The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Griffin’s introduction to On Fire, a new oral history of studio fires from Paper Monument. Now available in the n+1 shop.
THROUGHOUT ART HISTORY, artists’ studios are always burning down. Until only three or four decades ago, it was typical for artists to warm their workspaces with wood or coal fires. In January 1946, Arshile Gorky was settling into a borrowed studio in a barn on the Connecticut property of his friends Henry and Jean Hebbeln. Strapped, as ever, for cash, he had installed the wood-burning stove himself. When one day he smelled burning, he at first thought it was one of his cigarettes; when he saw that the hot stovepipe had set the roof of the barn on fire, he calmly walked up to the main house to fetch a pot of water to pour down the chimney. It wasn’t until his third trip back to the house that he quietly announced to his host, “Fire.”
Among the few items that Gorky was able to retrieve from the barn before it burned to the ground was, ironically, a box of powdered charcoal. His biographer (and son-in-law) Matthew Spender speculates that one reason the Armenian artist rescued so little of his work may have been the residual influence of Zoroastrianism, in which fire is a sacred symbol, never to be extinguished. Neighbors reported seeing a distraught Gorky hitting his head against the ground as the building went up in flames, the inept local fire department unable to help. Nevertheless, the fire’s contribution to Gorky’s psychological decline and, two years later, his suicide, tends to be overstated; soon after, he told his wife Mougouch that he felt “a new freedom from the past now that it is actually burned like you feel when you are young and there is no past.” The trio of grisaille paintings in which he memorialized the fire, Charred Beloved I, II and III, are not nightmarish, oppressive, or violent pictures as is often claimed. Rather, their expansive compositions convey a sense of release, of possibility, in which ash and air meet glowing forms that flame out of the darkness.