Biala Podlaska, Poland
Summary of Jack Tworkov
Not necessarily a household name, Jack Tworkov nonetheless inhabited a central position in the formation of Abstract Expressionism in the middle of the 20th century. He was not known for the carousing and drinking of some of his more famous colleagues, but his dedication to self-exploration through the painting process embodied the ethos and intellectual curiosity of the downtown art scene. Using bold gestural strokes, Tworkov explored the gray areas between figuration and abstraction and flatness and illusionistic depth. A dedicated teacher for many decades, his later forays into more geometric and linear compositions sparked dialogues with younger artists and artistic styles such as Minimalism and Post-Minimalism.
- Like many American artists at the time, Tworkov worked his way through European styles before embracing bold gestural painting, but Tworkov always spoke of the importance of these precursors and influences and insisted that all art was in dialogue with each other.
- Throughout much of his career, Tworkov retained figurative elements in his paintings. While relinquishing recognizable figures, Tworkov abstracted body parts to shapes and lines, suggestive of the human form without being illustrative. Tworkov relished this ambiguity and the ways in which it would bring the viewer into the painting.
- In many ways Tworkov embodied the tenets of Action Painting, creating a dialogue between colors and forms by responding to each stroke of paint as he placed it on the canvas, but he also increasingly relied on an underlying geometric, or grid, structure to construct his complex compositions.
Progression of Art
Seated Woman (Wally)
In this figure study, Tworkov depicts his wife, Wally. Wearing pink and white, she sits, leaning on a table to her side with her hands clasped, facing the viewer. Her skirt rests on her thighs, revealing knee-high stockings on her slightly spread legs. The indistinct background consists of grays and ochres and gives no clue as to the setting. The chair, or bench, on which she sits has a light blue color, and one can see the shadows of the table legs on the mustard-colored floor.
Showing influences of Cubism, Seated Woman also seems to draw from the sketchy nature of Arshile Gorky's Portrait of the Artist with his Mother (1926-29) and the color palette of de Kooning's men from the mid-1930s. The visible brushstrokes and the indistinct edges give a sense that Wally is blending in with or emerging from the background, intimately tied to her setting. While drawn to the bold experiments by European modernists, during this time Tworkov largely painted landscapes and urban scenes that were common among Social Realists, but Seated Woman shows a more psychological probing. The prominence of her facial features contrasted against the softness of her skin evokes a subtle force in her facial expression, perhaps a feeling of anxiety, or at least a deep intensity, that stands out against the drab background.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Untitled (Study for Christmas Morning)
Bold strokes of red and black hover before a light blue and gray background and bare canvas to create an abstract space in Untitled (Study for Christmas Morning) (1951). The strokes seem to outline indistinct shapes, even objects, that appear to rise above the blue ground in a three-dimensional arrangement, and the straight black stroke brushed across the canvas, two-thirds of the way up, suggests a horizon line. Tworkov succeeds in creating a pictorial ambiguity that gives the composition dynamism. The red form on the left seems more calligraphic than object-like, but the black stroke underneath it is suggestive of a shadow cast by a three-dimensional form.
Throughout the 1940s, Tworkov painted several still lifes that drew from Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, and even Miró, but in Untitled (Study for Christmas Morning), Tworkov dispenses with the stylistic similarities, finding his own voice and, in his words, "striv[ing] for simple statement, direct, spontaneous, enthusiastic." Given the tile of the piece, one imagines Tworkov being overcome while looking at a table laden with gifts or Christmas morning breakfast. Tworkov's play with abstraction and realism, a tension many of his Abstract Expressionist colleagues exploited, belies the myth that they were only interested in probing abstract, interior realms.
Oil on canvas - Newark Museum of Art, New Jersey
House of the Sun
Yellow strokes dominate the central area of the canvas in House of the Sun. The whole composition, with the interspersed red and blue strokes, has a centripetal motion that keeps the viewer's eye moving. Tworkov's paintings were never created in a vacuum. They were in dialogue with the paintings that had come before and that were painted by others. Tworkov began a series of paintings based on drawings he had made while teaching at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952, and they harkened back to a subject Tworkov had often evoked: the Greek classic The Odyssey. Profiled in a 1953 article, "Tworkov Paints a Picture," critic and painter Fairfield Porter explained that Tworkov was thinking about Futurism here and "showed figures in definitely ambiguous space - form more than one point of view at once. As the figures began to develop, the subject tended to become erotic. This is the internal origin of the subject and also the origin of the turbulence of the form."
In the end, Tworkov obscures the figures. There are no indications of faces, but the ovoid forms scattered through the center of the canvas and the yellow strokes are evocative of heads of limbs. One senses a frenzy of activity, of motion, but what is moving remains uncertain. As Porter further elucidated, "Arms could be considered as legs and vice-versa. There is no face because a face has too much personality, and is too specific. The forms should derive from a figure instead of referring to it." The ambiguity of Tworkov's forms are evocative and not illustrative, one of the key aspects of much Abstract Expressionist painting.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Duo I is indicative of Tworkov's mature works. The abstract composition is divided into three horizontal areas and nearly bisected down the middle. Long brushstrokes of orange, red, pink, black, and white subvert the geometric structure underlying the composition and create a dynamic tension. Tworkov also exploits the tension between abstraction and figuration. While the red central portion reads as a square, the bisecting white line acts almost like an edge, turning the square into a cube. Furthermore, the black strokes in the center suggest a figure, and the two long black strokes in the lower portion of the composition are leg-like. Tworkov often began with more figurative elements and slowly changed and painted over them, leaving abstract evocations.
While speaking of his paintings suggestive of landscapes, Tworkov's comments are just as relevant to his quasi-figurative paintings as well. Tworkov told an interviewer, "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." While not wanting to divulge the specific memory or feeling that initiated the painting, Tworkov uses his own memories and feelings to spur the viewer's own associations.
Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
By the early 1960s, Tworkov had abandoned his more figurative abstractions and fully embraced gestural abstractions, creating large-scale works like West 23rd. Here, bold red, parallel lines set up a syncopated rhythm across the canvas. A tan strip spans the bottom, and blue and white strokes hover behind, between, and sometimes on top of the red. The title refers to one of the main east-west thoroughfares in Manhattan. It goes through the heart of the Chelsea neighborhood, and it was the street where Tworkov and his family had an apartment for several years. Certainly the bustle and rhythm of city life pulsates on the canvas.
While working in an overt gestural style, Tworkov also, importantly, starts to make the structure of the composition more visible. The red brushstrokes clearly dominate the canvas, but closer inspection reveals other crucial vertical lines that divide the canvas. There is a light blue, sometimes fuzzy, line that bisects the canvas, essentially making it a diptych, and it is here that there is a break in the red strokes. Similar lines exist to the right and left, marking changes in the rhythm of the red strokes. The tan strip towards the bottom acts as a unifying ground for all of the vertical strokes across the divided canvas. This gridded composition, though subtle here, will assume more prominence in Tworkov's later work.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Knight Series #3
Moving away from large gestural brushstrokes, Tworkov embraced systematic composition making, creating works like Knight Series #3, which looks so different from his Abstract Expressionist work and yet evokes similar compositional tensions. Based on following the moves of the knight around a chessboard under certain parameters, Tworkov created a composition of overlapping squares, rectangles, and triangular forms. Painted in with minute, short brushstrokes, the shapes seem translucent, hovering over one another and yet held static in a field of light blue. Tworkov sets up subtle tensions between spatial depth, aerial perception, and the emphatic flatness of the two-dimensional canvas. Additionally, the tension between the schematic nature of the geometric shapes and the hand-painted strokes sparks a slight buzzing dissonance upon close inspection.
Strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam that was still raging in the early half of the 1970s, Tworkov found himself contemplating ideas of strategy and tactics. By embracing logic and order in his art making, he tried to stave off the chaos created by the war. In addition to responding to the larger cultural situation, one can see Tworkov responding to the Minimalist trends that had overtaken the art world by this time.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Estate of Jack Tworkov, New York
Biography of Jack Tworkov
Jack Tworkov, born Yakov Tworkovsky, was born to tailor Hyman Tworkovsky and Ester Singer in Biala Podlaska, a village on the border of Poland and the Russian Empire. Tworkov's father was a widower with five children, while his mother was a divorceé with no children. This made childhood tense for Tworkov, as there was significant hostility toward his mother from her stepchildren. Biala Podlaska was a garrison town at the time, and Tworkov's father worked for the Russian Army. Tworkov's father emigrated to start a tailor shop on Ludlow Street in Manhattan, followed in September 1913 by Tworkov, his mother, and younger sister, Janice.
Tworkov changed his name from Yakov Tworkovsky to Jacob Bernstein upon his arrival in the United States, as family members who had previously immigrated to New York in 1890 had taken the name Bernstein. Tworkov did not like his new name and struggled to adjust to life in New York, saying, "The first years in New York I remember as the most painful in my life. Everything I loved in my childhood I missed in New York, everything that had been painful in my childhood grew to distressing proportions." Despite this, he learned to read and speak English. He was also very successful in grammar school and skipped several grades. His artistic training began early when he started attending a drawing class run by a sculptor on the Lower East Side.
In 1920, Tworkov moved out of his parents' home to Greenwich Village, the heart of bohemian activity in New York City. His avid interest in contemporary poetry and literature by the likes of Eliot, Frost, Joyce, and Cummings flourished. He enrolled at Columbia University as an English major and had aspirations of becoming a poet. He visited art exhibitions throughout his time at Columbia and became particularly fascinated by the works of Matisse and Cézanne after an exhibition of French painting at the Brooklyn Museum. He also married his first wife, Grace Pfeiffer, in the early 1920s.
Early Training and Work
Tworkov was acutely influenced by his encounters with modern art, and after graduating from Columbia in 1923 with a Bachelor of Arts, he enrolled at the Art Students League and entered the National Academy of Design. He also changed his name from Jacob Bernstein to Jack Tworkov in an attempt to reclaim his identity. While many Abstract Expressionists looked to European sources as they learned to paint, Tworkov was unique in his connections with an earlier generation of American painters not usually connected to Abstract Expressionism. While studying at the National Academy of design, Tworkov met Charles Hawthorne, a prominent portraitist and teacher. Through Hawthorne, Tworkov and his sister Janice found themselves participating in an artist colony in Provincetown, where they befriended Edwin Dickinson, an important, if overlooked, painter. In 1924, Tworkov and Janice, who had changed her last name to the Polish town where they were born, hitchhiked their way to Provincetown in order to study with Hawthorne during the summer. During this time, he also met and married his second wife, Florence "Toni" Wilson. He remained married to her until 1928. Tworkov found studying with Hawthorne to be difficult and started taking private lessons with Ross Moffett, a Provincetown painter of landscapes. He returned to Provincetown the next summer, meeting and studying with Karl Knaths, who shared a love of Paul Cézanne with him. Through his study and friendship with Knaths, he became knowledgeable of other European artists like Kandinsky and Klee, and he spoke with Knaths about the Cubists as well as the Fauves and the Vorticists.
Tworkov returned to Greenwich Village, where he read often and worked as an assistant for the innovative puppeteer Remo Bufano. He also had a series of other odd jobs during this time; he recalled, "At one time or another I worked as a cutter in a hat factory, at Nedicks, in a wire factory, as a packer at Stern's, packer in a dress shop, books salesman at Lord & Taylors, skate salesman at Macy's...these jobs [are] sometimes-inevitable events in an artist's career." Through these jobs he was able to expand his interests in a variety of areas and continued his interest in poetry. Tworkov remembered, "I bought a copy of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man off a pushcart... it was a stroke of luck. Pound's Pavannes and Divisions introduced me to all the modern writers and poets of the time." He returned to the Art Students League in 1928 to study and gained United States citizenship. He never returned to his home country, Poland. He then relocated to Provincetown to paint year-round in 1929. The same year he exhibited with the Societe Anonyme and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
During the Great Depression, Tworkov joined the ranks of artists who worked under government subsidy, teaching at Fieldston School of Ethical Culture in the Bronx. In 1933, he went to France to visit his sister Janice. In 1934 he began working for the U.S. Treasury Department's Public Works of Art Project, and then in 1935-41 he worked with the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA. During this time, Tworkov met fellow artist Willem de Kooning. He also met and married his third wife, Rachel "Wally" Wolodofsky, in 1935. Surrealism, psychoanalysis, free association, and automatism were dominant in the art conversation during the 1930s. While Tworkov experimented with Surrealism and Dada, he felt that their underlying Communist politics distracted from the art.
Tworkov's art throughout the 1930s was heavily dependent on European precedents. Tworkov said of his work during this time, "My Project paintings were the worst of my career. I tried to salve my social conscience at the expense of my aesthetic instincts." He felt an inner dilemma about the reception of European predecessors that plagued American avant-garde artists, recalling, "In this country we have modern painting but not a modern movement...Since a movement would imply that the initiative, direction and development was in our hands....These were always in the hands of the European artists....We adopted the attitude that spiritual and aesthetic elements could only be importated from the past and from abroad."
World War II was an important threshold in Tworkov's career. From 1942 until 1945, he did not paint. Instead, he worked over sixty hours a week, isolated from other artists, as a tool designer. During this time, the only artist he kept in contact with was de Kooning, but he continued to contemplate his individual identity as an artist. He let go of the docility that had plagued him during the 1930s and decided to use art as the vehicle to find himself, to search for his own identity. He began to paint again after the war effort, mainly at night after work. After the end of the war, he was able to pick up painting as his main form of work. He rented a studio in 1946 and reentered the art world, connecting with other artists and discussing the ideas of mid-century contemporary American art.
Tworkov continued to use art as a means of self-discovery during the late 1940s. He wanted his art to reflect his own meaning and intention. He distanced himself further from European influences. He and his fellow artists founded the Eighth Street Club in 1949. While primarily a social situation that attracted a stylistically diverse group of artists, The Club operated as an open forum for long deliberations about art and methods. He continued to paint still lifes but was more frequently experimenting with abstraction. He had his first solo exhibition of mostly still lifes at the Egan Gallery in 1947, but by 1949 he had left still life painting for bold, gestural abstractions. Like many of his fellow artists, Tworkov made ends meet by teaching; he was a part-time drawing instructor at the School of General Studies in Queens College in New York and taught at the American University in Washington D.C. during the 1948-49 school year. He was supportive of younger artists at a time when his colleagues were more skeptical. Because of Tworkov's intervention, the young Robert Rauschenberg, who was having his first one-person exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, was included in the influential 9th Street Exhibition that introduced Abstract Expressionism to a larger audience in 1951.
Tworkov's 4th Avenue studio adjoined de Kooning's from 1948 until 1953. While Tworkov's work did not mimic Kooning's during this period, he said that their conversations in their studios during this time were very influential for his thinking. His painting style continued to change into the 1950s, and form and figure became indistinguishable. Tworkov primarily painted characters from Greek myth, especially the Odyssey. Ulysses, Athena, Nausicaa, and the Sirens were all subjects of his work. He was interested in Freudian theory and used mythology as a visual expression of his own psychic condition. He continued to teach around the country and had several solo exhibitions during this time. During the 1960s, his work changed again, emphasizing texture and geometry.
After being a visiting artist at several universities, Tworkov became the chairman of Painting at the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University in 1963. He also earned an M.F.A. from Yale later that year. He maintained the emphasis on geometry and color in his paintings, using lines to divide the canvas and defining the new space with different colors. This presented Tworkov with almost limitless opportunities and challenges for the remainder of his career, however he regretted not expanding the scope of his art. In the last decade of his life, Tworkov continued to visit schools as an artist around the world and had continuous exhibitions. He was also awarded an honorary degree from Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. In 1982, he began work on his last painting Compression and Expansion of the Square. The same year, he died in his home in Provincetown, MA.
The Legacy of Jack Tworkov
Tworkov is regarded as a seminal artist in the development of the Abstract Expressionist movement, alongside Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. He was also a very influential teacher, supporting a host of younger artists who would go on to make substantial contributions to the post-Abstract Expressionist art world. Tapped by his friend and colleague, Mercedes Matter, he was one of the initial instructors at the New York Studio Scholl. As a summer teacher at Black Mountain College, Tworkov encouraged such artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, and his ultimate shift from gestural abstraction to more minimal compositions was influential to younger artists he taught at Yale, such as Richard Serra, Robert Mangold, and Brice Marden, and to more contemporary artists like Christopher Wool. Not known as a boisterous personality, art historian David Anfam's observation that "iconoclastic rebellion was never Tworkov's bent," is a good summation of Tworkov's career as a painter but fails to recognize the iconoclasm that Tworkov spurred in a new generation of artists.