they were struck by the existence of an early Gorky in the Whistler House Museum of Art’s permanent collection: an Impressionist townscape called “Park Street Church, Boston 1924,’’ made when Gorky was living in New England. (The painting is in the show, but will be packed up and sent off to a major Gorky retrospective opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Oct. 21.)

Presented with the opportunity to become the guardian of the collection, the museum went into overdrive, raising funds and generally making the strongest possible case for itself. The works in the collection, all agreed, were in poor condition. So the museum successfully applied for grants that allowed it to have them all sent off to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in the Berkshires, like a bunch of ruffians sent to a spa.

The museum won its prize, and the result is this weirdly beguiling celebratory exhibition. It’s not, by any stretch, an overview of Gorky, nor even a credible survey of his early work. But it’s a show that gives us an unusually intimate glimpse of the man. It’s well worth seeing.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

DRAWINGS & PAINTINGS BY ARSHILE GORKY: Mina Boehm Metzger Collection

At: Whistler House Museum

of Art, Lowell, through Nov. 7. 978-452-7641,

www.whistlerhouse.org

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