Now on view in the Modern and Contemporary Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Jack Tworkov’s Athene. Painted in 1949, this towering painting became a part of the permanent collection of the museum in 2006. It was a signature painting among the historic donation of Post-War American art from the collection of Chicago based collector Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman.
Athene was a signature painting from Tworkov’s Odyssey canvases, which were championed for their successful combination of gestural brushwork with mythological narrative. The painting features the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war standing headlong and totally consuming the canvas.
From 1948 to 1953, Jack Tworkov’s studio on Fourth Avenue in New York adjoined that of Willem de Kooning. Old friends who likely met while working on the WPA in the 30s, de Kooning had rented an entire floor of the two-story cold water flat. Splitting the loft in half, de Kooning shared the floor with his friend Tworkov.
Tworkov has said that his lengthy conversations with de Kooning at the time deeply influenced his thinking. At no time, however, did his work merely mimic de Kooning’s style. In fact, Tworkov told Edward Bryant at the time of his 1964 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of America Art, that de Kooning’s influence on him was “actually strongest between 1940 and 1945,” when Tworkov gave up painting to work as a tool designer for the war effort. By 1948, Tworkov was very much on his own. As Bryant writes, “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.”
Describing Tworkov’s work at the time, Bryant writes:
“A process of synthesis in Tworkov’s work continue in the early 1950s. From a 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 painted 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 pervaded the pictures.”
As a poet turned painter, literature and story telling was an integral part of Tworkov’s inspiration and artistry. Homer’s Greek tragedy The Odyssey was one of Tworkov’s great inspirations, whose story made it into Tworkov compositions in the late 1940s.
Athene was among the series of abstract paintings Tworkov created based on The Odyssey. Other paintings in the series, Ulysses, The Sirens, Nausicaä, are similarly “painted in the spirit of the artist’s search for his identity,” writes Bryant, “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.”
Athene was not exhibited in 1952 when Tworkov debuted the Odyssey canvases during his third one-person show at the Charles Egan Gallery. Fairfield Porter in his review of the exhibition for Artnews described the series as “emotional equivalents for parts of the story. This goes beyond the usual reach of illustration.”
“The Hero, Girls on the Phaeacian Shore and Attending Divinity make a tryptych for the moment when Athena transformed Odysseus and Nausicaä in each other’s eyes. The first, in which only the feet and legs of the figure which stretches from top to bottom of the canvas are conventionally represented, delivers an emotion of outdoor supernaturalism. In these and in the several Siren paintings, Tworkov follows (perhaps unconsciously) the Phidean convention of heads on the same level, and the ochers and blues and whites seem right for the subject, as well as the grey pink, grey blue and grey violet of Descending Divinities. There is another aspect to these paintings: influenced by the Futurists, he uses several positions for the arms and legs, not to show motion, but to give alternate ways in alternate colors of looking at the figure. The long noodle-shaped white strips, which bring the background to the foreground, also serve as taut, bent axes around which one snaps off one image and snaps on another. And in Passage through Air and Water, a similar back-and-forth connection between surface and depth eliminates the background. Among the abstract expressionists, Tworkov is one of the more deliberate and intellectual.”
-Fairfield Porter, “Reviews and Previews: Jack Tworkov (Charles Egan Gallery).”
Art News 51 (March 1952), p. 44.
Athene was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Albert H. Newman sometime after if was painted in the early 1950s, likely purchasing the work through gallerist Charles Egan. Philippe de Montebello described Miriel Kallis Steinberg Newman as a “curious, intelligent, and strikingly beautiful woman” who “became one of the few prophetic enthusiasts of the then developing New York School of painting. She was among the first to recognize and acquire, in prime examples… in Chicago, she came to represent the New York avant-garde.”
Athene was first publicly exhibited in 1960 when the Newman’s lent the work to Tworkov’s one-person exhibition in Chicago at the Holland-Goldowsky Gallery. The exhibition featured paintings from 1950-1960 with a catalogue essay by Thomas Hess.
Summing up insights into the painting, Hess, in his writing for the catalogue, seems to be specifically describing the direct action found in Athene:
“First the dancers move against an open white temple-marble background-foreground (beach-sky; spume-cloud) with gold and burnt gold and lapis-oranges, lemons and grapes—metal and wine—; later the precious colors fill each fitted member of the painting. Action moves like shoulders and knees. Ovals dream of angles, angles become spokes and wheel into edgings.”