Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Jack Tworkov: Against Extremes – Five Decades of Painting at the UBS Art Gallery

August 13 – October 27, 2009
1285 Avenue of the Americas at 51st Street,
New York City, 212 713 2885

Jack Tworkov, Crossfield I 1968. Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 inches. Collection of Beatrice Perry, NY.
Jack Tworkov, Crossfield I 1968. Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 inches. Collection of Beatrice Perry, NY.

Although the formal title of the UBS exhibition is Jack Tworkov:Against Extremes, we find the title of a just published volume of Tworkov’s writings more apt.  The Extreme of the Middle, edited by Mira Schor (Yale University Press) better captures the aesthetic tensions that define Tworkov’s approach.  For him, the extreme middle served as a weigh station for achieving creative solutions to the classic problems in doing abstraction in his time—how to balance,  “external pressures to conform to a particular style, while also fighting an internal battle of self-definition” (Tworkov’s Diaries).  The middle was thus not a position of indecision or tentativeness in the traditional sense.  Rather, it was a strategy to achieve a creative inbetweenness—an art that was not this or that, but this and that—on the way to creating an art that could “overcome all inhibition, to probe all possibilities” (Tworkov Diaries).  This allowed Tworkov to remain on the cusp between order and disorder, a perch from which all was possible.

At issue is Tworkov’s increasing interest in making paintings which, while not primarily an expression of personal concerns and conflicts, are still deeply felt.  On the one side is his increasing use of geometry, a formal move out of synch with Greenbergian aesthetics.  At the same time, he developed a brush stroke that harnessed aspects of the energy of Pollack’s drips.  It is in the middle period where we can best experience the creative tension generated by this approach.  In paintings like Crossfield I (1968) line in the form of a grid creates an order that is subverted by a painterly touch with brush strokes that flow like wind-blown sheets of rain.  Another middle period work, Partitions (1971) is both architectural and lyrical.  Pinkish building-like rectangular structures with triangular tops appear to overlap one another, an illusion achieved by darker green areas made from vertical brush strokes carefully positioned close together.  Upon inspection, there is once more a combination of order and chance, of geometry and energy created from a synthesis of artfully placed brush strokes with their random vertical drips landing on a calm, geometric field.  Since we believe that this was Tworkov’s most innovative and important period, it is unfortunate that there are all too few examples from it in the exhibition.  It is in these paintings that he breaks the shackles of Abstract Expressionism and bends Color Field Painting, Geometric Abstraction, and Minimalism to his own purposes.

The earlier more expressionistic works are more plentiful.  The exhibition includes strong works such as Pink Mississippi (1954), East Barrier (1960) and Thursday (1960) which, while still redolent of expressive self-definition, anticipate the poetry of the formal synthesis between the Apollonian and the Dionysian that he achieved in the Middle Period.  Hence, the trajectory of his paintings through the early, middle, and later work is one where there is a progressive jettisoning of the self in favor of creating a new situation where “the painting is the presence not the painter” (Tworkov, 1981).  All is risked to create increasing harmony among line, color, and painterly texture of surface.

Jack Tworkov, Pink Mississippi 1954. Oil on canvas, Rockefeller University, New York
Jack Tworkov, Pink Mississippi 1954. Oil on canvas, Rockefeller University, New York

As Tworkov moves from his earliest quasi-representational works such as Still Life with Pitcher and Grapes (1946) to his middle and late abstractions, he progressively moves toward an almost platonic geometry of pure line and color.  For example, the Knight Series from 1975 are transitional works done between the agitated strokes on relatively quiet geometric areas of the Crossfields and the simpler more serene and irregularly shaped forms that followed them in the seven years before his death in 1982.   Knight Series #2(1975) on view here is an exquisite geometric painting in delicate colors which is saved from the danger of being “too pretty” by its strong conceptual underpinnings—the range of moves allowed to the knight in a game of chess.  Tworkov in his last works such asCompression and Expansion of the Square (1982) and Roman XI (1981) achieved a kind of “aesthetic morality” that comes from finally seeing both where he wants to go and having the means stylistically to achieve these ends.   Despite their apparent surface calmness, in many of them there is still a very human hand at work.  A discernable syncopated brush stroke is evident in the most successful of these last cool and controlled abstract fields.

Finally, we cannot neglect to mention the 800 pound gorilla in the exhibition—the question of influence.  As Tworkov readily concedes, early on, he was influenced by Willem de Kooning but such influence was transient and more than compensated for by the fact that unlike painters such as Mark Rothko and Franz Kline he did not ride a single style.  Moreover, there are aspects of Tworkov’s paintings of the early 1950s (cf. Nausica, 1952 and Adagio, 1953, and especially in House of the Sun, 1952) that anticipate the line and palate of de Kooning’s paintings some thirty years later.  Given that they had studios next to one another, it is not surprising that there might have been a mutuality of influence.  Indeed, there is a striking similarity between Tworkov’s House of the Sun Variations (1952) and de Kooning’s Morning: The Springs (1983) that is reproduced in the de Kooning biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

Tworkov was a painter’s painter and a beloved teacher at Yale who took countless chances throughout his career.  Seldom has a better synthesis been achieved among raw power, exquisite color, and the organizing effects of line.  In Tworkov’s best works of all periods, the one constant is his ability to use his superior drawing skills to create a line that explodes with energy while simultaneously keeping disorder at bay.  It is his version of E=mc2.

Note: Not to be missed is an exhibition of Tworkov memorabilia assembled at the Archives of American Art’s New York Research Center and Gallery located down the hall from the Tworkov show.