Maro Gorky

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Los Angeles Times December 20, 2004 Monday Home Edition

The art of slow nurturing; Maro Gorky, daughter of an influential painter, found a muse for her own work in her Tuscany garden.

by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Special to The Times

When you keep a guest room available for director Bernardo Bertolucci, you are bound to see yourself in his films sooner or later. So it was that Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender saw their artistic lives in Tuscany used as fictional backdrop for the 1996 romantic coming-of-age film "Stealing Beauty."

"It wasn't even our house," protests Gorky, who is seated on the damask sofa of Silva Bezdikian, an art dealer who is showing Gorky's paintings at her Beverly Hills home. Gorky's jewel- toned views of the Tuscan landscape are mounted on easels in the living room. Opening a book called "Tuscan Interiors," she turns to an 18th century stone hunting lodge that really is their home. "See? Our house is much prettier. I think the house is my installation. Matthew has a beautiful barn -- his cathedral to the arts. Also, we are much tidier than the people in the film."

The film portrays a middle-aged couple thriving in idyllic surroundings with fresh, delicious food, diverting company and dedicated creative enterprise. It is an idealized view, of course, but still based on the truth of their remarkable lives. "In the morning, I do my gardening and in the afternoon, I paint and cook and make supper," says Gorky, 62. "Weekends or holidays, we have company. Otherwise, it is a lonely life in the most beautiful part of the world."

Gorky and Spender moved to Avane, as their Tuscan home is called, in 1968. They were members of the counterculture that fled London for a more rural existence. Just as important, they are children of famous parents, and they sought both geographical and emotional distance from their past.

Abstract painter Arshile Gorky committed suicide in 1948 when his daughter Maro was just 5. Her memories of him are slim but potent and drove her commitment to become a painter, leading her to study with Frank Auerbach at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London, where she graduated in 1965.

Her husband of 42 years, Matthew, is the son of the late English poet Stephen Spender. After reading history at Cambridge, Matthew pursued poetry but disliked living in the shadow of his legendary father so instead became a writer and sculptor. His carved-wood and stone figures populate the land around their Tuscan villa and were featured in the film.

"Because we had complicated parents, our aim in life is a simple and quiet life in the country," Gorky says. Her round eyes and prominent features make her look as though she stepped out of one of her father's canvases. While living their rural lives, the couple had two daughters, Cosima and Saskia. As teenagers, those daughters decided country life was a bit too quiet. Cosima married Valerio Bonelli, who is now working as a production assistant on a film being made in Los Angeles. (Saskia married writer Carter Coleman.) Because Cosima and her young daughter were going to be spending many months in Los Angeles, Gorky saw this as an ideal time to show her abstract landscapes with Bezdikian.

Bezdikian is Lebanese Armenian. Gorky, who usually exhibits at Long & Ryle gallery in London, finds it ironic to be sought out at least in part because of her Armenian roots. After moving to America in 1920, her father denied his origins, falsely claiming to be Russian and a nephew of the writer Maxim Gorky. Still, she was drawn to art by her heritage. "It was my father who made me a painter. Not by compulsion, of course, but by example," she says.

A show of Arshile Gorky's works on paper and paintings is at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts on La Brea Avenue through Friday. The drawings were in the estate of Hans Burkhardt, an artist represented by the gallery. Spender, who wrote a book on Arshile Gorky, says: "The drawings have the sense of Gorky as a teacher. He taught Hans Burckhardt but also Mark Rothko. He was authoritarian .... This is an opportunity to see how helpful he was as a teacher."

Maro Gorky adds: "My father's spirit is strong. His ghost makes itself felt. It is a privilege up to a point but also invidious comparison. People will look at what you do and say, 'Ah, but her father was so much better.' "

Gorky finds her inspiration in the natural world. Of the 32 acres that they own, she cultivates a dozen. She is an avid gardener who dedicates each morning to pruning and caring for trees, vines and olives, not to mention the kitchen garden. Pulling her red shawl around her, she talks about the influence of such lush surroundings.

"It is very important because you learn about the pruning of trees, and that affects the structure in the painting." Discussing her 2003 painting "The Drive," she explains, "You can see a well-pruned mulberry and a climbing pink clematis. A pruned honeysuckle, cypress trees, lime trees and industrial vineyards around a blue drive. They are almost like aboriginal paintings, maps of what I see in front of me. I see things next to one another in spatial relationships." "

Maro Gorky

Paintings by Gorky may be seen by appointment at SB Fine Art in Beverly Hills. Contact: (310) 276-7766 or

"Arshile Gorky: The Early Years" is

on view at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., through Friday. Contact: (323) 938-5222 or

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