As a child, the artist survived the Genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks. With his family displaced and dispersed en route to the Russian-controlled Armenia, his mother died of starvation in Gorky's arms in 1919. His father, however, had escaped the Turkish military draft by moving to the United States in 1910 and settling in Providence, Rhode Island. Gorky would join his father in 1920 at the age of sixteen after leaving the war-ridden territory of the collapsed Russian Empire. The painful nostalgic sentiments for the lost homeland remained a prominent theme in Gorky's oeuvre, and manifested most prominently in the series of landscapes, such as The Plough and the Song, Garden in Sochi, and The Sun, and in two figurative portraits of the artist as a child with his deceased mother.
Arshile Gorky remained largely a self-taught artist before his immigration to the United States. Here he enrolled in the New School of Design in Boston, which he attended from 1922 to 1924. The new land also provided for the artist's initial exposure to the modernist artistic discourse, for which the founding fathers, such as the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, would exercise a great deal of influence on Gorky's own work in this formative period. Around 1925 Gorky moved to New York where he swiftly penetrated the emerging artistic milieu and enjoyed an ever more expansive introduction to the current artistic trends, including the groundbreaking innovations of Pablo Picasso as well as the early work of Spanish Surrealist painter Joan Miró.
It was in New York where Gorky met and developed a personal and artistic friendship with such artists as Stuart Davis, John Graham, and fellow émigré Willem de Kooning.
While in New York, Gorky enrolled at both the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central School of Art, where he also taught until 1931. It was also the time the artist changed his name, from Vosdanik Adoyan to Arshile Gorky, in order to divorce himself from the negative perception of the Armenian refugees in the United States. The change was also made to claim a certain connection to the Russian artistic milieu. For a while Gorky even claimed to be a relative of the prominent Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who enjoyed a considerable fame in the West.
The first five years that the artist spent in New York crystallized the core characteristics of his early style: from Cézanne-inspired landscapes and still-lives to a flatter and more experimental rendering of the surface influenced by the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and his fellow artistic innovator Georges Braque.
In the 1930's Gorky's work began to enjoy public recognition. In 1930, he was included in the group show of the emerging artists assembled by Alfred Barr, the influential director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The year 1931 marked the first solo exhibition of Gorky's paintings at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia. From 1935 to 1941, the artist worked under the WPA Federal Art Project alongside Willem de Kooning, a major government initiative to provide artists with work at the time of the Great Depression. One of the projects conceived by Gorky for the WPA was the murals at the Newark Airport in Newark, New Jersey. Also in 1935, four of Gorky's paintings were included in the famed exhibition mounted by The Whitney Museum of American Art titled Abstract Painting in America, which attracted a growing attention to the artist from critics and public alike. In 1938 Gorky held his first solo show in New York at the Boyer Galleries.
By the 1940's Gorky would move into an entirely new direction in his painting: his mature style would exhibit a paramount dependence on Surrealist conceptual and aesthetic framework imported from Europe as well as an innovative technique of paint application which anticipated, if not inspired, the Action Painting method of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the following decade.
In 1941 Gorky married Agnes Magruder, who was twenty years his junior and the couple would have two daughters. Unfortunately, the marriage was marred by tragedy. In January of 1946, Gorky's studio, set up on his wife's property in Connecticut, burned to the ground, destroying most of the artist's work. A month later, the artist was diagnosed with colon cancer, eventually undergoing a colostomy, which devastated his physical and emotional well being. It was soon discovered that Agnes was involved in an affair with Gorky's friend and fellow artist, Roberto Matta, which led to the couple's subsequent breakup and Agnes moving away with the children. Shortly after, Gorky was involved in a car accident that exacerbated his deteriorating health. The conflation of these tragic circumstances led the artist to commit suicide on July, 21 of 1948 by hanging himself in his Connecticut house.
Arshile Gorky remains an American Modernist artist of paramount importance. He is considered as one of the major forces behind the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which established New York an important arts center, and, by extension, the United States as the cultural capital of the post-war world.
Gorky's paintings exhibit a fiery talent for innovation, intellectual awareness of the contemporaneous artistic discourses, and a deep personal involvement in the work. His artworks can be found in most major American museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The MOMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Guggenheim. About three hundred and seventy oil paintings by Arshile Gorky are known today.