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Jack Tworkov - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

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

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."

Mature Period

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.

Late Period

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.

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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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