Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov (1900-1982) once wrote: “My painting is always a work of long progression of action absorbed by time.”(1) Never has this been more apparent when comparing two important paintings Capelight (1958) and Alternative X (1978), separated by twenty years and both coming up at auction at Sotheby’s this season.
Capelight (1958) highlights Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated Sale on March 5, and is a signature example of Tworkov’s Abstract Expressionist period.
Provincetown on Cape Cod played an integral role in the creative life of Jack Tworkov. Beginning with his first visit in 1923, Tworkov lived in Provincetown intermittently until the fall of 1958, the year Tworkov painted Capelight, and the year he purchased a cottage on Provincetown’s West End with views of the bay and a short walk to the dunes of Herring Cove. Provincetown was also influential on other artists of Tworkov’s generation including Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko.
“It would be a mistake to try to read landscape into [my painting] even less any specific landscape,” Tworkov told Edward B. Henning, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1962, “For it is a willful part of my painting process to abolish specific references 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 it may be.”
However, Tworkov was not one to ignore external impulses. “There is a quality of light that you get nowhere else,” Tworkov said of the Cape, “because the bay and the dunes act like mirrors to the sky.” (2) The painter enjoyed long walks on the dunes and daily swims in the often-choppy waters of the bay and it is hard to imagine the motions of these events not playing out in the surface of his canvases. “Something to do in Provincetown,” he wrote in his journal, “the dunes and woods, in a way nobody has done them. Seen thru my abstract painting, like Red Lake, Cape Light.”(3)
In Capelight, we see Tworkov’s trademark “stroke” enhanced by the artist’s subconscious impressions of sky and sea.
Twenty years later the artist painted Alternative X (1978), which is featured in Sotheby’s Joy, Love and Peace: The Peter B. Lewis Collection Sale on March 7.
In the mid 1960s Tworkov moved away from gestural abstraction to geometric forms, which he found more disciplined and contemplative. He began studying elementary geometry and theories of number systems (especially Fibonacci sequences) and translated his findings into his paintings.
“I became fascinated with the little I learned and found in some aspects of the geometry of a rectangle a new starting point for composing a painting,” he said in an interview published in Art in America in 1973, “I soon arrived at an elementary system of measurements implicit in the geometry of the rectangle which became the basis for simple images that I had deliberately given a somewhat illusionistic cast. From then on, all my paintings began with carefully worked out drawings and measurements that I could repeat at will. But the actual painting I left to varieties of spontaneous brushing. What I wanted was a simple structure dependent on drawing as a base […] I wanted, and I hope I arrived at, a painting style in which planning does not exclude intuitive and sometime random play.”
Ten great paintings make up Tworkov’s Alternative Series. The Series is one of the artists most important late works featuring variations on a gridded mathematical design. He began the series in the summer of 1977 deciding to use “identical structures but make each one a totally different painting experience [through] the color and the brushing.”
“And that is exactly what I did. For the first time in years I used a totally different brushing style, and hit on two beautiful colors that were suggested by the black cherry outside our kitchen window, which was putting on its fall colors. I worked freely abandoning the taping out of edges, bringing out the structural line by leaving that much ground unpainted instead of superimposing the lines with straight edge and fine brush. I worked all day with great interest. As I worked all sorts of new possibilities developed, which I’m mentally filing away for future attempts. The main thing is to reflect consistency, for alternate ways of doing things until something new enters the work.”(4)
The Alternative paintings continued through the summers of 1977 and 1978. “I finished the 3rd of the 54 x 54s which I call Alternatives,” Tworkov wrote in his journal on October 21, 1977, “I also made a new variation on one of 25 x 25s that I feel pretty good about. I started last week a 72 x 72, again, with the same drawing as the 54 x 54 and working entirely in grays. Hope to have the painting finished by tomorrow. This has to be the last painting before I leave P’town.”
One can see the broad gestural strokes of Capelight (1958) becoming more sensitive and contemplative in Alternative X (1978), yet the spontaneity of the early work still remains. While Capelight is a prime example of Tworkov’s work at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Alternative X reflects the artist’s minimalist approach in his later years.
(1) Mira Schor, ed. Extreme of the Middle: The Writings of Jack Tworkov. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.89.
(2) Robert Hatch. “At the tip of Cape Cod.” Horizon III, No. 6 (July 1961), pp. 10-29.
(3) Mira Schor, ed. Extreme of the Middle: The Writings of Jack Tworkov. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.89.
(4) Mira Schor, ed. Extreme of the Middle: The Writings of Jack Tworkov. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.378.