Obituary: Jack Tworkov (1900-1982)

Jack Tworkov, Provincetown, Renate Ponsold

Jack Tworkov in his Provincetown Studio, 1981 Photo: Renate Ponsold

September 6, 1982
Jack Tworkov, a Polish-born American painter and teacher who was one of the most respected artists of the New York School, died Saturday in Provincetown, Mass. He was 82 years old.

Mr. Tworkov was best known for the flamelike brush strokes and controlled rhythms of his Abstract Expressionist paintings. He worked by building up blocks and fields of color and then playing the blocks, brush strokes and fields against one another, so that at their best the paintings became force fields in which everything seemed alive – in the process either of asserting itself or trying to break free.

In his recent quiet, meditative work, shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this summer, Mr. Tworkov seemed to have turned his painting inside out. While in the 1950’s he seemed to create pictorial structure by raging against it, in the recent work, with its clear dependence on geometry and line, he seemed to create feeling by embracing structure. The two sides of his work were reconciled and inseparable. ‘Subtle and Extremely Refined’

Barbara Rose, the art historian, said of Mr. Tworkov: ”He was a marvelous, marvelous person and a marvelous painter. He was an Abstract Expressionist, but he remained quite European in his orientation. His was a subtle and extremely refined art.”

Clement Greenberg, one of the first critics to recognize the importance of the New York School, said: ”He’s a painter who has always had my respect. His loss is a great loss personally. He was exceptional among the artists of his generation for his decency, his sympathy, his modesty.”

Andrew Forge, dean of the Yale Art School and a longtime friend, said Mr. Tworkov ”was tremendously aware of he context in which an artist had to find himself.” ”He saw,” Mr. Forge added, ”Abstract Expressionism’s trend to a unique kind of freedom as a metaphor for every kind of freedom. Consequently, when he began to question the whole possibility of Abstract Expressionism and asked himself what spontaneity really meant if you tried to attain it, it was really a questioning of freedom. In what context does freedom make sense? When does it become a parody of itself?” Under Influence of Cezanne

Mr. Tworkov was born in Biala, Poland, in 1900. He immigrated to the United States and settled in New York in 1913, taking a drawing class at Stuyvesant High School. As a student at Columbia University, he majored in English.

In the 1920’s, he studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students’ League. His early subject matter was still lifes, figures and landscapes. In the late 20’s, he fell under the influence of Cezanne, who he said ”finally expressed everything through paint and color alone.”

During the 30’s, Mr. Tworkov took work where he could get it. One of his jobs was a puppeteer. For a while, he was associated with John Dos Passos in the Playwrights’ Theater. While working for the Work Projects Administration’s Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1941, he began a friendship with Willem de Kooning; they had adjoining studios from 1948 to 1953. In 1940, he had his first solo show, at the A.C.A. Gallery in New York.

From 1942 to 1945, while working in the war industry as a tool designer, Mr. Tworkov stopped painting. When he resumed, he began to experiment with abstraction. He made the shift in 1947-48, the crucial moment when Jackson Pollock began his ”drip,” or ”poured,” paintings, and James Brooks, Philip Guston, Bradley Walker Tomlin and others began creating what would become known as Abstract Expressionist work. Role as Educator

Like others of his generation, however, Mr. Tworkov never accepted the idea of pure abstraction. ”I’m trying to make an analogy to the figure,” he said. Mr. Tworkov believed what the next generation of abstract painters would fight against tooth and nail: ”Every painter has a subject whether or not there are objects in his paintings.”

From the late 40’s, Mr. Tworkov exhibited with increasing frequency. He also held teaching positions, culminating in his appointment in 1963 as chairman of the art department at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, a job he held until 1969.

”He passed on something terribly important in his role in art education,” Miss Rose said. ”Many people found him a wonderful teacher,” Mr. Forge said.

One of those people was the painter Jennifer Bartlett, who, along with the sculptor Richard Serra and the mixed-media artist Jonathan Borofsky, was Mr. Tworkov’s student. ”One of the things that made him a terrific teacher,” Miss Bartlett said, was that ”he was always interested. He also got all of these artists down from New York, like James Dine, Robert Morris and James Rosenquist, for sixweek periods. Jack was not threatened. He always tried to get the best people he could.” More Dependent on Geometry

Around 1960, Abstract Expressionism had run its course. ”By the end of the 50’s,” Mr. Tworkov said in 1977, ”I felt that the automatic aspects of Abstract Expressionist painting of the gestural variety, to which my painting was related, had reached a stage where its forms had become predictable and automatically repetitive. Besides, the exuberance that was a condition of the birth of this painting could not be maintained without pretense forever.”

His work became less dependent on gesture and more on geometry. ”What I wanted was a simple structure dependent upon drawing as a base on which the brushing, spontaneous and pulsating, gave a beat to the painting somewhat analagous to the beat in music. I wanted, and I hope I arrive at, a painting style in which painting does not exclude instinctive and sometimes random play.”

Mr. Tworkov’s recent work, more restrained and more architectural than his earlier work, was lyrical and sometimes radiant. He used soft texture and broad areas of color to hint at something that took in and went beyond the hard-edge, measurable reality in the work. With the structure, there was a stronger sense of what was limitless and unknown. In Permanent Collections

Mr. Tworkov has had solo shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Among the awards and honors Mr. Tworkov has received are the gold medal at the 1963 Corcoran Biennial, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Columbia in 1972 and the painter of the year award from the Skowhegan (Me.) School of Art in 1974. Last year, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Surviving are his wife, Rachel; two daughters, Hermine Ford Moskowitz and Helen, both of Manhattan, and a sister, Janice Biala, a painter in Paris.