JT’s “Triptych” on view for the first time in New York in 35 years.

Jack Tworkov, Alexander Gray Associates, Frieze

Jack Tworkov’s Triptych (Q3-75 #1), 1975, Oil on canvas, 72h x 216w in (182.9h x 548.6w cm)

This May, Alexander Gray Associates will present Jack Tworkov’s Triptych at Frieze New York. This presentation marks the first time the painting has been exhibited before a New York audience in 35 years. Estate curator, Jason Andrew, researched the history behind the making of one of the artist’s greatest masterworks. (To learn more about this presentation click here)

Jack Tworkov’s Triptych (Q3-75 #1), 1975
By Jason Andrew

In the summer of 1975, Jack Tworkov upended his Provincetown studio to accommodate plans to paint an ambitious three paneled painting.[1] On June 15 he started work on Triptych (Q3-75 #1).[2]

Jack Tworkov, Arthur Mones, Provincetown

Portrait of Jack Tworkov by Arthur Mones in his Provincetown Studio, c.1975

By this time Tworkov’s style had developed a dramatic disciplined, systematic approach. Although gesture and spontaneity remained paramount, the artist began in the late 1960s to generate compositions based on carefully planned geometries originating from simple ratios generated from the rectangle. This “diagonal grid” as he called it, became the basic element of his late work.[3] “What I wanted,” Tworkov wrote, “was a simple structure dependent on drawing as a base on which the brushing, spontaneous and pulsating, gave a beat to the painting somewhat analogous to the beat in music. I wanted, and I hope I arrived at, a painting style in which planning does not exclude intuitive and sometimes random play.”[4]

Captivated by Tworkov’s newfound stride, curator Marcia Tucker selected thirteen new paintings for a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in February 1971.[5] “Since his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney in 1964,” Tucker wrote, “Jack Tworkov has been working on a body of paintings in which technique, color, and formal bias appear startlingly different from his earlier Abstract Expressionist works. In fact, the basic structural elements have remained the same: spontaneous brushing, an implied or partly obliterated grid, a precise and deliberately limited palette, and careful attention to the relationship between painting forms and the shape of the canvas.”[6]

The summer previous to the start of the Triptych, was a challenging one for Tworkov. He wrote to his sister, the painter Janice Biala:

“Although I was terribly slow about getting into painting again, I finally did and worked a decent part of the day everyday. But I was terribly slowed down—taking much longer with each picture than usual. Nevertheless I finished four paintings […] I experiment with each, a new way of brushing, a different way with color, and perhaps a different kind of drawing.”[7]

Jack Tworkov

Jack Tworkov, Q4-74 #1, 1974, Acrylic on linen, 80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm)

Explaining his process further in his journal, Tworkov wrote, “The grounds are unusual for me—brushed on or applied with rag very diluted large swathes of primary colors—instead of the usual smoothly brushed greys. The grounds are more like the starts of paintings in the 1950s […] How much the underpainting will affect a real change in the final outcome is what I am curious about.”[8] This process foretells how Tworkov would begin Triptych.

Triptych not only continues the gestural under-painting similar to the paintings made in the summer of 1973, but revisits the fiery palette of the most historic works by the artist from the 1950s like Duo I (1956) and Duo II (1956) (both in the Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art) and further, West 23rd (1963) (Collection of the Museum of Modern Art). It is this dramatic orange and red gestural background, leaping from one panel to the next that is the unifying structure of Triptych.

Within Triptych appear references to his early horizontal masterpiece, West 23rd (1963). Both paintings share many similarities from color palette to structured divisions in the canvases. Although West 23rd is a single paneled canvas stretching 80 inches wide, it is compositionally divided in the center—the action seemingly plays out on the left and on the right. A horizontal border in yellow-orange, runs the bottom length of West 23rd linking the left with the right. Similarly, a boarder of gestural under-paint runs horizontally along the top boarder of Triptych connecting the multiple panels.

Jack Tworkov, Musuem of Modern Art, collection, New York

Jack Tworkov, “West 23rd,” 1963, Oil on canvas, 60 1/8 x 80 in. (152.6 x 203.3 cm), Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase (274.63)

Three preliminary sketches on graph paper made earlier that spring emphasize the crucial role the preparatory drawings now play in calculating the architecture of a late Tworkov painting.

Tworkov completed Triptych in one month.[9] Riding the creative momentum, the artist began work on what would become one of his most important series of late paintings. Knight Series first began in sketches made while on a train from New York to Washington D.C.[10] Further evolving his fascination with geometric configurations and numerical concepts, these sketches traced and then abstracted the movements made by the Knight in a game of chess. Magnified from drawing to grand scale, Knight Series #1 (Q3-75 #2) (1975) (Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art) and Knight Series #2 (Q3-75 #3) (1975) (Collection of the Estate of Jack Tworkov) both measure 90 x 75 inches and tower over previous works by the artist. Their size and ambition were likely inspired by the completion of Triptych.

Jack Tworkov celebrated his 75th birthday the summer Triptych was finished. He reported in his journal “I’ve worked this summer as hard or harder than any summer I can remember.”[11] Later that fall, Triptych was featured in the artist’s one-person exhibition at Nancy Hoffman Gallery where the first of eight paintings from the Knight Series would also be exhibited for the first time.[12] The exhibition and this work in particular drew critical praise. Critic John Russell of The New York Times wrote: “In his new exhibition, [Tworkov] shows himself as the master of a ‘late style’ all his own, in which an elegant and resourceful geometry is made to work together with suffusions of tender glowing color.”[13]

Triptych has been featured in three major retrospective exhibitions of Tworkov’s work including Jack Tworkov: Paintings 1950-1978, Third Eye Centre, Glasglow; Jack Tworkov: Fifteen Years of Painting, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; and Jack Tworkov: Beyond Black Mountain College, Selected Works from 1952-1982, Asheville Art Museum, NC.

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[1] Journal Entry: Thursday, June 19, 1975: “Have been too busy and often too tired to make entries. Spent much time organizing the studio—building wall easels, relocating shelves etc. The building of extra wall easels make necessary by the project to paint a triptych of 6’ x 6’s. I had to clear the only wall that would accommodate an 18’ foot canvas of shelves pegboards etc. The additional storage area we just added to the studio made it possible.”

[2] Journal Entry: June 15 [1975].

[3] Steven W. Kroeter. “An Interview with Jack Tworkov,” Art in America (November 1982), pp. 82-87.

[4] Kasha Linville Gula. “The Indian Summer of Jack Tworkov.” Art in America (September 1973).

[5] Jack Tworkov: Recent Paintings, February 5–March 14, 1971.

[6] Marcia Tucker. “Jack Tworkov: Recent Paintings,” exhibition brochure, Whitney Museum of American Art, February 5-March 14, 1970.

[7] Letter to Biala. September 24, 1974. The four paintings Tworkov finished that summer were Q4-74 #1, Q4-74 #2, Q4-74 #3, Q4-74 #4.

[8] Journal Entry: Sunday, March 2, 1975.

[9] As inscribed on the painting verso top center: “S. 6-15-75 / F.7-14-75.”

[10] Publication unknown, likely Topeka Daily, circa March 1976. For date of first known sketch see Tworkov’s CR1072: “34 Moves of the Knight (L. 5-21-74 #2).

[11] Journal Entry: Thursday, August 7, 1975.

[12] Jack Tworkov, Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York, NY, November 8–December 4, 1975.

[13] John Russell. “Gallery View: Jack Tworkov at Nancy Hoffman.” The New York Times, Sunday, November 16, 1975.

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