Like most troubled romances, that between the famed Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky and Agnes Magruder (who later became Agnes Gorky Fielding) began with a misunderstanding. In February 1941, Willem de Kooning and Elaine Fried, themselves soon to be wed, encouraged the pair to attend a party so that they might meet. Gorky was expecting a blond, Agnes an extrovert, and though their expectations were initially disappointed, they quickly fell in love. He called her “Mougouch” (little mighty one), which she took as her name, and she moved into his apartment within the month. She became his muse, and together they had two children. Her life, in the years that followed, became consumed with housework, an occupation she resented with increasing disdain. Soon, things took a dark turn: the barn that housed Gorky’s paintings burned down; he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a colostomy; she had an affair with a Surrealist; he had a car accident in which he broke his neck and temporarily paralyzed his painting arm; she tried to soothe him; he pushed her down the stairs. When she and their children fled for her mother’s in Virginia, he hanged himself in a shed. She continued to shepherd his legacy, arranging exhibitions and sales of his work. Below, she recounts her initial meetings with him.
Her First Evening with Gorky
On our first night out, Gorky gave me supper at an Armenian restaurant on Thirty-Eighth Street. Afterward, we went for a walk uptown. It was snowing. We eventually arrived at Central Park and went right on walking. We got to the reservoir on Eighty-Sixth Street and went round it. Then back down the park, down Fifth Avenue as far as Fifty-Eighth Street, where I announced, I’m hungry. It was about two in the morning. Gorky had to feed me all over again.
It was a strange time. Lots of people were scared about the war. Scared about not having the right papers, scared about their identity. It was not clear on whose side we would fight. East of Lexington, from Eighty-Sixth Street upward, was Germantown, full of Hofbrau houses and dance halls. They didn’t want America in the war. Then there was Irishtown. Understandably, the Irish weren’t in favor of helping Britain either. I remember seeing a mad Irishwoman under the Third Avenue El, shaking her fist at the noise overhead of a passing train, thinking it was our bombers off to help the effing Brits.
Seeing Gorky’s Studio for the First Time
A few days after meeting Gorky, he took me to his studio on the east corner of Union Square and Sixteenth Street. My amazement at the great white room he occupied with his huge easel and the array of vases and jugs along the side of the low skylight, the silver gray parquet floor with only a round table and three straight chairs and a sort of daybed and a square black model stand punctuating this palatial space—thirty square feet—was overwhelming. He brought out painting after painting from a room off the entrance hall, some so huge and heavy I couldn’t see why the paint didn’t fall off. What did I think? I simply don’t remember, but considering my near total ignorance of everything after Cézanne I imagine I just felt, and what I felt never left me: a feeling of reality, as real as the man in front of them, or coming to my side, laughing at my wonder, smoking his cigarette, so at ease as though he were showing me a very strong chair he had made. And I took them that way, without question, astonished that paint could look like that.
I suppose we went out to eat afterward—perhaps in the little blue-and-white Armenian restaurant he took me to the first night I went to supper with him. And he took me back by bus to Fifty-Seventh Street, where I was staying and I agreed to come there the following evening after my work in the squalid little office of the Chinese communist magazine on Twenty-Third Street.
But when I arrived at that corner again I looked in vain for the windows of this palace. The building began at the corner I knew—there was a “quick and dirty” cheap eateria on the corner but no windows that betrayed such an interior on the second floor. I went up and down the street, anxious because I was late—I had no watch and was always late, alas. Suddenly he appeared at a window looking for me and rushed down to bring me up. The next time he would put his shoes in the window so I could find my way, he liked to air them that way anyway.
The paintings had all been put away. The great studio was spotless, nothing on the walls. The floor I discovered was parquet, which he scrubbed with beet salts, like the deck of a ship. This time he showed me drawings all on the floor, mostly pen and ink (N.E.N. et cetera), and then the portrait of his mother in pencil, now in Chicago, then some early sketchbooks, landscapes, friends, heads of real or imagined people. And then his living arrangements. The studio had a white kitchen sink in the far corner near a small passage where he had a small gas stove and opposite a small neat bathroom with a proper door and another door opened into his bedroom. Quite a small room with a window on one side opening onto a flat roof, and just room for a double bed painted gray and a small chest of drawers. To make the room less like a well, Gorky had painted the walls maroon up to about ten feet and then gray above and over the flat ceiling. The ceilings were very high in the whole apartment. The bedrooms and kitchenette and bathroom having been made out of a bigger room. I don’t remember a cupboard.
The studio had two plain large windows giving onto Sixteenth Street and looking onto the hideous Victorian dark pile that housed Mr. Klein’s huge store—dusty windows of store rooms, I suppose, and below, opposite the cafe, a tobacconist. A very important place for Gorky as it supplied not only cigarettes but a coin telephone and funny jokes with the proprietor. The two storage rooms also had each a large window on Sixteenth Street. So he had four windows on this quite noisy street and on the other side this very large skylight coming to within two feet of the floor. On the same side, the bedroom window and one on the entrance hall. In the entrance was a 1920s cupboard with shelves and a hanging space and a mirror on one door. There was also an open cupboard with two shelves to the left of the front door where he kept all his small paintings, with a few larger ones below the shelves. Beneath the window, a plain deal table.
Outside the front door, between the stairwell and his front door were two large rubbish bins, emptied several times a week by the grizzle-haired janitor who lived in the flat above us and had been there since ages. He was a good friendly man with a wife, and Gorky and I used to laugh at the creakings of his old iron bedstead, which reported his marital activities on certain nights of the week.
Excerpted from Arshile Gorky: The Plow and the Song, which will be published later this month.