Interviews

Jack Tworkov’s Contribution to the New York School: An Interview with Jason Andrew

by Sharon Butler on November 3, 2009

Jason Andrew is the curator and archivist for the Estate of Jack Tworkov and was the mastermind behind the recent retrospective of Jack Tworkov’s work — the final show at the UBS Art Gallery.

A prominent figure in the Bushwick art scene, Jason Andrew is also the founding director of Norte Maar, which encourages, promotes, and supports collaborations in the arts.

For those unaware of Tworkov’s life and work. He was born in Biala, Poland, and made his mark as a leading Abstract Expressionist, though he painted in other styles during his long career. He was a founding member of the legendary Eighth Street Club (1949), where he was a key proponent of abstraction. Tworkov was also an art educator, and he held teaching positions at Yale University, Queens College, Black Mountain College, Pratt Institute, and the American Academy in Rome.

Andrew and I recently exchanged emails about Jack Tworkov’s contribution to New York’s art scene in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

In Tworkov's Fourth Avenue Studio: Studies on the wall are for House of the Sun, on the easel in foreground. In the far room, also on easel, is one of the four versions. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt, via jacktworkov.com (click to enlarge)

In Tworkov's Fourth Avenue Studio: Studies on the wall are for House of the Sun, on the easel in foreground. In the far room, also on easel, is one of the four versions. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt, via jacktworkov.com (click to enlarge)

Sharon Butler: I’m interested in learning more about Tworkov in the context of his time and fellow painters. It becomes clear reading Tworkov’s writing that all the painters back then were keenly aware they were changing the course of art history, and they all wanted it to move in their direction. What was Tworkov’s position in the debate that was taking place during his time?

Jason Andrews: I don’t believe Tworkov and the artists of his immediate generation (i.e. artists associated with the Eight Street Club) believed that they were changing the course of art history.  Tworkov marked 1949 as the year when “you began to see that there was something going on … There was suddenly hope after the war. People suddenly began working hard. It was the shows at [Peggy] Guggenheim, [Betty] Parsons, [Charles] Egan and [Samuel] Koots that created real excitement. Suddenly we realized that we were looking at each others work and talking to one another, not about Picasso and Braque. We had created for the first time an atmosphere where American artists could talk to American artists.”[i]

As far as Tworkov’s participation in the ‘debate’ that was taking place, Tworkov was one of the most intellectual of the group, and as a founding member of the The Club, was very active in the discussions and panels. Tworkov said that, “The most important thing in the conversation then was to talk for yourself, not to quote other people. For a while in The Club people were telling you what they were thinking and not what they were reading. This made The Club exciting. People were giving their authentic ideas. They were speaking for themselves and this made the atmosphere intense and unique.”[ii] I think these kinds of conversations and debates are happening now in Bushwick. Artists regularly engaging in each other’s work.

SB:Who were his closest friends both in terms of his personal and artistic life?

Jack Tworkov in his Provincetown studio. Photo by © Arnold Newman, for an article written by Robert Hatch, "At The Tip Of Cape Cod," July 1961 issue of Horizon. Via the Provincetown Artist Registry.  (click to enlarge)

Jack Tworkov in his Provincetown studio. Photo by © Arnold Newman, for an article written by Robert Hatch, "At The Tip Of Cape Cod," July 1961 issue of Horizon. Via the Provincetown Artist Registry. (click to enlarge)

JA: I’m sure Tworkov considered de Kooning, Guston, Kline, and Rothko friends. But his sister, the painter Biala, and her husband Daniel Brustlein were his closest friends. Although Biala and Daniel spent most their time in Paris, they maintained a remarkable correspondence over five decades. I’m sure it was also very interesting for Tworkov to learn from Biala about how American painting was being received in Europe.

Tworkov was also close to the young generation of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. And later in life while Chairman at Yale, there was Chuck Close and Jennifer Barlett among countless others.

SB: Did he have enemies? Any famous feuds?

JA: Enemies. If it’s possible to acknowledge, I believe that Tworkov was himself, his greatest enemy. Anyone reading his recently published journals can see the struggle to find ‘self’ in paint. “To paint no Tworkovs,” was somewhat his mantra.

Tworkov made it obvious that was “against extremes.” In this regard, certainly Tworkov had a problem with programs (i.e. Albers / Reinhardt ). “You paint picture out of your life, and style develops in relation to your life. To this day picture are not judged on their meaning … Reinhardt’s ideas are terrible—his philosophic absolute. This turns art into politics and philosophy not picture making which is like poetry. Style and movement come after.”[iii]

Tworkov told Franz Kline, “The artists I like best are the ones who have stopped playing the esthete-people who do not live other artists biographies .”[iv] I think this statement applies to many artists working today. Which is why I encourage all my young artists to isolate studio time. My grandfather worked in a coal mine in Utah and there is a great analogy of working in studio as if laboring in the mine. You can walk the tunnels made by the guys on an earlier shift, or you can dig, and digging takes time but yields the greatest reward. I’m for the artist that likes to get dirty.

The first comprehensive publication of the writings of Jack Tworkov.

The first comprehensive publication of the writings of Jack Tworkov.

SB: What did the other artists make of his writing?

JA: It was Tworkov’s review of the 1950 retrospective of Chaim Soutine’s work at the Museum of Modern Art that had the largest impact and lasting effect. Richard Armstrong wrote that Tworkov’s article “was one of the earliest attempts to characterize the emerging expressionism of the New York painter in light of other twentieth-century painting.”[v]

SB: Did they think less of him as a painter because he was also drawn to writing?

JA: As far as painters thinking less of him because of his writing, I think exactly the opposite. Tworkov had an elegant way of recording his thoughts. During his lifetime, Tworkov was only known as a writer through about half-a-dozen published articles which ranged from Soutine to Cézanne, Process in Art, Flowers and Realism. Thankfully today we have Mira Schor’s published compilation of his writings that includes his diaries and journals.[vi]

SB: Ideally all members of an art community contribute in some way to make the community a more robust, vital place. What was Tworkov’s contribution to the art community of his time?

JA: Obviously Tworkov’s greatest contribution is his art, which spans five decades. But Tworkov is also recognized as an influential teacher and so I think this makes his contribution even greater. A lesser-known fact about Tworkov is that he was one of the great vocal advocate for abstraction and avid supporter of experimental art and cross disciplinary practices. And he promoted his ideas everywhere he went. “I am in favor of the experimental,” he told a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal in 1960, “We needn’t be shocked by […] experimental art. No one can tell now what is significant. It could be the experimental or the nonexperimental.”[vii] I cite the Milwaukee Journal as an example as how far reaching Tworkov’s ideas were. He remains one of America’s great painters.

Other links of note:


[i] Irving Sandler, “Interview with Jack Tworkov,” unpublished typescript (August 11, 1957), p.1.
[ii] Sandler, op.cit., p.1.
[iii] Sandler, op. cit., p.4.
[iv] Letter to Franz Kline from Jack Tworkov (January 24, 1950).
[v] Richard Armstrong.  “Jack Tworkov’s Faith in Painting,” in Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia: 1987), p.134.
[vi] The journals were recently published see Mira Schor, ed. The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov (Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 2009).
[vii] Donald Key.  “Tworkov Says US Gave New Freedom to Art,” Milwaukee Journal, July 3, 1960.

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