(Arshile Gorky quoted in Karen Mooradian, Arshile Gorky Adoian, Chicago, 1978, p. 276)
Executed in 1947 at the peak of Arshile Gorky’s success and the year prior to his tragic and premature death, Study for Betrothal is a fully realized and extraordinarily accomplished study for one of the most cerebral and captivating compositions of Gorky’s celebrated artistic career. Having fled the Armenian Genocide, in 1920 Gorky arrived in New York where he found himself utterly inspired. Now in his purview, the art and intellectual discourse of the city prompted Gorky to engulf himself in a self education of the history and practice of his peers and artists he delighted in, such as Wassily Kandinsky. As a primarily self-taught artist, Gorky was academic in the study of his predecessors and, with the emergence of Surrealism onto the New York art scene in the 1940s, Gorky discovered yet another exciting approach from which to be inspired. Stimulated by the free flowing and ethereal qualities associated with the surrealist practice, in Study for Betrothal Gorky at once references the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, while succinctly departing from their automatism to create a style undeniably his own. Indeed, as then Director of the Whitney Museum Lloyd Goodrich said in 1951 shortly following the death of the artist, “[Gorky] never imitated the mere mannerisms, the superficial characteristics of the artists he admired. Always he strove for an understanding of the fundamental elements of their work, and there was nothing coldly intellectual in his use of others’ art. His own artistic nature was rich, so deeply sensuous, so healthily physical, so much in love with pigment and color, line and form that everything he touched, even in his most obviously influenced works, was himself." (Lloyd Goodrich quoted in Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Arshile Gorky, New York, 1966, p. 16) This inimitable style solidified Gorky’s output as the bridge between the New York School and European modernism and in turn paved the way for the Abstract Expressionism, which would alter the course of artistry in the post-war period.
Lyrical in its structure, lines float across the space of the composition to create the elegant and deliberate presentation of the sensual biomorphic forms of Study for Betrothal. Latent lines of the broadly anatomical figures are reinforced in soft pencil, and accents of delicate robin’s egg blue are used to suggestively highlight the bulging and recessing forms, intensifying the rhythmic dance of the figures across the canvas. A precursor to three major oil paintings which reside in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Study for Betrothal is one of the most formalized of the artist’s drawings. In the words of the artist, “Drawing is the basis of art… Drawing gives the artist the ability to control his line and hand. It develops in him the precision of line and touch. This is the path towards a masterwork.” (Arshile Gorky quoted in Karen Mooradian, Arshile Gorky Adoian, Chicago, 1978, p. 276)
While Study for the Betrothal and its resulting paintings elude simple explanation, Gorky’s persistent approach to the title subject suggests a focus on sexuality and conjugal relations, perhaps encouraged by the volatile relationship with his second wife Agnes Magruder at that time. Certainly, the mystery in the paintings was not unintentional, and calls upon the viewer to decipher for themselves the intricacies of the narratives of marital life presented – both the good and the bad. As such, not only is it a mesmerizing work but also a deeply personal creation.
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