NARRATOR: Barbara Haskell is Curator of Prewar Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
HASKELL: Arshile Gorky’s Betrothal acts as a bridge between realism and abstraction. It incorporates realistic subjects but so camouflages them as to, as to hide them from the viewer. The title, Betrothal, suggests that it has something to do with the relationship between a man and a woman. Although the images in the painting itself are not suggestive enough to either rule out one explanation or to suggest that another predominates so that in some ways it’s a very open ended picture that he’s created, one that allows the viewer, him or herself to read it and interpret the different images in a way that, that seems fit. Gorky treats his paint almost as if it’s a watercolor medium. He lays down an initial coat of paint and then applies these almost translucent layers of paint on top of that so that one reads his paint as if one is seeing through an atmosphere.
He also leaves the accidental drips and marks of the paint on the canvas. Uses them to create other forms and in that way very much served as a precursor to the abstract expressionists who followed and who took advantage of the, the accidental markings of the paint as, in fact, the subject matter, in some cases, of their art.
Director’s tour audio guide stop for Arshile Gorky, The Betrothal, II, 1947
ADAMWEINBERG: Arshile Gorky completed this abstract painting, The Betrothal, II, in 1947, a year before his death. If we look closely at the curving, biomorphic shapes, we can discern two highly abstracted figures—one on horseback, on the left side of the canvas, and another following behind. The title suggests a romantic or sexual connection between this pair, but the nature of the relationship, like the forms themselves, is ambiguous.
Julien Levy was Gorky’s dealer in America, and his friend:
JULIENLEVY: He himself thought of himself as a surrealist. What he was trying to do was less to give a wild and uncontrolled expression of his emotions or his muscular activity as to give a rather interior conception of things that go beyond reality, as surrealism does, into psychological nuances and double meanings, and a climate in which one can live one’s subconscious rather than one’s conscious, and therefore the objectified reality is put to one side.
MAXWELLANDERSON: Surrealism exerted a powerful influence on Gorky and many other American artists during the early years of World War II, as many artists and intellectuals fled Europe to escape the Nazis. A significant group of artists emigrated to New York, including André Breton, the formidable leader and founder of the Surrealist movement. Breton ultimately became one of Gorky’s biggest supporters.
Although this painting is a lyrical and fantastical vision, Gorky’s own world was literally coming apart. The last few years of his life were marked by tragedy and loss: a fire devastated his studio, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident that temporarily paralyzed his painting arm, and his wife separated from him. In 1948, less than a year after he completed this painting, Gorky took his own life.