She looked radiant in the red silk dress gifted to her by the Chinese ambassador. Nineteen-year-old Agnes craned her neck to see the dark-haired Arshile Gorky address a group of people. He was supposed to be handsome and charming, but this man was different. He was older and had an air of seriousness to him. He was mysterious and exotic with his big, black brooding eyes. Could this be the life-changing romance she had dreamt of? She wanted to go up to him and say hello but she was afraid to interrupt the conversation.
“Call me orthodox, but in my opinion, art must be pleasing to the eye. These disturbing images, mismatched juxtapositions that you kids call art these days are musings of mad men. Complete chaos if you ask me,” an old professor complained, pointing to an abstract painting on the wall.
Willem de Kooning, an artist much like Gorky himself, smiled at Gorky before chipping in “But isn’t that what today’s world is – chaos? An artist’s duty is to tell the truth. The chaos in the painting represents the chaos that today’s world is.” Gorky noticed the beautiful woman staring at him and excused himself from the conversation.
Their eyes met and she almost squealed when she heard him call her name, despite it being mispronounced. “Ms. Maguiger?” Gorky asked, looking directly at Agnes Magruder. He, too, had expected someone different — someone more like Willem’s girlfriend, Elaine, who had arranged for him to meet Agnes. A patron waved at Gorky and made his way towards them. Gorky waved back at the man and turned to Agnes.
“Shall we get out of here?” he asked. But before she could respond, he put his arm around her and led her out of the party. She didn’t mind. She liked that he could take control and wasn’t timid like all the other boys who had expressed their interest in her. He was a real man.
Gorky ushered Agnes into the coffee shop, opening the door for her. They sat at a table in the back, undisturbed. “So what did Will and Elaine tell you about me?” he asked.
“They said you were good looking and charming. Elaine thinks you’re a show off,” she quipped.
“I’m afraid I am not exactly Elaine’s favorite character. As a matter of fact, I was a little surprised that she arranged for us to meet,” he replied, looking more serious now.
“What about what I think?” Agnes asked, almost teasingly, as she sipped her tea. He reached out and put his hand on hers. Gorky intimidated her but she certainly wasn’t going to let him know that. He had piqued her interest.
The next day, on their morning walk, Elaine caught Agnes smiling for no reason in particular.
“You like him!” Elaine teased.
“He’s so different from the guys here. He’s passionate…” Agnes started, but Elaine cut her off. “Well of course dear, he’s an artist. So, do you think you’ll be seeing him again?” she asked.
“We’re meeting for dinner. Tonight,” Agnes sighed dreamily.
The music inside the dimly lit Armenian restaurant stirred memories of home. After Gorky pulled out the chair for Agnes, he took a moment to look at her. As he examined her features, he realized that while she was not the blonde American girl he expected her to be, she was breathtakingly beautiful. Today, Agnes was not intimidated by Gorky. Maybe it was the setting they were in, but his face seemed kinder. There was a certain vulnerability to him. Finally, after a few glasses of wine, Agnes asked, “What made the nephew of Maxim Gorky choose the life of a starving artist over being a prince in Tiflis?”
Despite having perfected this routine with a million strangers, Gorky fell silent. He wasn’t yet ready for Agnes to meet Vosdanik, the boy born into a dirt-poor family in Armenia, whose mother died from starvation and whose father abandoned him when he was only a few years old.
“I wanted to be an artist,” he started. “I finished my degree at the Polytechnic Institute in Tiflis and I decided I wanted more. So, I came to New York.”
“And the prestigious Julian Academy in France,” Agnes added.
“Yes, and that too. You seem to already know the answers,” he joked. As the waiter served the two dinner, Gorky looked down at Agnes’ hands. They were the color of porcelain, and dainty with long fingers. But they were still nothing like his mother’s hands.
Gorky missed the comfort of burying his face in his mother’s large hands, which were soft despite being calloused from all the housework she did. She was not a delicate woman, but her hands had the dexterity of a skilled artist. On the day they took their last picture together, she had altered the coat Gorky’s father left behind and had sewn buttons on it. Gorky felt guilty about surviving when his mother did not, the same mother who made sure he never went hungry. When food ran out, she wrapped a piece of cloth around her waist so she wouldn’t feel hungry and continued to take care of the house as though nothing was wrong. Suddenly, Gorky felt uneasy sitting at this table and eating a fancy meal. After dinner, he walked Agnes home and from then on, they were almost inseparable. She became his “Mougouch,” or “little mighty one.”
Gorky had stepped off the ship as a refugee in a foreign land and it was the shame of his past that compelled him to carve out a false identity for himself. He had played the part so well that even he could no longer tell the difference. The starving little boy in Khorgom was now at the front of a revolution. But Gorky was still haunted by the ghost of all that he had left behind.
As a toddler, he could draw before he learned to speak. Art was a part of his spirit; it soothed him. When Gorky wasn’t painting, he was teaching. He looked forward to evenings spent with his students, like Ethel Schwabacher, who he was particularly close with and who would eventually tell his story to the world. Art students flocked to Gorky because he encouraged the impressionable young artists to push the envelope. Because Agnes knew how passionate Gorky was about teaching, she always accommodated his schedule, even if it meant spending less time with her love.
As the Abstract Realism movement swept over New York, Gorky soon became the talk of the town.
“Inspiration is not the same as imitation,” Willem defended Gorky in an argument with another artist at a bar.
“I too can copy Picasso, Miro and Cezanne and then call it apprenticeship! The man doesn’t have an ounce of real talent!” the artist scoffed.
“Have you even seen Gorky’s work? Have you? It’s distinctive!” Willem yelled at the artist, who simply ignored him and walked out of the bar.
Gorky was too engrossed in his work to care what people thought. Despite all the controversy about his artistic style, Gorky would allow fellow artists to borrow his painting for years at a time in order to study his technique. And, although he would never admit to it, Matta, one of Gorky’s friends, had incorporated Gorky’s style in his own work.
Gorky also wasn’t much of a social butterfly but that didn’t stop him from soon developing a close circle of friends, like prominent artists Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Saul Schary, some of whom publicly endorsed Gorky’s works.
But, despite the rising fame, when it came to Agnes, Gorky felt insecure. Maybe it was because she was a modern American girl, far from the ideal Armenian wife that his mother was. Agnes was too outspoken and forward-thinking in her views and sometimes Gorky feared that he could not control her. But he loved her far too much to let her go, because unlike the other women in the artist’s life, Agnes inspired him. She was his muse.
At the start of their relationship, Agnes found Gorky’s possessiveness endearing because it made her feel desirable, but as time passed, she began to feel less flattered and more suffocated. Gorky’s sweetness was gone and his paranoia replaced it, making social situations often uncomfortable. Though she tried to reassure him during these moments, Gorky was convinced that Agnes was trying to seduce other men. But despite all the jealousy and fighting, the two knew they loved each other very much.
It was after a tumultuous trip to California that Gorky decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Agnes. When he asked Agnes to marry him, she was excited but anxious. Agnes was a gregarious woman who was often the life of the party but it was precisely this part of her personality that agitated Gorky. He couldn’t stand Agnes laughing, talking, and dancing with other men. All kinds of thoughts would race through Gorky’s head: “Why is she laughing at his joke?” … “Is she flirting with him?” … “Is she always like this when I’m not around?” … “She must have other lovers.” … “I can’t have her going to these places without me.”
One day, Agnes was at Willem and Elaine’s for dinner when the two noticed Agnes seemed distressed.
“You’ve hardly touched your food,” Elaine remarked, handing her a glass of wine. Agnes looked nervous.
“Are you alright?” Willem asked, looking at her.
“He asked me to marry him,” Agnes said, before taking a big gulp of her wine.
“That’s wonderful!” Willem congratulated her.
Elaine paused, then said: “Oh dear. What did you say?”
“I told him I would think about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Agnes said, almost in tears.
“Well, you do love him, don’t you?” Willem asked and Agnes just nodded her head.
“Then what’s stopping you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Agnes replied.
Agnes did know: she was scared. She was still young and didn’t yet know if she could commit her whole life to one person. It was all happening so fast.
“How do you expect her to marry him? He is a foreigner who is too conservative to adjust with an American girl, especially not someone as free-spirited as Agnes,” Elaine said, lighting a cigarette.
“I told him I’m not ready but he doesn’t want to wait and I’m afraid of losing him. He adores me and he makes me feel protected,” Agnes said, looking at Willem for reassurance.
“I have known you and Gorky long enough to know that he will take good care of you and that he will be a loving husband. He’s a talented guy. He could be the next Picasso!” Willem chuckled.
“My father would never approve,” Agnes couldn’t help but smile as she thought of her parents’ reaction to her marrying Gorky.
“That’s the best reason of them all,” Willem hugged her and Agnes laughed.
“Will is more in love with Gorky than you are. Just say yes to him because if you don’t Willem will. He is obsessed with him,” Elaine sighed, rolling her eyes.
That evening, when Agnes left Willem and Elaine’s house, she felt a sense of relief. Her relationship with Gorky had been turbulent because her extroverted personality clashed with Gorky’s reclusive nature. The highs were intoxicating and the lows were devastating. There was an element of melancholy lurking beneath the charming stranger she had met at the party. But it was her love for him that made her want to stay and fix him. She knew whatever sadness it was he kept hidden, that if she loved him, she could heal him.
It was that same day Agnes decided to commit herself to Gorky. Her anxiety turned to joyful anticipation at the thoughts of their future – she would give him children and they would be a family. The best part of their lives lay ahead of them and she couldn’t wait to tell Gorky that she would marry him.
Gorky, meanwhile, paced nervously in his apartment. Agnes had telephoned him to let him know she was coming over, so he kept looking outside his window every five minutes to see if she had arrived. He saw her climb up the front stairs with her polka-dot umbrella and rushed to open the door. “I will marry you!” she said, barely catching her breath. He couldn’t believe the words he had just heard. He held her hands and kissed them.
They were married that September in Nevada and lived on Agnes’ parents’ farm in Virginia. Living in such a serene environment gave Gorky a sense of peace that he had not felt since childhood. The tranquil environment and the feeling of being so close to nature made Gorky feel almost as though he was back home in Armenia. He was inspired to paint with fervor like never before. He had never been so happy. And for a moment in time, he felt as if all his wounds had healed.