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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life

How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life


Arshile Gorky

American, (born in Armenia), 1905 - 1948

Easy-going amateurs will come here for their meager rewards: in spite of all warning to the contrary they will insist on seeing in these compositions a still-life, a landscape, or a figure instead of daring to face the hybrid forms in which all human emotion is precipitated.

Andre Breton, 1945, on Gorky

Arshile Gorky was a pivotal figure in the development of modern art in America. An immigrant from Armenia, Gorky processed avant-garde ideas and movements such as impressionism, cubism, and surrealism, often following closely on the heels of masters such as Paul Cezanne, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso, while at other times finding original pathways out from their shadows. By the late 1930s and up until his untimely death in 1948, Gorky mastered an original and groundbreaking style that paved the way for younger artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who fomented the now-famous movement of abstract expressionism. How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life often poses more questions than it answers, serving as an eloquent touchstone for many of the pressing issues that shaped art at the time of its making.
Oil on canvas
40 x 45 1/16 in. (101.6 x 114.5 cm)
Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection
Provenance: The artist; [Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1945]; Julien Levy, Bridgewater, Connecticut, 1949; Estate of Arshile Gorky, March 1950; [Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, by 1955]; purchased from gallery by Virgina and Bagley Wright, Seattle, Washington, 1959; gifted to Seattle Art Museum, 1974
Not currently on view

Is This Gorky's Mother's Apron?

Gorky's family was fodder for his art, both in straightforward portraits such as The Artist and His Mother, ca. 1926-36, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art, or in more allusive landscapes, such as Garden in Sochi, 1941 (Museum of Modern Art), which has been described as a reminiscence of the "cloth trees" of the Armenian landscape of his youth.  Photographs survive that show the artist's mother wearing a highly patterned apron dress, but we are left to wonder how closely the abstract tangle of gestures in How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life might be based on the object in its title. It is perhaps more fruitful to do as Andre Breton suggests and see in this painting a hybridized evocation of many states of being. There is clear drawing in the piece, delineating a loose web of forms that can range from the figural to the botanical or natural, but it is the drips and effusions of color that destabilize any easy reading of the work and push it into a highly ambiguous realm. This kind of dreamlike evocation, wafting in and out of recognition, is the real power of the work and encourages the viewer to find more solid meaning in its composition. By relinquishing any responsibility for making a faithful representation of something known in the world, Gorky freed himself (and subsequent generations of artists) to explore the unexplainable depths of consciousness and perception.

What's In a Name

Gorky was greatly influenced by surrealism, an artistic, cultural and intellectual movement concerned with the subconscious mind and the borders of rationality and reason. How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life was included in Gorky's 1945 exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City, a bastion of surrealism. The titles of the paintings in Gorky's exhibition were all arrived at in discussion with the influential poet and proponent of surrealism, Andre Breton. With Breton's aid, Gorky developed appropriately poetic yet slippery titles, like The Leaf of the Artichoke Is an Owl, One Year the Milkweed, The Horns of the Landscape, and The Love of a New Gun. How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life was one of the last paintings he completed in 1944. In a letter to his sister from December of that year, Gorky mentioned that the work was inspired by their mother's apron from their former home in Aikesdan, Armenia.


Patricia Failing, Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary Art, University of Washington, analyzes Arshile Gorky's artistic style


Exhibition HistoryNew York, New York, Julien Levy Gallery, 1945, no. 9.

New York, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1951, no. 31.

New York, New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, 1957, no. 14.

New York, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Arshile Gorky, 1962, no. 61, p. 32.

Venice, Italy, Venice Biennale - American Pavilion, May 1962, no. 11.

London, England, Tate Gallery, Gorky, Apr. 1 - 2 May 1965. Cat. no. 55 (Brussels, Belgium, Palais des Beaux Arts, May 22 - June 27, 1965; Rotterdam, Netherlands, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, July 24 - Sept. 5, 1965).

Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Developments, Sept. 19 - Nov. 29, 1987.

Madrid, Spain, Sala de Exposiciones, Fundacion Caja de Pensiones, Gorky Retrospective, Oct. 17 - Dec. 1989 (London, England, White Chapel Art Gallery, Jan. 19 - Mar. 25, 1990).

New York, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Arshile Gorky: A 90th Birthday Commemoration, Jan. 11 - Mar. 5, 1994.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Arshile Gorky: The Breakthrough Years, National Gallery of Art, May 14 - Sept. 17, 1995; Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Oct. 13 - Dec. 31, 1995; Fort Worth, Texas, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Jan. 13 - Mar. 17, 1996).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Collection Highlights: 1945 To The Present, Sept. 12, 1996 - June 1, 1997.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art, Mar. 4 - May 5, 1999.

Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Art Museum, Vital Forms: American Art in the Atomic Age, Oct. 20, 2002 - July 20, 2003.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, International Abstraction: Making Painting Real, May 2, 2003 - February 29, 2004.

Switzerland, Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Action Painting - Pollock and Movement in Art, Jan.18, 2008 - May 12, 2008.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, Oct. 11, 2009 - Jan. 3, 2010 (London, England, Tate Modern, February 3 - May 9, 2010).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Modernism and Craft, Part 1, Mar. 16, 2013 - Mar. 16, 2014.

Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. C. Bagley Wright: Twentieth Century American and European Paintings and Sculpture, Nov. 8 – Dec. 6, 1964, no. 14.
Published ReferencesSchwabacher, Ethel. "Arshile Gorky." New York, 1957; p. 48.

"Collection of Mr. and Mrs. C. Bagley Wright: Twentieth Century American and European Paintings and Sculpture." Exh. Cat. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, Nov. 8-Dec. 6, 1964; no. 14.

"Arshile Gorky." New York: Julien Levy Gallery, 1969; plate 99.

Rubin, William S. "Dada and Surrealist Art." New York, 1970; fig. 409.

"The Seattle Art Museum Lends" Ex. Cat. Vancouver, BC: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1976; illus.

"Selected Works." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 121

Young, Tara Reddy. ContemporaryArtProject. Exh. Cat. Seattle, Washington: Seattle Art Museum, 2002; p. 17, reproduced fig. 2.

"Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures." London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; p. 10.

Kuster, Ulf, Fondation Beyeler, Richen/Basel, "Action Painting." Ex. Cat. 2008; p. 60.

Theriault, Kim S., "Rethinking Arshile Gorky." The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009; plate 23.

Taylor, Michael, "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective." Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009; p. 276, plate 115.

Balakian, Peter. "Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015; reproduced pl. 6.

Cohen, Ada. "What is Art History?" In What are the Arts and Sciences?, edited by Dan Rockmore, pp. 27-45, Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2017, reproduced fig. 6.

Spender, Saskia, et al. Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943-47. Exh. Cat. New York: Hauser & Wirth, 2017; p. 28, reproduced [not in exhibition].

Schaefer, Barbars (eds.). Once Upon a Time in America. Ex. Cat. Cologne: Wallraf Richartz Museum, 2018; p. 253, reproduced fig. 8 [not in exhibition].

Taylor, Michael. "Elective Affinities." In Frederick Kiesler: Face to Face with the Avant-Garde, Essays on Network and Impact, edited by Peter Bogner, et. al., pp. 265-280, reproduced p. 274, fig. 4.

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