Tag Archives: Jack Tworkov

Pier 92

I usually start my annual obligatory (imposed on me by the society I occupy, would not necessarily go otherwise) visit to the Armory Show at Pier 92 (the more intimately scaled “classic” side) before venturing into the maze of the more vast and high-ceilinged contemporary side of Pier 94. However yesterday by chance I started on Pier 94. Early in my journey I was standing with my friend Susanna Heller at a booth of a respected gallery telling her about seeing a show last year where the paintings in reality were so boring and empty that I could not find even the most banal compliment to offer to the gallerist. There was simply nothing to say about the work except that there was nothing to say about it. Upon which Susanna say, “Mira, do you remember anything about what we were just looking at?”

Ghastly huge work, all 689 inches wide of it: AIDA Makoto, “Jumble of 100 Flowers” 2017-2017. Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 689 inches.

As a living artist I have to admit that I would like to see my work well presented and represented at such an art fair, but by the end of my rather incomplete tour of Pier 94, my friends and I felt terribly tired, and further and more dangerously, dispirited about the whole idea of being artists.

Handsome paper mixed media work by Peter Linde Busk, “Everything, Everyone, Everywhere. Ends,” 2016, at Josh Lilley. In a way a perfect fair work: large and visible, eye catching, handsome, done with quality, hip and very effective mix of materials from low, cardboard, to craft, ceramic, but presented without context.

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, detail

Only one work shone out of the blur–Florine Stettheimer’s masterpiece, Asbury Park South from 1920 (a painting scandalously deaccessioned by Fisk University in 2012) in a group exhibition organized by Jeffrey Deitch that orbited and created a lot of visual noise around it in a manner both consistent with Stettheimer’s aesthetic of excess and disruptive of the ability to properly view her painting. Many artists, including myself, have been influenced by Stettheimer, for various aspects or characteristics of her work, the narrative, the etiolated figuration, the gay sensibility in both senses of that word, the beautiful color, but in addition the works are so beautifully crafted and patented, the most beautiful colors, the most extraordinary surfaces, scumbled, dry, sculpted. This painting gave us a lift but we were still oppressed and depressed by the whole situation. Or at least I was.

Then we left selfie land and we made our way up the stairs to Pier 92. First we came upon Kathy Butterly’s works, beautifully installed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery with Shoshanna Wayne Gallery. I envy Kathy, I love ceramics and porcelain and glazes and the way color works in such media, and thus I envy her because she makes beautiful things using these elements, things that give pleasure, that people want, which is something my parents who made beautiful jewelry also did, which I can’t say that I do–my work, critical, political, and intellectual,dreamy and personal, it appears that so far it is an acquired taste! I also relate to these works because they are modest in scale and invite the viewer into a relationship that is more intimate than most of the large shiny works typical of art fairs.

Kathy Butterly, Shoshanna Wayne Gallery and Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Kathy Butterly

Next we were drawn to a Native American painting on animal hide and discovered the most beautiful and engaging group of drawings by mostly 19th century and early 20th century Plains Indians, at Donald Ellis Gallery. The inventiveness of these drawings in the artists’ efforts to depict using very reduced means (am referring to the works on paper with pencil and sometimes ink, materials which appear to be what was available to them on reservations) what they were seeing and experiencing was absolutely inspiring.

SHield and cover, Crow, Northern Plains, c.1870, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Shield and Cover, Mescalero Apache, Southern Plains c.1880, buffalo hide and paint, Donald Ellis Gallery

Plains Indians, drawing, Donald Elllis Gallery

Plains Indians, late 19th century, Donald Ellis Gallery

I discovered a few Jack Tworkov works in a couple of galley booths: his poetic elegance and measure always sing out to me. Next an exhibition at Jonathan Boos of Jacob Lawrence works from the 30s,40s, and 50s, beautiful color, tenderly observed details, jagged forms. A small richly impasto Jess vase of flowers on a thin panel, an intense Ossorio.

Jack Tworkov, oil sketch, Hollis Taggart Gallery

Jacob Lawrence, Interior (Family), 1937. Tempera on paper, 30 3/8 x 25 1/5 inches, Jonathan Boos Gallery

Jess (Collins), Petals of Paint, 1964. Oil on plywood, 16 x 12.25 inches.

Clearly when you see older work now, it is the product of a system of filtration and of intensification, the dross of the time period has been filtered out and the richness of meaning has intensified over time as more historical information has been pressed into the work by the passing of time, but I also thought that my friends and I are perhaps the last generation that can really understand this work in a living way rather than an archeological way: we were brought up with the values of materiality, form, style, process, search for truth (belief in some kind of truth or honesty), with the analogue, the handmade, the personally developed (not as recipes that are copied and reconfigured endlessly but without the struggle that went into the initial works, as in zombie formalism) — at time when artists sought within the work rather than researched before the execution of the work. It often feels that our knowledge sets us apart–in a bad way: we can’t put our knowledge forward in the current mode of the sampled and reprocessed–often done very very proficiently–because we absorbed the initial relation to making of these older works, made by our parents, teachers, older friends. [I should add that often I am led to rethinking this impression, because at the same time there is so much art being made by young artists all over the world, with after all as much desire and imagination as any other previous generations brought to their work, yet, as Susanna pointed out, that may be truer when you see the work online, then one sees the work in person (as opposed to on Instagram, for which so much work is now both unconsciously and consciously created) and its potentially alienating synthetic nature often reasserts itself.

I have often quoted my mother’s words upon seeing a show at the Whitney on Picasso’s influence on American art. She was then 95 and, as it turns out, only a few weeks from her death, and she found it hard to stand for a long time, but in the taxi home she said, “it’s the kind of work that makes you want to go home and work.”

I should say that over my life as an artist (and I include in this my work as a writer about art) I have often gotten as much energy from work I “hated” as from work I loved, because the antagonism pushed and liberated me to move forward and live in my own time: such a relation may still be operative, but I suspect that the depression my friends and I felt comes from seeing now in a lot of art fairs work we just saw five minutes ago in our MFA student critiques, and from the fact that even those significant challenges to our world view are by now kind of old as well, though they may not feel that way to the people doing them or the collectors fawning over what seems to be the latest thing, really just by the latest person.

So Pier 94 made us want to give up on art making, with a few exceptions (some contemporary + Stettheimer, who died in 1944), Pier 92 made it possible to want to go home and work in the studio.

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Craft and Process: Tools and “wild ‘reserves’ for enlightened knowledge.”

I begin with a picture of me, but one where I am only an incidental subject.

I am sitting in the studio of Chaim Gross at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation in Greenwich Village during an event on Chaim’s birthday March 17 (b.1902-1991). Because of a lifelong friendship with the Gross family, I feel I am at home in a space where I will not be judged, so I am comfortable sitting alone without feeling any necessity to fill the social space with small talk with strangers. I can take a few minutes of contemplation in Chaim’s studio. This space, even cleaned up and staged for its function in a museum, is a different kind of studio than the ones I often visit in my professional capacity as a teacher, where such tools are not available to the artist, both for practical reasons and also, sometimes, for ideological ones. I  am surrounded by Chaim’s artworks, some of his art collection, and by his wonderful tools. I am surrounded by color and materiality and the purpose of craft.This is officially a historical space, a museum; it is an encapsulation or a representation of a practice which is not only historic but historicized. Someone has caught me unawares, as I consider how I am being historicized through my own craft practice, as “someone who uses art supplies to make art,” as a friend has recently described my rare and dying breed, through my knowledge of these spaces and the practices that took place within them, through such associations that I cannot erase, that is, historicized through that inevitable but shocking process wherein the valuable knowledge one acquires over a life time is suddenly held by some as irrelevant to the problems of the present and the future.

A few moments after this picture was taken, I turned my head slightly and focused on a chair.

It is just a chair, an earlier era’s successful design for a work chair of adjustable height. It is also delicately ornate, with an art nouveau line. And it is old, so the wood and metal framework have a patina that maybe were not part of its original condition, but the curving lines, the darkened metal, and the worn and stained wood concentrate my attention: here is something that offers an alternative to the current design of chairs favored by institutions.

Theoretical discourse does not elect to keep practices at a distance, so that first it has to leave its own place to analyze them and then by simply inverting them may find itself at home. The partitioning (découpage) that it carries out, it also repeats. This partitioning is imposed on it by history. Procedures without discourse are collected and located in an area organized by the past and giving them the role, a determining one for theory, of being constituted as wild “reserves” for enlightened knowledge. (Michel de Certeau, p64 The Practice of Everyday Life)

Some of Chaim’s tools are on view,

The studio is in an order and a degree of cleanliness that is a function of its being a museum, not a place of current work. But Chaim was a professional man and a craftsman so I am sure that his tools were kept in good order in this system he worked out for himself.

Chaim was one of the three men in my childhood who I was able to observe at work or at least was able to observe the working studios of.

The painter Jack Tworkov was another. He too cared deeply about quality of craftsmanship, whether it was how to construct the surface of a painting or restore the surface of an old oak table or bone and stuff a leg of lamb, and his tools were remarkably well organized and maintained.

The first and most important artist I was able to observe at work was my father Ilya Schor. Today is his birthday: he was born in Zloczow, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, April 16, 1904.

As a teenager he was apprenticed to an engraver and goldsmith before he went to art school. This seems to have been the remainder of a European craft guild system and the tools were probably closer to those of the 15th century than to today’s. For example, soldering was done by propelling the flame through a tube using with one’s own breath. My father used to smoke 4 packs a day in those years, but, a young man, he could do that.

Ilya Schor c.1920 (at the left)

In 1937 he brought this drill from Poland to Paris, where he still used it, and from Paris to Marseilles, and from Marseilles to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to New York. This drill survived the Holocaust. Of course he did not use it anymore when I watched him work, he had an electric drill. But he showed me how the old one worked. It was clear that it was archaic, even for him, but it created a living bridge bringing me as close to when men made fire by striking two flints together as to the technologies of my own time.

Watching him engrave on hardwood was a great show: his movements were careful, accurate, but also swift and deft. I loved watching him roll out the thick black printer’s ink on a piece of glass, and I loved the rounded wood tool that rubbed the paper against the block to catch the ink smoothly, and finally I loved the revelation of the reverse image when the paper was pulled from the block.

To hold small silver objects secure while he engraved them, he embedded them into tar, which he softened with the flame of a Bunsen burner. The tar formed the top surface of a T-shaped block of wood which fit into the slot of a heavy base which he could swivel with his left hand while engraving with his right. The two part base is made of solid metal, the spherical section is like the turning orb of the earth, and with a similar density, I’m pretty sure it is made of lead.

This was all a long time ago. Around the world, artisans today may still use similar tools but technological transformations in the production of sculpture, images, and objects of all kinds are always privileged signs of contemporaneity. If they were starting out their art lives today, these three artists, born within four years of each other, all from the area of the pale of settlement, Chaim, Jack, and Ilya, would most likely be at the forefront of technological innovation, bringing as much ability and ingenuity to new methods of production as they exhibited with the tools they were given. People sometimes ask me if I am tempted to take up my father’s tools, the way my mother did after my father died, but the craft is in fact very hard, physically arduous, and without much beyond the most basic training even harder, and if I sometimes consider having some of my mother’s jewelry produced as multiples (another story for another day), I think more in terms of 3D printing in plastic! But if they would have opted for the new, if I too would opt for the new, nevertheless there was a tremendous satisfaction for them in their ability to manipulate materials, of a job well done in the working day, and there was tremendous pleasure for me in watching them work. I still love watching things being made. And most importantly, it was evident even to me as a child that there was an intelligence in the craft, in the gesture.

Returning to the chair in Chaim’s studio, it became a figure in a painting, in which furniture of the “hot desk” studio of the present/future and of the old painting studio of the past exist in a perpetually reversible relation of metaphoric temperature.

 

 

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Day by Day in the Studio 13: August 15

Tomorrow August 16, the exhibition Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor opens at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. This exhibition brings to fruition a project I first thought of about five years ago. People have suggested to me that this will be a very emotional experience for me. Of necessity, in order to function, I have tried to discount this and see it simply as work to be done, but, as the works are installed, I am overwhelmed.

I wonder if people who look at art or who look at the artworld, and that includes young artists at the beginning of their life as an artist, know how much, practically speaking, it takes to get anything, however modest, done as or for an artist, how much psychic energy it takes to believe in artworks and to make others believe in them, particularly the degree of intensity of belief that at least one person must feel for artwork in order for it to survive after an artist’s death.

It is hard enough to maintain that belief in yourself as an artist and to act upon it in the face of the many rejections that most artists encounter, but to maintain that belief in artists who have died is even more difficult. You have to surmount the stasis their oeuvre and reputation fall into: as in a game of musical chairs or spin the bottle, the person’s reputation at their death is set at a mark, and then, unless the artist was already world famous and iconic and even if that is the case, the oeuvre is as much a burden as it may be a joy to the heirs and the reputation generally begins to recede from that mark achieved in lifetime. If the mark is slight, no matter the quality of the work, the person left with the responsibility of the work must go against the tide of history and of the market to maintain the work and bring the reputation back to the mark or forward to transform the recognition of the work. It is very hard to do. You become the custodian not just of the artist’s qualities and talents but also of that artist’s doubts and even the verities of their reputation. It’s hard enough for the artists to do in their life and harder to do for those who continue.

Several of my friends are artists whose parents were artists: like me they carry the double burden of belief, in their own work and in their parents’ work. Mimi Gross has done an incredible job developing The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, Susan Bee has curated exhibitions of the work of her father Sigmund Laufer and her mother Miriam Laufer. I spent several years editing The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov. Tworkov’s wife Wally and then his daughters Hermine Ford and Helen Tworkov had worked for over twenty years to have these writings edited and published. Jack died in 1982. Selections from his writings were included in the catalogue of Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, held in 1987 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. I began serious work on the texts in around 2003, The Extreme of the Middle was published by Yale University Press in June 2009. I did the work because I loved Jack and believed fiercely in his work and his writing.

My father died in 1961. My mother did everything she could to keep his work secure and his name in the world. She died in 2006. Included in Abstract Marriage are works by my father that were last exhibited in the retrospective of his work held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965 and that are unknown relative to other aspects of his work and works by my mother that have never been exhibited before.

In the next few days I hope to write a post about my parents’ show, but today I mark Jack’s memory with a drawing I did on his birthday, August 15, in the summer of 1982, as he lay dying at his home in Provincetown. The drawing is called For Jack’s Leaving. Jack loved the bay of Provincetown, the sand flats, the daily swim. In the drawing, I depicted that moment when the outgoing tide pulls water out of the bay through shallow channels, rivers two or three inches deep running out through the sand flats. The figure goes through a narrow channel towards the open sea, like a reverse of birth.

In his diaries, Jack wrote on his birthday August 15, 1953

August 15, 1953

Technically my birthday. The idea had crossed my mind today that I am in every way a self-made man. Even my name and my birthday are self-made. To be fair, I simply mean that my birthday was only a rough approximation like my name.

Typically scrupulous, he later corrected himself, he had written that entry into his journal a couple of days early. But then, on August 22, 1953, he reflected on the great cultural leap he and his sister Janice Biala made after they were brought to America as children.

Janice and I are the first in our line. Our parents are as distinct from us, as the American Indians. It is impossible to convey to a western mind what my mother is. The distance between her and me can only be counted in centuries. But not only time stands between us but differences in adaptation as vital as that between sea and land animals. In fact I think of Janice and me as having become land animals in one jump. As if our parents had been utterly sea animals. Yet we are only land animals of one generation with all the weaknesses that implies. I was brought up to regard timidity as if it were the first rule of life. And the cancer of indolence was planted in me in the cheder. I was brought up the first ten years of my life for another environment. My mother is to this day sealed in that environment, and she has no crack, no window, to look out upon the world. My own distinct situation, the inner break from my mother, did not become apparent to me till so late in life. Did I become aware too late? If I were willing to take all the risks could my life still become vigorous? Or is that question itself a sign of my still unsolved problem? Should a man dream to change the caste of his life when he is past fifty. Does maturity mean to live with one self whatever the self is?

The summer my father died, the Tworkovs invited my mother and me to spend a month with them in their house in Provincetown. Jack wrote in his journal of my father’s death but also of how the work of the artist lives on after his death:

August 8, 1961, P’town.

No place in this notebook have I so far noticed the death of my beloved friend Ilya. His image hovers in my mind. His lovely gayety, the sparkle, the aliveness of his eyes, the humor that played on his lips like honeybees on flowers. Now Resia is here and Mira. We sat long over our coffee this morning talking about people and gradually we drifted into talking about Ilya, each of us displaying our love for him as if he were alive and with us. Even through her unbearable grief her face suffuses with light when I praise Ilya. […] She said something remarkable recalling Ilya. She said, the test of a work is does it speak for the artist after he’s gone. In life the artist persuaded us by his personality, but after he’s gone only his work is left to persuade us.

 

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Youthfulness in Old Age

Two painting exhibitions currently across the street from each other on West 25th street challenge any notions one might still harbor about the greater value of being “younger than Jesus.” By some fortuitous coincidence just a few steps separate “Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings” at Cheim & Read from “Matta: A Centennial Celebration” at Pace Gallery and each show explosively refutes any notion of youthfulness being the province of the young while giving new life to the phenomenon known as “old age style”–used to distinguish formal characteristic of late works by Titian, Rembrandt, or Cézanne, where the artist just wants to get to the heart of the matter and sloughs off all the fine finish he had needed to impress his audience in earlier years.

Before I go any further, I should say that for some reason, when I was a very young artist, before I went to art school, one of my term papers as an art history major at NYU was on old age style, in the works of Renaissance and other artists. At the time in my own early paintings, I was influenced by Northern Renaissance paintings, by surrealism, by Indian miniatures, so for the most part the paintings I loved had a tightness and perfection to them. So I can only wonder why I was in this very early stage of my own work life so taken by the characteristics of work done at the other end of the bracket of a life of art making, when tightness of line and surface would yield to the pressure of working without concern for perfection or control. Indeed ever since then, I always seem to challenge myself to move towards a looser, wilder, more entropic approach to artmaking.

The phenomenon of old age style seemed almost inversely applicable when considering expressionist painting. Take the phases of Willem de Kooning’s work: in the current exhibition at MoMA there is an early still-life drawing, of a type that, according to the wall-text, a friend recalled might take him a year to execute, building up the realistic rendering practically one atom of matter at a time, then there is the Ingres-like delicacy of representational execution of the Portrait of Elaine, followed by the early mature work of the figures of men and women just turning from representation to abstraction as if a giant delicate hand were shifting the outlines like sand, to the great abstractions of the late 1940s, Excavation and Attic, still controlled, calibrated, worked, to the explosive expressionistic paint application of the Woman series–but, with the notion of old age style in mind, then what? If at an earlier time, that loose approach would have marked an old age style, de Kooning had much farther to go, to return, in his old age, to his own contribution to such a style–abstraction and surface somehow scoured of incident and even gravity, smoothed, clarified, almost bleached by time.

I’ve always felt that Joan Mitchell‘s paintings from the 1950s are among the best abstract paintings of that period. Although there is a clear relation to nature in the forms and colors, at the same time those paintings, including Ladybug (1957) at MoMA, have a bold confidence in the sculptural individuality of each stroke of paint in a manner which anticipates the post-minimalist approach of painters such Joan Snyder. The unpredictable, rich yet uningratiating dimensional materiality of the paint strokes in these paintings, and the density of mark making has generally been of greater interest to me than the late paintings, some of which were on view in Mitchell’s 2002 retrospective at the Whitney Museum–I saw these as too big, too empty, too facile, without tension.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Ladybug, 1957. Oil on canvas, 6' 5 7/8" x 9' (197.9 x 274 cm). Purchase. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Snyder, Summer Orange, 1970 oil, acrylic, and spray enamel on canvas 42" x 96"

Perhaps the temper of the time has changed–sometimes one needs certain things from art which didn’t appeal earlier. But the paintings in the current show at Cheim & Read are a pleasure. The paintings, often diptychs, feature often large gestural strokes, they are speedy, speeding, they flow freely, yet with an important density, which I had missed in the later works at the Whitney. A painting such as Beauvais (1986) is a beauty, as is River (1989): the marks are loose and quick but orchestrated with a complex relation of similarity but dissymmetry between the two panels of the diptych.  The painting appears loose but not lax, with small, sharper, deep red strokes interrupting the idyllic rural atmosphere with a more foreboding intimations of mortality.

Put another way, if you associate youth with vibrancy, color, energy, and brightness, then the earlier works by Mitchell, done when she was young, are more complex, perhaps more tortuous, and more encrusted, in a sense dirtier, they look “older” (and not just because they are older physically), whereas, by the same criteria, the last paintings up at Cheim & Read look “younger.” The palette is both the same and yet brighter, the white ground bigger and whiter–the emptied out quality thus being a marker both of youth and of age, depending on how you look at it, but certainly one could make the case that she was so much older then, and then was younger than that at the end.

Joan Mitchell, from the series "Fremicourt Paintings 1960-62," exhibition at Cheim & Read, 2005

Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) River, 1989, Oil on canvas diptych 110 x 157 1/2 inches each panel: 110 x 78 3/4 inches

One of the most remarkable paintings is Untitled (1992), the year of Mitchell’s death: again a diptych, this painting has an unusual composition, with all the action taking place in a horizontal band calligraphically rushing and tumbling across the middle of the two canvases’ white field, with a dominant ultramarine theme, bold gestures underscored by more delicately calligraphic lines, including again the thin deep red lines.

Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) Untitled, 1992, Oil on canvas diptych 102 3/8 x 157 1/2 inches

These paintings, from the year of her death, are expressions of freedom, clarity, and insistence or necessity.They are curiously joyous, considering that the artist was in poor health, suffering from cancer and other crippling afflictions.

Across the street, again, joyfulness, in the expansive, enormous late paintings by Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren, 1911-2002). These works are representative of the artist’s characteristic forms, figurative, mechanistic, biomorphic. For young artists, impressed by spectacle and influenced by graffiti, the Matta show is also an important object lesson in what age can bring.For example Architecture du Temps (un point sait tout), done in 1999 when the artist was eighty-eight years old, is a fantastic huge black and white painting which relies mainly on an open framework of thin black lines within white paint and thin black washes. In French the expression “un point, c’est tout” is kind of verbal super punctuation, literally, one point is all, which is to say, that is it, there is nothing more to be said; “un point sait tout” sounds the same but means one point knows everything, which, as the subtitle of Architecture of Time, is a very telling pun and a sharp commentary on the making of art in old age, as well as on the power of line, the power of a point in space.

Roberto Matta, Architecture du temps (un point sait tout), 1999 oil on canvas 14' 11-1/2" x 21' 9-1/4"

Roberto Matta, L'homme descend du signe, 1975 oil on canvas 13' 5-3/4" x 27' 4"

Matta’s confidence in art is expressed in another even more contemporary-looking and even more enormous, twenty-seven foot wide, painting, L’Homme Descend du Signe (from 1975, when the artist was just a baby at age sixty-four). Another pun: “Man Descends from the Sign” (instead of “Descend du Singe,” man descends from the monkey). The painting is positively gaudy, with acid purple the main ground for sharp dagger like forms, which could easily be transposed to become tags. It is a great bridge between museum-scaled surrealist painting, architecturally-scaled mural painting, and city-scaled graffiti. The Fall (Autoritratto d’ognuno) from 1991 is another beautiful painting, again, an opening up of Matta’s earlier characteristic surrealistic web of drawing based biomorphic shapes. The painting is graced by a lovely spray of color, orange, the color of fall, a kind of ecstatic naturalism. (The largest paintings, oil and acrylic on unstretched canvas, are mounted on the wall framed by a thick white wood border, a very successful presentation).

If you associate energy and size with the brash ambition of youth, then these later and late paintings by Matta are also “younger” works than his earlier paintings from the surrealist period, which were tighter, more intricate and complex. At the same time the looseness and freedom of materiality in the later work is emblematic of old age style. At the very least, these works all confound one’s traditional expectations regarding age and the artist.

Roberto Matta The Fall (Autoritratto d'ognuno), 1991, oil and acrylic on canvas 10' 3-1/2" x 17' 1-5/8"

The images don’t do justice to the works, paler (in the case of Matta) and without the impact of either scale or surface. Go see the two shows.

Also seen the same day, down the block from Pace Gallery, in the show at Lennon-Weinberg Gallery, “H.C. Westermann: The Human Condition, Selected Works, 1961-1973,” some early drawings by H.C Westermann (1922-1981), done (as I overheard the gallerist explaining) when the artist was in the hospital being treated  for testicular cancer–which he survived: his wife had brought him some crayons and paper, and he worked on a group of small drawings, some in the artist’s characteristic graphic, cartoon-related style, some in a more abstract and less over-determined mode–after he recovered, these were packed away and never shown until now. I recommend the drawing entitled Sun Coming Up Over New York, (1961), incredibly delicate, nearly abstract.

Although this was not an old age style work, it made me think about what it means to make art when you are very ill, or at the end of a long life. No matter your degree of success, if you are still making art at age 88, or ill from cancer, you cannot only be making art for show, for ambition, competition, legacy. You are making art, as Jack Tworkov noted about painting, “to save your life.” It’s great to see such art, when we are often confronted by art whose motivation is not necessarily based in that kind of internal necessity.

Richard Artschwager Untitled ca. 1950 watercolor and graphite on paper 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches

Richard Artschwager Untitled ca. 1950 watercolor and graphite on paper 13 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches

Earlier the same day in Chelsea, I saw Richard Artschwager’s show at David Nolan (show closed December 4). In this show, small abstracted landscape works on paper, all done in 1950, were shown along with new similar but larger works, paper mounted on soundboard, in which the artist returns to the Western landscape of the earlier series. One tends not to think of Artschwager in the same breath as Charles Burchfield, but the 1950s works participate in the great tradition of American ecstatic landscape, filtered through a calmer structure that is characteristic of Artschwager; some of these works are also reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s earliest abstract landscape watercolors as well as of Agnes Martin’s early works on paper. In these earlyworks there is a lyricism, a tenderness of touch, of surface, and content, while the more recent work of the same subject matter is tougher, sharper, bolder and more imposing materially, thus proposing another kind of youthfulness in older age though the return to landscape or nature as a thematic seems to bracket the period of cooler irony of Artschwager’s most noted works, emerging in the era of Pop Art and continuing through the era of appropriation art.

Richard Artschwager Landscape with Median 2011 acrylic, charcoal and laminate on handmade paper on soundboard 35 1/2 x 49 3/4 inches

Unlike both Mitchell and Matta, Artschwager is a master of reticence and modesty, combined with a subtle but wicked deadpan. In these returns to landscape, the deadpan turns to a subtle meditation on the progress of life: in Landscape with Median, from 2011 (Artschwager was born in 1923), the yellow double lines on the road end mid-picture: these lines are very bold, hard-edged, bright colored, and sharply sculptural, set into a much softer ground: maybe there is just a dip in the road ahead, or maybe the road comes to an end–in a 1950 watercolor, the road continues like a fragmented ladder though land that is barely indicated. These works, early and late, state that the artist who stays alive in his or her mind and studio is always caught mid-path.

 

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September 5, 1981: prehistory of a history

After I had completed my first major read-through of the diaries and papers of the painter Jack Tworkov in preparation for editing them into a book of collected writings, Jack’s daughter Helen Tworkov asked me if I had discovered anything that had surprised me. I could answer with frankness, no. That is, Helen and her sister Hermine Ford had given me the privilege of access not only to Jack’s writings about art, texts that he had either published in his lifetime or had saved because he must have known that they were of some art historical interest and, most importantly, because they were of personal use to himself in his studio work, but also to his most private thoughts, or at least those he had put to paper and preserved over a nearly 50 year time period. I was infused with the complexity of intimacy that comes from being immersed in the full drama of studio and career struggles and of the private details even of his married life in ways neither he nor I could never have imagined, but, overall, I knew the stories, the struggles, the aesthetics, and the sensibility deeply, for I had observed Jack and his work with admiration and love for all my life.

Indeed, my work as the editor of The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, published in 2009, had a deep back-story. I could not remember a time that I did not know Jack and his family, since my parents and the Tworkovs became friends when I was, as far as anyone remembers, still a toddler. The Tworkovs were incredibly dear to my family during my childhood and all the more so after my father Ilya Schor died in 1961 and Wally and Jack Tworkov took my mother and me into their Provincetown home for a month of that summer and the next. Though Jack would have been very surprised that the little girl to whom he had taught the dog paddle, or the teenager he had found so rough and recalcitrant, and the young artist about whose work he had continued doubts, ended up being the one to finally shepherd his writings into print and to create in effect the autobiography he had never written as such. But it seemed to me finally that it made the most perfect sense, though I sometimes in those six years rued the day I had ever taken on such a massive task and such a  daunting responsibility. I cursed him for writing so much of interest that I found hard to cut!

I set out to structure the many different types of texts so that the complexity and totality of the life of an artist and a particular man would be as transparent as I could make it. I did not make what I knew would have been the more conventional choice, to edit down to what history already thought was important, which in Tworkov’s case would have been exclusively his writings from the New York School period. I wanted to address his role within that history, but I thought his writings on the death of his mother were as beautifully written and as important to the meaning of his work as his long description of a conversation with John Cage, I knew his remembrances of the painful experience of immigration deepened one’s understanding of his landmark 1950 essay, “The Wandering Soutine.”

With in my mind a reader who would perhaps also be a painter, or perhaps a young artist confronting the huge challenges of how to continue to make art and have a personal life, or perhaps an older artist continuing to work seriously in the studio despite the frequent disappointments careers bring, I used the richness of levels and types of writing Tworkov had produced to situate him and the reader in a vast human field and historical period of art making. I tried to give the reader a sense of what it means to engage in a lifetime struggle to be an artist and a man.

As I went through his diaries and letters, I occasionally found references to my family and to me…not always flattering, much to my dismay. I also found reference to events in which I had been a participant, particularly in later years, which I not only remembered clearly but which, being every bit as inveterate a self-documenter as Jack, I had also noted in my diary.

For example, Jack wrote in his journal on September 5, Saturday (1981): “I picked up Resia and Mira and drove them to Hermine’s place on Highhead. We walked to the beach with Hermine, Bob  and Erik. We watched the huge waves sweeping the shore. The park rangers put up signs to keep cars and people off the beach. We came back and had tea. I got in a talking mood and reminisced about my childhood, about school and college, about Janice and Ford. We saw Bob’s drawings and drove home. […]”

My diary entry for the same day, Saturday, September 5, 1981: “windy day. Jack took us out to Bob & Hermine’s–walk to ocean, very nice visit, Jack very talkative.”

I had not forgotten that day, our being together. I remember also quite clearly that we looked at Hermine’s drawings too! And that we all enjoyed the way his son-in-law the painter Bob Moskowitz had prepared eggplant!!! But if you had quizzed me about what Jack had talked about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But I listened and I heard, probably not for the first time, and the stories were embedded so that when I rediscovered the details in his writings, I already knew.

[References above are to my mother Resia Schor , to Jack’s eldest daughter Hermine Ford, his grandson Erik Moskowitz, and to Robert Moskowitz, Janice Biala, and Ford Madox Ford]

That summer Jack was in remission from cancer. He was preparing for Jack Tworkov: Fifteen Years of Painting, a major exhibition of his paintings at the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in early 1982. Earlier that summer he wrote a letter to Andrew Forge, then dean of the School of Art and Architecture at Yale, where Jack had been chairman of the Department of Art through the late 60s, as part of a dialogue to help Forge write a catalogue essay for the exhibition. Here are some excerpts of his letter to Forge:

So for me geometrics, however simple and elementary, is a connection with something that exists besides, outside, myself. It is a small comfort, perhaps, indeed; but it is less hypocritical at the moment than the apparent ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for. Geometrics or any systemic order gives me a space for meditation, adumbrates my alienation.

There was a period when I felt connected. It was in the late forties and early fifties, the time of the club. It coincided with that short period after World War II when I really believed that, after the sacrifices and horror the world went through, we were embarked on a better world. There were a few years of euphoria. America emerged as a world-saver in spite of the shadow the bomb on Hiroshima had cast on that image. The abstract-expressionist movement, although negative in its rejection of all tradition and especially of the French art of the first half of the century, did reflect this positive element, the postwar euphoria, the sudden feeling of strength both physically and spiritually. As we know, that spirit did not last long. Pop came along with two tongues in its cheek. On the one hand, it took, as the living symbols of American culture, the hot dog and the hamburger–it was hard to know whether in praise or disgust. On the other hand, it revived a form of Dada revolt against art as the dress-up culture of the fathers. Only by then, the middle class, more than ever, was beyond shock or outrage and was led by the art market, which dealt primarily in names rather than esthetics. And name-making absorbed a good deal of the energies of the artists.

I have sometimes dreamt of painting my hatreds. If I didn’t, it was because of the fear that I would end up hating my painting. I’ve hated films that had the excuse that they were a true reflection of society but which I thought were themselves a contribution to the disease they were trying to depict.

The spectator who in front of my paintings will ask, “What does it mean?” has foregone the chance of seeing it. For the only meaning in the painting is in the seeing of it. But that is true in looking at any painting. If you only see the landscape, you are not seeing the painting. If you only see the portrait, you miss the painting.

There is an element in painting which I have often referred to as true, by which I mean not truth in a moral sense but the concern similar to that of a good carpenter who supports his eye with the try square and level, on which all other qualities base themselves. The spiritual essence we draw from art is the absence of falseness; it teaches us not only about art but how to judge anything in life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, from what the preacher says to what the politician says and does. Art can become the true square and level of all things–provided it is itself not askew.

It is not beauty that is the first concern of art and certainly not entertainment–but justness.

Where justness exists in a work, the artist’s personality disappears because the painting is the presence and not the painter.

There is another quality in a painting that cannot be described: it is the residue reflected in the painting of the artist’s pleasure in the making of it, especially the pleasure, the joy the artist experiences in the stages when the painting uncovers itself to his eyes. This is an internal experience of the artist which the attentive spectator can extract. It is something precious I get from a Cézanne, knowing very well he did not make it for me but it is there for me to have.

Trueness and pleasure add up to the most fundamental quality in a painting. If the artist cannot paint himself out of the picture, if he is caught up in attention-getting devices, if he becomes concerned with his effects on the audience, he cannot achieve justness. You can admire his devices but you cannot live with them. You cannot draw joy from them. At their worst such artists exploit the same world as the advertising fabricators: clever, ingenious, eye grabbing, but false.

Am I stressing an esthetic morality? I am. It’s what I get from Bach, Velázquez, Blake, Cézanne, Mondrian–and is rare in our present.[…] from The Extreme of the Middle, 8.47

Selections from this letter and other of Jack’s writings were later reprinted in Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, the excellent catalogue of his 1987 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that first made me aware of his writings, as I had by then just begun to write about art also and that ultimately led to my taking on the pleasure, the task, and the great responsibility of editing his writings. These are all included in The Extreme of the Middle.

*

Today, September 5, 2011, exactly thirty years have passed since that afternoon by the ocean. Jack died almost exactly a year later to the day, on September 4, 1982.

I thought today to look back to what he had been thinking thirty years before September 5, 1981, to bracket my brief reflections here. The closest entry is from October 24, 1951:

Did it ever occur to Sophocles to write a play about himself? Had the thought occurred to him he would have banished it as sacrilegious. He wrote about Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra.

Could Ajax have written about Sophocles? Could Ajax have been an artist and still been a Hero? Ajax could have written about himself without becoming less of a hero only if what he wrote was not art. It was in the nature of Ajax that he could not contrive anything. He therefore lost to life but won his immortality. Only Odysseus of the heroes was different. He did tell of his own life only to make a work of art out of it. Ajax was noble. His nobility lay in the disdain of life on any terms except his own to a degree that was a challenge to the immortal gods. Odysseus was enamored of life and was not beneath embellishing its excitement with fine details from the imagination. He was a compromiser. He took life just as he found it. In order to cut a fine figure he used art to embellish it. He used art but he was no artist. He could not create anyone except himself. He was beloved of the gods because he resembled them enormously–since they were the creations of ordinary men.

Some artists, too, are the creations of the ordinary man.

Sophocles writing about Sophocles would have been lost in a maze of echoing mirrors.[…]

Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero. When the artist conceives himself a hero, he ceases to be an artist and proceeds to destroy himself. Sophocles was a great artist because he endured. The artist to become an artist suppresses the hero in him. [from The Extreme of the Middle, 3.13]

*

Despite the many years I knew Jack, I thought there was not a single picture of him and me together. But I recently found a group of slides I took that day, September 5, 1981. And among them was a picture Hermine must have taken with my camera of Jack and me standing together looking at the big waves from a distant storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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