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Jack Tworkov Photo

Jack Tworkov

American Painter

Born: August 15, 1900 - Biala Podlaska, Poland
Died: September 4, 1982 - Provincetown, Massachusetts

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.

Biography of Jack Tworkov

Jack Tworkov Photo

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.

Important Art by Jack Tworkov

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

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


West 23rd

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

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jack Tworkov
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Karl Knaths
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    Guy Pène du Bois
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Jack Tworkov Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 26 Sep 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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