This has been a summer of enjoying the art reviews of Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. (Before coming to the Globe, Smee has wrote for The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper and Modern Painters. He is also the author of a book on Lucian Freud.) Boston is lucky to have him.
Jack Tworkov’s mark makingly rich, expressionistic minimalism was very influential on my development as a young artist. I have always appreciated the quality of his hand, the way he approached the surface. But as Smee points out in his review of the Tworkov show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Tworkov’s legacy has been slighter than he deserved:
When a talented artist ends up being regarded by posterity as less than great, it’s often because he or she never came to be identified with a single style. At least that’s the excuse that’s often proffered. The implied critique of some who are remembered as great — that they allowed their creativity to be reduced to the factory-style production of signature images — hits a nerve: Think of Mark Rothko’s endlessly repeated rectangular lozenges, Clyfford Still’s jagged shapes, Barnett Newman’s “zips,’’ and so on. How many vertical strips against monochrome backgrounds are needed to make a point?
I was struck by the parallels with the isolationistic “one man movement” phenomenon that was Charles Burchfield (who I wrote about here) when I read this assessment…
Although Tworkov is categorized as an Abstract Expressionist and treated Willem de Kooning as a mentor, Tworkov wasn’t wired like the rest of that crew. He was more willing to embrace doubt, to question himself. He also avoided the bombastic and often self destructive behavior that was so prevalent among many of his peers. There is a stepped away quality to Tworkov, in his work and in his approach to art. Or maybe it was a form of humility. Whatever term is used for that particular quality, its meaningfulness in the evolution of his work is very compelling to me.
Smee highlights several examples of Tworkov’s willingness to open up to the vulnerability that is art making:
“Iconoclastic rebellion was never Tworkov’s bent,’’ writes the art historian David Anfam in an essay in the show’s catalog. Tworkov himself was adamant that “Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero.’’
“My hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude,’’ [Tworkov] wrote, “to have no program and, necessarily then, no preconceived style. To paint no Tworkovs.’’
Tworkov’s interest in expressing himself verbally never left him. His journals (selected and edited by Mira Schor in a Yale University Press volume last year) contain some of the most eloquent and insightful writings of the period. They are blessedly free, moreover, of the bombast and prolixity of artists like Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Newman.
“The artist who acts as if he could have conceived his art by himself, sealed off from other artists and their work and their thoughts,’’ he wrote in 1958, “is stupid — he merely tries to conform to the idiotic romantic image of the artist as a primeval energy, as a demi-urge.’’
“As if revolting against the sogginess of my feelings,’’ he wrote around this time, “I’ve been trying to make a series of light, very trivial, almost facetious paintings.’’
But his painting, he felt, “had reached a stage where its forms had become predictable and automatically repetitive. Besides, the exuberance that was a condition of the birth of this painting could not be maintained without pretense forever.’’
Where Pollock’s response to a similar apprehension seems to have been a steep increase in alcohol intake and a suicidal car trip, Tworkov was able to switch to a lower gear. And so around the time he took up a teaching post at Yale (where he transformed the art program into one of the best in the country) he started making works that were based on straight-lined geometries, especially grids.
He liked, he said, the sense this kind of painting gave him of a connection with “something that exists besides, outside, myself.’’ It was “less hypocritical,’’ he felt, to paint this way than to fake the “ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for.’’
Tworkov kept painting compelling works into the 1980s. According to his friend, the poet Stanley Kunitz, he admitted near the end of his life to having “misgivings about my present work.’’
Well, he was nothing if not candid. But misgivings and doubt are animating. They put Tworkov, at any rate, in the same company as that other great doubter, his hero, Cézanne, about whom Picasso famously said, “It is his anxiety that forces our interest.’’
Doubters. They are often the ones who will let the story be told with more honesty, with more self-effacing candor. And in that sense it is an energy that I am drawn to deeply.