An abstract painting by Stanley Twardowicz was featured on the cover of Art in America’s “New Talent Annual 1958.” In the 1950s and 60s, his work was included in group exhibitions in various museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Institute. His painting “Number 11–1955” (1955) was included in Recent American Acquisitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 14 – April 30, 1957) and exhibited once again in the museum’s celebration of The New American Painting and Sculpture: The First Generation (June 18 – October 5, 1969). That was nearly 50 years ago, and I doubt that Twardowicz’s painting has been seen since then, unless it was shipped to a show out of town.
Looking over the list of the 43 artists included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, one comes across such names as Louise Bourgeois, Romare Bearden, Philip Guston, Esteban Vicente, James Brooks, Lee Krasner, Alexander Lieberman, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, and George McNeil. So what happened to Twardowicz, since he seems to have been nearly forgotten, whereas the others that I have mentioned hardly fell into obscurity?
I don’t know whether this compact exhibition, Stanley Twardowicz: Color Field Paintings, 1962–1990 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University (September 5, 2017 – July 31, 2018) will change the situation, but it is a start. These paintings, which Twardowicz began in 1962, signal a shift away from the poured paintings he did during the mid-to late-1950s. Despite his use of poured paint in those earlier works, he seems to have been as inspired by Ad Reinhardt as much as by Jackson Pollock. Like Reinhardt in his radical Black Paintings, he wanted to leave no texture or brushstrokes visible. Influenced by tide pools he experienced while walking the coast of Maine, he wanted his works to show none of the effort that went into making them.
In the paintings in this exhibition, which was organized by Dona Gustafson with the aid of a Rutgers student, Xiola Sorgie, Twardowicz used an airbrush to make three concentric ovals in different colors nestled comfortably within a vertical format. According to the museum’s press release, Twardowicz was introduced to Zen by the Kenzo Okada, another painter who needs a second look, and began “moving away from the aesthetics of action painting toward a more centered and meditative image. Known as the Ovals, the paintings explored a central dot surrounded by softly modulating, concentric bands of color.” His preference for reds, blues, and violets goes back to his days as a Catholic altar boy when he was growing up in Detroit.
Jack Kerouac, a good friend and neighbor of Twardowicz’s in Northport, Long Island, characterized the artist’s paintings as made of “kissing colors,” which is a good description of what happens in these works. The central dot is meant to center the viewer’s attention, while the concentric bands of soft-edged, often muted color feel as if they are on the brink of dissipating, like a mist. Kerouac’s description gets at the erotic current running through these works, the ways two colors seem to merge, losing themselves along the edges where they meet, like lovers.
In the film Stanley Twardowicz — 1987 Documentary, which can be seen on YouTube, the artist, in a conversation with Peter Plagens, says that he is painting with feeling, and that “feelings have no shape.” In the Ovals, as he called them, he arrived at a shape that was dispersing. With its concentric bands, and the paint’s fog-like presence, the viewer is both pulled in and held at arm’s length — an interesting visual tension
Twardowicz may be a minor painter compared with his peers, but that does not mean that his work should be neglected. He began the Ovals at a time when the art world was turning its attention elsewhere, and would soon no longer hold painting in high regard. And yet, sitting in the small gallery space where his was being exhibited, reflecting on these quietly compelling paintings, I was reminded of what the English novelist Jean Rhys said to David Plante:
All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.
Twardowicz fed the lake called art, and that matters.
Stanley Twardowicz: Color Field Paintings, 1962–1990 continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey) through July 31, 2018.