Art Without Signature

That there should still be, in 2009, degrees of neglect, blind spots, half-forgotten stars in an artistic movement as heavily studied and with as many ardent followers as Abstract Expressionism may be a surprise. But the artist Jack Tworkov certainly belongs in the last category.

Born in Biala, Poland, in 1900, the artist emigrated to New York at the age of 13 and spent most of his life pursuing a wide range of abstract styles, from the gestural to the hard-edged and geometric.

But as a charter member of the Eighth Street Club who showed, for a time, at big galleries like Charles Egan and Leo Castelli, his identification with the movement that was defined by figures like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline has endured the most.

And whether it served or undercut his later reputation as a figure of the movement, he survived the era’s concrete debilities—the booze, the car crashes, the fights, the suicides, all the stuff of the late-20th-century biopic—and ran the race as long as anyone, dying at his home in Provincetown in 1982.

In the years following his death, Tworkov has not really turned out to be a major figure or the stuff of retrospective treatment. A midsize show of Tworkov’s work, “Jack Tworkov: Against Extremes—Five Decades of Painting,” at the UBS Art Gallery in midtown will not likely remedy this. The show includes 26 paintings and related works on paper, letters, journals and photographs. It is his first full hometown survey.

The Tworkov who comes across in the show is an artist who, by temperament and sense of art as vocation, resisted the temptation to sustain a career arc, and so his successes are tied up with the failures.

It’s fascinating to look at the Tworkov’s early career as the kind of slogging schooling of most American artists before the war. Tworkov was educated at Columbia University, the National Academy of Design, the Arts Student League and the WPA, where he befriended Willem de Kooning. A sampling from the late ’30s and ’40s—politically tinged pictures of slum kids, so-so de Kooning knockoffs—summon the era’s penchant for depicting lean living and the existential, favorite subjects in American avant-garde circles.

But the show contains two near-masterpieces of mid-century American abstraction. The first, House of the Sun Variation (1952), is a squared painting of blue, yellow, red and white swipes that revel in a wristy freedom. The other, Adagio (1953), on loan from the Met, is a marvel of insinuating brush strokes. It may be the closest Tworkov ever came to perfect, and has a darting quality that makes the theatricality of some of the later works that decade look coarse by comparison—inchoate surface, AbEx overload.

Sometime in the mid-to-late ’60s—the catalog nails it at 1966—Tworkov stopped painting in an Abstract Expressionist mode and began coolly considered pictures of geometric shapes against flat, closely calibrated backgrounds of gray, brown and pink. Hung in the UBS lobby, Partitions (1971) looks like a shimmering corporate promise. Judging by later works in the show, Tworkov lost interest again in the geometric angle and sometime in the 1970s began to develop a style that surprises, with dry, flat color, plotted executions and elliptical titles like Compression and Expansion of the Square (Q3-82 #2) (1982)—incidentally not directions to assembling a primitive IBM desktop but the last work painted by the artist.

Interspersed throughout the show are excerpts from Tworkov’s extensive journals. Most painters are more lucid in their medium than they are in their writings; Tworkov is an exception.

In a statement for a 1957 show at the stable gallery, the artist wrote that his “hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude.” That is: Tworkov, paint no Tworkovs. One imagines Tworkov pinning it to the wall of his studio, like a monk or mountain scholar. This thought brings courage.

“Against Extremes” brings up a larger point about how artist’s reputations are made and how they’re kept.

Tworkov’s name is unmatched in the mind’s eye to a single picture and style—bad for his posterity. Still, it’s good to see him whole for the first time.

  Art Without Signature