Gorky and Agnes Magruder


At The Tate Modern I bought a ticket for the Arshile Gorky show then sat in the 2nd floor café with a sandwich and watched the film made by Gorky's granddaughter, Cosima Spender, about his life. It tells of his birth in Armenia, the death by starvation of his mother, his emigration to the U.S, marriage, children and art, and then his suicide after cancer and misfortune in 1948. Most of the film is a fascinating reminiscence by his wife, Agnes Magruder.

This is from a 2003 New Yorker review by Peter Scheldahl—

"Then, in February, 1941, he met the lovely, brilliant nineteen-year-old Agnes Magruder. She was the adventurous daughter of a Navy captain - she worked as a secretary for a Chinese Communist organization - and her modest social elevation tickled Gorky's vanity. Upset by the match, the Magruders provided scant support, but the growing Gorky family spent summers at their country home in Virginia, where Gorky, working outdoors, made several series of astonishing drawings not so much from as inside nature: botanical and insect forms quivering with itchy vitality while participating in an august formal order. Mougouch was self-sacrificing. "Dear Joking Jesus how wonderful it will be when he has a studio really his own," she wrote to her confidante, the collector and artist Jeanne Reynal. She put Gorky first for as long as her sanity could bear it."

Then she went off and did her own thing.

She'd gone to New York to be an artist herself and met Gorky there. Now, aged 89, she is worldly but not, it seems, world-weary. Watching the film I had the sense that here was a woman who'd seen life in all its permutations and been wise enough to keep her eyes open. She was aware, unbent, humorous and still rolling her own cigarettes. I wanted to know her!

I proceeded into the exhibit and enjoyed some of the art a lot. I like Gorky's intrepid sense of exploration. He sailed his boat very close to the edge of the modernist wave and kept it afloat. But I couldn't stop thinking about Agnes! What happened to her? Did she ever do art herself? What had she done since 1948? Then, when I was in the 2nd room, I heard a gravelly voice and there she was—right across from me! Magic!

I murmured hi, smiled, not wanting to interrupt her visit with her friend and she smiled back. I wanted to dash up and ask her to sign my program or something, anything! I wanted to say how much I admired HER—her spirit and forbearance. But she was showing her friend the art and explaining so I didn't interrupt. The old Canadian reticence prevailed but, oh, how I regret it! Hadn't I said to myself that I would LOVE to meet her and then—there she was! She hesitated a moment, almost inviting me to step forward, before turning back to her friend. Perhaps she would have been willing, even happy, to chat for a moment or two.

But I did get to see her and see that her spirit is strong. She had started as a painter but lost that when her life became subsumed by Gorky and his art making. But she made her life then into art. Her life can't have been easy but she chose her own path and—wow, it shows! Here's to the brave, bold independent spirit of Agnes! Inspiration.

The photos below were culled from the film just so you could see her!


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