50 years ago this year the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a major survey of Jack Tworkov’s work featuring 60 paintings, 5 collages and 19 drawings. The exhibition opened at the Whitney on March 25 and ran until May 3, 1964, then traveled to other American museums including the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center among others.
To view the entire exhibition through the online Tworkov Catalogue Raisonne click here.
To view the original Whitney Museum press release click here.
Accompanying this historic exhibition was a substantial catalogue. In celebration of the 50th year of the exhibition, the catalogue essay written by Edward A. Bryant, who was the associate curator at the Whitney, has been reproduced along with a few of the corresponding illustrations.
A container must be closed to what it contains. But it can be open to other substances. A basket designed to contain pebbles may leak sand. A net is closed to fish and open to water, as it must be. To be closed and open is a necessary and simultaneous function of all vessels. A completely closed vessel is the end. A completely open vessel is without substance. – Jack Tworkov(1)
The creative growth of an artist is conditioned by his capacity to be open: to experience (both new and old, in both art and living), and through feeling; and intellect to find new relationships, new ideas and new values in the unanticipated. This openness is the freedom of the artist. In our culture of constant uprootings it is a hard-earned freedom. Although the art world avidly seeks. and promotes the “new,” once it is found, the tendency is to stabilize the artist’s output and to label him, too often impeding an independent development of this very individuality. In a time of continually fluctuating values, it takes. a man of courage and strong convictions to risk the hazards of change.
Jack Tworkov possesses this freedom. Unwilling to bask within the security of repetition and the confines of any established esthetic system, he searches. the outer rim of new possibilities in painting and takes the creative risk.
Tworkov’s philosophy of painting is to have no philosophy. He has written: “My whole desire is to be as deeply in painting as possible without holding any prepared position, or maintaining any preconceived posture or attitude. To experience, not painting in general, but each particular picture as deeply as. possible is my desire.”(2)
This stand allows Tworkov a flexibility that only the mature artist can securely manipulate. It is an attitude gained from long experience in painting and a keen awareness of choices at hand. At a time when so many artists are overly concerned with personal style, Tworkov states: “I think the artist must. guard against limiting himself to a single image, particularly when this is pushed by dealers and critics, many of whom try to induce the artist to have an identity and then to keep it… I don’t want to paint Tworkovs; I am happier without repetition. It seems to me that in repetition there is some denial of the fundamental purpose of the artist to explore and create.”(3)
Art, for Tworkov, must be created directly out of experience, and to do this, he feels that it is hopeless in our day to look to the past for a valid tradition to follow. For him, art is a result of self-discovery, a matter of beginnings, of growth and renewals—not a revolt against the past. He speaks of an authentic beginning that is the consequence of being able to act without history.
I am against the negativism which intellectuals foster that every advance, even when that is not simply an illusion, takes place in an atmosphere of quarrel with the past, and dissidence from the present. But I abhor the adulators, the masochistic art-victims on their knees to ‘great masters.’ Their chief passion is to put everything in chains.(4)
His view is positive: “We’ve seen the movements of this century as revolts rather than advances. For in an advance you usually respect or accept the point of departure… Unless you think time is about to come to an end—this is a fine time, not so much for revolutions, as for beginnings. And I think of art as just that—beginnings—like that beautiful Echo I in the sky, unprecedented, yet an achievement of all history and just a mere beginning.”(5)
Jack Tworkov has been closely associated with abstract expressionism since 1946, and in part he shares his working philosophy with the other artists of the movement. For him, abstract expressionism is not a style but an attitude toward painting that lets one face all contingencies. This seemingly absolute freedom has not, however, hampered his production, which has remained steady and consistent in quality within its variations. At the same time that some critics are preaching the funeral of the movement, Tworkov’s recent work clearly demonstrates that, as an approach to painting, abstract expressionism is still very much alive.
Tworkov brings to contemporary painting the controlled dramatic intensity and powerful seriousness associated with the high tradition of Western painting. Even his more playful works have the dignity and breadth of the second movement of some joyous, fully orchestrated symphony. No other artist today affirms more warmly the very act of painting. Beginning with a given material, in itself meaningless, Tworkov creates from its unlimited possibilities “something as meaningful to the eye as music is to the ear.”
You don’t come to your painting as a completely empty person; you come with your experiences of painting in years before. To a large extent they direct your hand. It just isn’t a completely meaningless gesture on the canvas; it is already determined by years of experience in painting.(6)
Jack Tworkov’s long and varied involvement in painting dates back to his teens. Through his teacher of mechanical drawing at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, he became interested in sketching after school hours, and a short while later he began to paint. The modern French artists were just being introduced to this country, and he saw exhibitions of the post-impressionists, Matisse and the fauves, Picasso and others of the European vanguard. The 1921 exhibition of French painting at the Brooklyn Museum introduced him to the work of Cézanne, which was to be a strong and lasting influence.
Tworkov studied at Columbia University from 1920 to 1923, majoring in English. In 1923 he enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design, where he studied until 1925, with Ivan G. Olinsky “and briefly with Charles Hawthorne. During 1925 and 1926, he studied at the Art Students League with Guy Pene du Bois and Boardman Robinson. In 1923, he began to spend his summers in Provincetown, where his sister, Janice Biala, had gone to study with Edwin Dickinson. There, during the summers of 1924 and 1925, he studied with Ross Moflett, who was out of sympathy with the prevailing impressionist style and worked in the cubist colors, browns and grays.
During the 1920’s, Tworkov extended his interests in many areas. “I bought a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man off a pushcart. This was before I had heard of Joyce. It was a stroke of luck. Pound’s Pavannes and Divisions introduced me to all the modern writers and poets of the time.” He became actively interested in the theater, and in New York earned his living by working with a marionette company headed by the well-known puppeteer Remo Bufano. From 1928 to 1930, he was associated with John Dos Passos in the Playwrights’ Theatre.
At Provincetown, Tworkov formed a close, almost pupil-teacher relationship with Karl Knaths, one of that art colony’s most “modern-minded” residents. They shared a mutual enthusiasm for Cézanne, and had long discussions about the fauves, the cubists, and the vorticists. Through Knaths, Tworkov was introduced to the work of Kandinsky, Klee and Miro. For a time he was quite closely associated with Lee Gatch. They shared adjoining studios and often worked together from the same model.
Tworkov’s painting during these years consisted of still lifes, figure paintings and landscapes, which he showed with the Provincetown Art Association and the New England Society of Contemporary Art. A still life of 1928, Stove, combines starkly simplified forms and flattened-out perspective in a composition of formal severity. The summarily modeled forms of the pipe and upper portion of a potbellied stove are impressively used to reveal their abstract quality. The structure of the picture is even further tightened by ruled lines dividing the background into geometric areas. Tworkov spent the entire year of 1929 at Provincetown and devoted himself exclusively to painting. “That same year he exhibited with the Société Anonyme and in the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
During the Depression, Tworkov joined the many other artists in New York working under government subsidy. In 1934, he was employed by the U. S. Treasury Department Public Works of Art Project, and from 1935 to 1941, he was with the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA. Tworkov met Willem de Kooning on the Project and they began a friendship that was to last until about 1953.
Picasso, surrealism, and theories about psychoanalysis, free association and automatism in art were the topics of conversation among the avant-garde community of artists to which Tworkov belonged. He experimented briefly with automatic painting, chiefly under the influence of Freudian literature. But he never was attracted to surrealism and Dada, regarding them as literary and political movements that left a lot of ideas but very little art. He professes a great admiration for Duchamp, however. (At the same time, he has high regard for Edwin Dickinson.)
Tworkov’s work during the 1930’s—still lifes, portraits, landscapes and scenes of everyday life—shows a strong dependence upon European antecedents. His continuing interest in Cezanne is revealed in a solid, post-impressionist structure. An oil dated 1938 of workers excavating a subway is a compact organization of diagonal color areas. A portrait of 1939 in the artist’s collection makes conscious use of abstract shapes created by the flowing contours of the figure’s closed form placed against a solid background. Although a review of his first one-man show at the A.C.A. Gallery in 1940 comments on his “excellently organized design constructed with a minimum of line” and “charm and originality of color harmony,” Tworkov says: “My Project paintings were the worst of my career. I tried to salve my social conscience at the expense of my esthetic instincts.”
Tworkov’s predicament in his painting before World War II was the dilemma faced by all avant-garde American artists. “In this country we had modern painting but not a modern movement, since a movement would imply that the initiative, direction and development was in our hands, whereas as a matter of fact, these were always in the hands of European artists… Consciously or unconsciously we adopted the attitude that spiritual and esthetic elements could be had only by importation from the past and from abroad. We were unnaturally supine before the glories of the past and the glamour of intellectual life abroad… Modern art in America implied a delicacy of spirit and mood in which the character, the situation, the chaos of the country were rejected. The modern artist in America lacked that audacity of the jazz musician who, without so much as ‘by your leave’ from Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, or from Strauss, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, nevertheless made music which the whole world was compelled to take note of.”(8)
As I grew up I tended not to take the responsibility for thinking anything for myself… But I had to take much on faith, partly out of ignorance, partly out of stupidity, partly out of respect—because other people did know a lot more than I did. And for a long time I followed. Then the big crisis in my life and the big development as an artist was that I suddenly realized there wasn’t any place to turn, there was no one to hold my hand in any sense whatever and I had to learn to think out everything for myself. First of all, everything in life and then probably everything in art again.
As I began, I wanted to make up my mind about everything for myself. I wanted to see everything freshly again; I didn’t want anybody’s word for anything. I didn’t want the Marxist word for the kind of world I lived in; I didn’t want the Utopian’s word about the future. I wanted first of all to experience things for myself. The idea, of the new (in American, painting) seems to me to be: experiencing for oneself, and I would like to see it sweep the country. I would like to see every little jerkwater town in America swept by the desire to experience and think for itself. (9)
The period of World War II was, by virtue of circumstances, a decisive one in Jack Tworkov’s career. From 1942 to 1945, he was working more than sixty hours a week as a tool designer, isolated from other artists and the art world in general. For three years he did not paint. The only artist he saw occasionally was de Kooning. It was a time of hard thinking, which led to a re-evaluation of his art and life—the departure from a “docile attitude” of the 1930’s. “Since the middle 1940’s the underlying emotion in my work has been the striving for identity, to know myself.” It was at this point that Tworkov’s career as a mature artist began.
As soon as the war effort relaxed, Tworkov began painting again, at night after work. With the end of the war, he was able to paint consistently and seriously. By 1946, he had rented a studio, renewed contact with other artists, and become involved in the exciting new ideas that were appearing on the scene of contemporary American art.
Tworkov’s preoccupations during the second half of the 1940’s centered on finding creative means to contain a meaningful concept of himself and of art—form that would ring true to him in terms of his own time and place. Though he had for years closely followed the modern European movements, he now realized that he had never understood quite how he was involved. Picasso’s involvement was easy to understand, but what did it mean to Tworkov? To him, modern art in America had failed because “we looked at French art to discover how they did it—we had not grasped the significant question ‘why did they do it?’ ” The answer could be found only in one’s own environment.
The new ideas and convictions were fervently debated at “the club,” of which Tworkov was one of the original members. Having formed spontaneously in the long discussions over coffee in an all-night cafeteria on Sixth Avenue and then having moved to weekly meetings in a rented loft on East Eighth Street, “the club” provided a free-for-all forum for the avant-garde. In the lively interchange of ideas the new esthetics of abstract expressionism were formulated.
Tworkov’s return to painting began with still lifes, and from 1945 to 1947, this was his means of getting back into it. Working from still life, he could concentrate completely on the formal problems, without much concern for the subject. This was also a move away from his earlier introspective work.
At the same time, he was doing abstract paintings and drawings as another means of investigating “the edge of painting.” These were very subjective experiments independent from the still lifes. Purely automatic, they were without a theoretical basis and were primarily exploratory. “I didn’t know how to use them, and when I tried to paint them they came out bleak and unhappy.” Despite his disappointment, they were an important transitional phase in his work. Many of these he destroyed, and he has never exhibited any of the rest. Since it was the still lifes instead that were shown, he was known in‘ the late 1940’s as a still-life painter and not for his avant-garde painting. With the ending of the still-life period, about 1947, Tworkov was very much a full abstract expressionist.
His first one-man show after the war, at the Egan Gallery in 1947, was made up of nine still lifes. They are compositions of ordinary objects (a glass pitcher, a wine glass, fruit, a loaf of bread), carefully related to each other and emphasized here and there by a sure, firm line. An underlying geometry of the background and foreplane balances the placement of the subject and binds the picture together. The muted colors—olives, yellows, pinks and earths—are lucid and atmospheric. The paint is cleanly applied with a fairly heavy impasto. The problem is still essentially a post-impressionist one: to represent objects in a three-dimensional setting while retaining the two-dimensional surface of the painting. One critic noted the turn “to a purer idiom which can hardly be defined in terms of its modern French antecedents.”
The twenty still lifes and figure paintings Tworkov exhibited at The Baltimore Museum of Art in 1948 showed an increased interest in simplified shapes for their abstract values. Background and subject begin to work together as an integrated structure. In Geneva (1948), the subject, seated as calmly as a Greek goddess, dissolves into the background, the forms selectively defined by an energetic calligraphy.
At the time of the exhibition he wrote: “I toy with the idea that perhaps the only way to break down the walls of familiar experience is through re-experience of the familiar… If I have any secret hope it is this: that if I have to use familiar means, I hope to give them a shaking up, and to toss them overboard one by one just as soon as I can dispense with them?”(11)
By 1949, interest in the figure had superseded the still life. Its treatment became decreasingly descriptive, so that by the end of the decade, it was almost resolved as completely suggestive form. Figure (1948-49), in the Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection, exists only in relation to the total composition, its forms and the ambiguous setting undetachable. Layers of active brushwork and the interweaving lines emphasize, in the lateral play of counter-movements, the reality of the painted surface. In these figure paintings, the form and color became progressively more concrete, the line more energetic, the paint application more spontaneous. During the Summers of 1948 and 1949, while teaching at The American University in Washington, DC, Tworkov did a series of paintings based on the Virginia landscape. These are not studio paintings but were done outdoors in a grove of trees so dense with foliage there was absolutely no detail. It was impossible to draw what was seen, making it necessary to substitute other means for what the eye experienced. He learned from these landscapes, he says, that just seeing was not enough; that there is no direct translation of what one sees onto the canvas—a lesson confirmed by the trees of Cezanne, who discovered that painting is a substitute for what the hand cannot render.
In these landscapes, a spontaneous dazzle of slashing lines and tonal contrasts, in an impulsive shattering of nature, takes full advantage of the accidental and automatic. The ebullient, excited forms do not exist as parts, for his painting is no longer a matter of object and background. The integrative process already noted in the figures is carried still further. Forms now saturate the picture; they rise to the surface, expand and flow into each other, building up an “all-over” abstract-expressionist composition.
From 1948 to 1953, Tworkov’s studio on Fourth Avenue in New York adjoined de Kooning’s. Tworkov has said that his interminable Conversations with de Kooning at that time deeply influenced his thinking. At no time, however, did his work merely reflect de Kooning’s style. De Kooning’s influence on him was actually strongest between 1940 and 1945, when Tworkov was not painting much. By 1948, Tworkov was very much on his own. (One can make too much of influences when certain situations make collective ideas immediately available to all members of a group. Impressionism, cubism, and “pop art,” as well as abstract expressionism, serve as examples.)
A process of synthesis in Tworkov’s work continued in the early 1950’s. Form and subject matter were irreducibly welded. Figures were no longer apart from the reality of paint, color and line. Their attitudes of movement, repeated in a way vaguely reminiscent of futurism, is the action of paint application. The color is clear and bright: reds, yellows, blues, and a free use of white, off-white and sometimes bare canvas. The brushstroke is widened. Spaces between parts are given equal value with the other forms. The surface is alive with movement. A robust sensuality pervades the pictures.
The subjects are the Greek myths, primarily those of the Odyssey: Ulysses, The Sirens, Athene, Nausicaä. Painted in the spirit of the artist’s search for his identity, the myths are used in the Freudian sense as a universalized mythology of personal psychic experiences. Visual forms interpret the Ulysses epic in a way parallel to what James Joyce had done in words.
This deep search for identification, Tworkov says, had nothing to do with any individual yearning to return to his childhood village in Poland; nor does the easily misinterpreted statement made in his Soutine article(12) that says he envied Cézanne for being able to work in the place of his childhood. It is simply the case with all artists today, when everyone is uprooted. (Who spends his mature life in the place of his birth?) It is the common search of all creative artists, as much for those from Iowa as those born in Poland or Armenia.
House of the Sun, painted in 1952-53, is developed freely from a drawing coming out of the Odyssey themes and is even more subjective. The basis of this active composition is the ancient wheel-like symbol of the sun as a tumbler, with four legs extending from a center in the form of a swastika. Although derived from the human figure, the forms in this painting are more abstract, in order to define (and perhaps to veil) more adequately the subjective experience of the erotic subject. Calligraphy appears in a new structural way, with the widened brushstrokes functioning as building units. Line is used less, the organization depending more on clear color shapes. In an article (13) documenting the development of this painting, Tworkov says: “Remove the line and make a fuller picture… Drawing is a note that says, here I must work.”
Tworkov’s next pictures, such as Dayround and Daybreak (painted as a pair), continue the dissolution of sharp-edged forms. A shimmer of soft tonalities is built up by layers of transparencies lightly brushed on. Underlying divisions of linear structures restrain the moving forms—still based on the figure, but now much more abstracted—floating through this atmosphere. Linear accents briskly enliven the surface.
In 1954, with paintings such as Figure P. H. and The Father, this tonal tendency was carried still further. The forms are constructed entirely of layers of rich reds and oranges without the use of line. Color, no longer used as color of the parts, flows throughout the picture, creating an atmospheric and ambiguous space. The loaded brushstroke is the building element. Its calligraphy is the mass. Pink Mississippi (1954), the major painting of this nuance phase, is structured from back to front in a rich textural shimmer of pigment. The broad masses and diagonal thrusts of Prophet (1955) signal a new direction.
I am aware of a few themes that keep recurring in my work in spite of the fact that all abstract work rests on automatic processes at least for its beginning. At some point in any picture, at the moment when some elements appear in it which I identify, I have to rescue the painting from the automatic process and assert my will to force the picture through to a conclusion I can accept.(14)
The development of Tworkov’s work from 1946 until 1955 had centered around the resolution of several pairs of dualities: form and subject, line and painterly mass, movement and solid structure, surface and depth. He had been, as he noted in his journal, “torn between the calligraphic and the structural between exuberance of movement and the passion of meditation… I would like to use the calligraphic element as a structural unit—to make spontaneous movement serve a scheme that evolves out of prolonged day-to-day meditation, to serve the deceitful purpose of making it appear that concept and form are spontaneous functions of each other.”
With Watergame in 1955, and Cradle, Blue Cradle, Games 111, Duo I and Duo 11 of 1956, Jack Tworkov’s painting entered full maturity. These works establish forms that still in general characterize his work. In them, not only do the various elements just described reach a complete synthesis, but the problem of giving concept and form simultaneous function is resolved.
The compositions build up into a massive grid of counteracting near-vertical and near-horizontal thrusts, and with a density “reflecting much thinking, much feeling.” This was to become even more effective in the Barrier and Brake paintings, suggesting a sense of things with moral implications going on just beyond the spectator’s view. The flash of brushstrokes and tonalities is stabilized by a strong geometric structure, which is established at times with a sharp, thin pencil line. The tendency is toward a greater clarification of forms and a purer use of color, both in fresh, surprising relationships.
The painting is now the subject—an event unto itself, not a representation. All the formal elements—color, shape, line, directional push, rectangular ground, paint application—are integrally woven together so that its entire physical presence is the expressive image. This, of course, does not mean that Tworkov’s recent paintings are without subject matter and that the function of their forms is purely plastic. Quite the contrary. His point of view toward abstraction is related to deep religious emotions that cannot be expressed in a more particularized form. This poetic content is less specific in relation to things outside the painting and more concretely related to the painting itself.
Even though he has worked since about 1954 without direct reliance on figurative material, something of a figurative element at times still appears in his work. The Duo series (1956-57) is based on the interaction between two figures. Crest, Day’s End, Capelight and Height were influenced by his return to the lower Cape Cod landscape in 1958, when he bought a house there and built a studio. He speaks with love of the light, colors and textures, particularly in the autumn, of the marshes that lie back of Pilgrim Heights and the Truro landscape.
Red Lake (1958) was inspired by views of the Mississippi River while driving to the University of Minnesota. Even the three paintings in the Wednesday series (1959-61) are built as though they were figurative space. Such recent works as Morning and Elements (both 1962) have certain sensations of figures and landscapes.
“I don’t accept certain kinds of paintings as being less pure than certain other kinds of painting that are called pure… I don’t know exactly where life enters into art. Suppose you could keep it out, what would be the point? What kind of game is art that you have to set a wall around it to keep everything out of it?… From my point of view… abstract art… is only abstract because that one element, the descriptive element that characterized the old art, got out of it. With that out of it, I still think that everything can enter into this art that entered into any kind of art?”(15)
He says: “It would be a mistake to try to read landscape into them, even less any specific landscape. For it is a willful part of my painting process to abolish specific reference in favor of abstract forms that stir a sense of recognition in me. And these forms speak to me of the forces which to explain would begin the psychological. autobiography which I shun. The picture as a final object is best experienced without reference to the processes that produced it just as we experience food by taste and textures and not by a rationale of how it was cooked, interesting as that may be.”(16)
His provocative titles are used primarily as identification. He says that it would be a misunderstanding similarly to read specific references into them, that titling a picture is like naming a race horse: “The name says something about the owner but not the horse.”
Since 1958, Tworkov’s work has followed several themes upon which he recurrently makes free variations. These themes, representing different concurrent aspects of his work, appear in the Barrier; Brake; Red, White and Blue (RWB); and Red and Green series. Each theme has its own special effects of palette and treatment.
Although the first painting titled Barrier dates from 1958, the motif goes back to a small oil sketch of 1954 and to Games 111 (1956) and Transverse (1957-58). Titles do not always refer directly to the theme, for among the Barrier series are also works such as Crest (1958) and Vulcan (1959). The works in this series are more tonal, with a dense saturation of long brushstrokes, more recessive and atmospheric, with an air of tension. The colors, muted and complicated in mixture (blues, reddish browns, rich yellows, pinks, muted whites), veil the surface. In Barrier Series, No. 4 (1961), bar forms float through a liquid mass, emerge toward the surface or recede. In its complexity, the barrier is a depth—the wall a door. In Height (1958-59) and Crest (1958) large dramatic forms float ponderously; they reach a culmination of massive force in East Barrier and West Barrier (both 1960).
The pictures in the Brake series, as well as in the Red, White and Blue series, which grew out of it, deal with the stripe as a theme. Around 1959, first in the blue and white painting Capelight, the long brushstroke was widened and became a clean stripe of color. In the subsequent Brake pictures, red appeared first in a minor role but gained importance equal to that of the blue and white. This led directly to the Red, White and Blue series, begun in 1962, in which the three colors are dealt with as a balance of quantities. (He has always used color structurally, rather than for mere taste.) These paintings, lighter in mood, all retain the same hues. Modulation is avoided, as are transitional areas between one color and the next. The colors, somewhat modified to balance one against the other, are used as tube colors. The accent is on the horizontal. Souza and Oh Columbia are somewhat tonal in approach but the tendency has been toward a firmer and more positive grid of stripes. White is used positively, as a color, to build form, and not as a ground. Lane, RWB #4 (1963) is more severe and geometric.
Out of this series has come what promises to be another theme. Variables I (1963) makes use of isolated individual brushstrokes and drawing, within sharp rectangular areas. In this painting, which Tworkov feels is the most theoretical of all he has made, his interest was to break away from the big stroke structure and to compose the picture in a more varied way—by divisions of the ground, rather than by figure-ground relationships. The strokes and areas become quantities: a question of how big, how heavy, how many units, how much color, how intense. The sectional divisions are like movements within a musical composition: the sections are independent but follow each other in sequence. Dynamic relationships connect top to bottom and side to side. Within one of these panels, drawing is used as another way of varying these elements. This new development was foreshadowed in the central divisional sections of such works as Boon, Brake III, Ridgeway, and the tiered composition of Homage to Stefan Wolpe (all 1960).
With Duo III (1957), there began a series of vertical red and green paintings, to which at least one has been added every year since. They also make use of the stripe but it is modulated and more interweaving than in the Red, White and Blue series. The elongated format, the sweeping diagonals, and the clash of green and red give them a dynamic force. Blue is sometimes added, and the whites are varied to increase the counterpoint of rhythms. Among these are Wednesday, Changes on Wednesday I and Changes on Wednesday II. The latest of these, RWG #9 (1963), expands this theme by using a second green to widen the tonal range. Also related to this series are several red, green and white paintings almost square in format; these include Friday, Thursday, and Homage to Stefan Wolfe (all 1960).
Among Tworkov’s recent work there are certain paintings that do not fit precisely within these series, even though the original idea may have related to one of them. Red Lake (1958), close to the Brake series, has an astonishing build-up of densities in a masterful play of movements between the many layers of red. Abandoned (1962)–not titled by the artist—and West 23rd (1963) began as red and white paintings, a direction he is now exploring. Elements and Morning combine the stripe motif with a figure-ground relationship of parts.
Tworkov has made an outstanding contribution as a brilliant draftsman. In his figure drawings, energetic lines expertly define and articulate the human body. Sometimes the pencil line flickers over the surface in short, sure strokes, giving weight and volume, breaking through the compact forms to relate them to the page, and suggesting a light-flooded ambiance. Folding a large sheet of paper into a kind of handy sketch pad, he fills small rectangles with one- minute drawings from the nude model. They are sensuous, lyrical odes to the human figure, expert and precise in their control of touch, with a line richly varied in weight and color. They come from the pleasure known by a hand coordinated with seeing and feeling.
His abstract drawings, generally heavier than his figure drawings, are usually dark masses of layer after layer of line, with lights picked out here and there by a kneaded eraser, which is also used to obtain subtle tonalities. These are done mostly as works independent in themselves. At times, they utilize ideas that appear later in his paintings. Some are produced during the course of a painting, as a way of working out problems that he could not employ on the canvas, as his painting technique allows very little margin for corrections. Insights into his formal pursuits can be gained by comparing these abstract drawings with his paintings. A figure drawing of 1954 in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wiesenberger reveals the same concern with organically relating the compact mass of a human body to its surroundings as there was in The Father (1954), and it even anticipates the three somewhat later, Queen paintings. In the Whitney Museum’s Untitled Drawing, 1958, “the idea is to approach the maximum black available to the medium without losing a sense of depth”—a reference to Red Lake. ACD #4, 1962, collection of The Washington Gallery of Modern Art, is a beautiful example treating the Barrier theme; (the title abbreviates “abstract charcoal drawing”).
Tworkov has done some work in collage, but because of extraneous associations that the materials tend to impose upon the final work, he has not followed this medium extensively. The bold grid structure of bar forms in the 1954 collage in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. David Prager points directly toward the Brake pictures. A group of collages from the summer of 1958 relate in color and structure to the later Red, White and Blue series.
Abstract expressionism is best defined negatively, by what it is not. If it has any positive features, it got them from individual artists and the mood of the period, which. can become stale and academic… Abstract expressionism, as an idea and not as a movement, has no rules, no specific character, attitude or face. It does not even exclude the use of representation or geometry. It merely claims to be able to do without them. As such it is now everybody’s idea, which is academic when the idea is merely being demonstrated, but it is nonacademic if you realize that, given the idea, everything else in a picture still remains to be done—you cannot predict in advance what it ought to be.(17)
Jack Tworkov’s way of painting makes full use of the irrational, the automatic, the arbitrary and even the accidental. The action of painting is part of the content of his work, but it is not an end in itself. It is for him a deliberate means to the final result. At some point in his work, he always seizes control of the elements of chance and gives them a logic and a stability. After an initial automatic plunge, the painting process is an interplay between deliberation and spontaneity. Canvases are usually worked on for long periods of time, often recurrently. Sometimes they are thought out in sketches or in other pictures he has going at the same time. He submits his paintings to a battering of chance and random ideas, “opening them up” to other possibilities when he is dissatisfied, not predicting the outcome, hoping for something not yet experienced, working for that moment when the picture “takes fire” and “speaks back.” “If something of the original impulse survives all that, then it stands.”
The interplay between the shaking up of ideas, feelings and memories and the testing of the results for their value as emotional and intellectual experiences is the basic process in creativity.(18) The concept of “action painting” is that all these things should take place as rapidly and spontaneously as possible while one is engaged physically and mentally in the picture. Any content that the picture might have is a result of working the painting, and not the representation of something the artist had in mind before he began.
Tworkov is too self-contained and too formal a painter to use action painting as a kind of subjective catharsis (in fact, the abstract-expressionist movement in general cannot be characterized as introspective). He recognizes that “you can’t make a picture completely dissociated, a completely new experience,” that “what you did the day before—the year before—even ten years before—keeps on affecting the picture.” His idea of spontaneity goes further than the notion of a way to wield a brush. “It’s hard to explain how you can aim for a kind of spontaneity and at the same time work as I do for along time on a canvas… I think of spontaneity more as a kind of inner feeling—a way to be able to follow an impulse. I work a long time on a canvas because I’m always curious to know what else is possible to it… It’s thoughtful but spontaneous, not unlike the attitude of jazz players… I sometimes feel when I approach a canvas that I am like a drummer. I ask myself why I do it and I can only answer why does a drummer drum? Just simply because of the fascination of what comes out.”
In his 1950 essay on Soutine,(19) “Tworkov contrasts Soutine with Cézanne. One is tempted to interpret the differences he establishes between the two artists as an unconscious statement of the polarities existing in his own creative temperament, which are resolved in his recent paintings. He speaks of Soutine’s “inward drama of the soul” and Cézanne’s “intensity of objects that endure forever, like mountains… his personal anxiety coming through as the fire within the mountain.” Soutine he sees as “the individual being amidst eternal flux” who liquefies “the building blocks of Cézanne’s art, putting flesh on his bone.” He contrasts the spatial, solid art of Cézanne to the active, temporal art of Soutine.
He concludes his essay: “Soutine’s painting contains the fiercest denial that the picture is an end in itself. Instead it is intended to have a meaning which transcends the dimensions and the materials. The picture is meant to have an impact on the soul and not merely on the wall—it is first and foremost the dress for the artist’s thoughts, concepts and emotions. It is classic Western painting, not decoration.”
The same is true of the work of Jack Tworkov.
Statements quoted, unless otherwise attributed, are by the artist.
1. From entry in the artist’s Journal, September 14, 1953, published in It Is, Autumn, 1959 (No. 4), p.13.
2. Reply to Whitney Museum questionnaire, 1958.
3. Quoted from an interview by Leslie Judd Ahlander, The Washington Post, January 20, 1963.
4. Catalogue for Stable Gallery (New York) exhibition, April, 1957.
5. Catalogue for Holland-Goldowsky Gallery (Chicago) exhibition, October, 1960.
6. From narration of The Americans: Three East Coast Artists at Work (New York: Contemporary Films, Inc., 1963).
7. Art News, January 6, 1940, p. 12.
8. “Means and Subject,” (Unpublished notes for a lecture at The American University, 1948).
9. “The Philadelphia Panel,” It Is, Spring, 1960 (No. 5), p. 36.
10. Art News, November, 1947, p. 42.
11. The Baltimore Museum of Art News, November 1948, p. 4.
12. Art News, November, 1950, pp. 30-33.
13. Art News, may, 1953, pp. 30-33.
14. From a letter to Edward B. Henning, Curator of Contemporary Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, August 14, 1962.
15. It Is, Spring, 1960 (No. 5), p. 37.
16. Letter to Edward B. Henning, op. cit.
17. Art News, September, 1959, p. 38.
18. Cf. Lawrence S. Kubie, Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process (New York: Noonday Press, 1961).
19. Art News, November, 1950, pp. 30-33.