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Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov | The Nation

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Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov

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PRIVATE COLLECTION COURTESY ESTATE OF JACK TWORKOVHouse of the Sun (1952), by Jack Tworkov

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Almost any fable of the artist's life could take its title from the novel about the life that Balzac wrote, and that stands as a model for the rest: Lost Illusions. Yet Balzac may have been too optimistic. Showing his would-be poet Lucien Chardon seduced by his social ambitions and undefended by any strength of character, a man who throws away his talent by selling out, Balzac implicitly defends those who labor with integrity as heirs to greatness--and its rewards. So we all hope. But experience teaches that greatness is rare, and perhaps no less so among the upright than among those of questionable character. A sadder novel than Balzac's could have been written about the lost illusions of those who with patience and determination remain true to their intuition of the artistic absolute yet never attain inner certainty of their achievement or even scant public acclaim for it. But how much recognition would be enough anyway? In exchange for its near-extinction in the exigencies of form, the ego demands twofold repayment. The artist's demands on his public are typically as unappeasable as those he makes on himself. Although the pleasures of Jack Tworkov's writing are many, The Extreme of the Middle is a book I'd recommend to aspiring artists as a warning: this is how depressing it can be to be a serious, successful artist.

I don't mean to nominate Tworkov as the hero of a neo-Balzacian novel in which the artist who stays true to his calling ends up a tragic failure. Nothing could be further from the case. Tworkov, one of the original Abstract Expressionists whose mark on the history of painting is inexpugnable, accomplished a great deal in a long and rich life, not only as an artist but as a teacher and a mensch. And his writings are a considerable contribution to the art history of his time. Their subject is not so much aesthetics or form as the ethics of art. But his was a life deeply shadowed by, among other things, his resentment at never having been accorded the worldly status of friends like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Repeated insinuations that he'd been too heavily influenced by de Kooning particularly rankled, and were not always wrong.

He was born Yakov Tworkovsky in Biala, Poland, in 1900. It might have been said of Tworkov, when he arrived in New York in 1913, what he would later write in an essay on Chaim Soutine: the journey he made, "from the mediaeval Lithuanian ghetto village to Paris, has to be measured not only in hundreds of miles but also in hundreds of years." Yet more than a journey in space or in time, it was the immeasurable journey from a culture that disregarded the image to one in which the art of painting had a noble history and also, perhaps, a great future. But much had to be sacrificed for that journey to be undertaken. Tworkov speaks from the heart when, comparing Soutine with one of his predecessors, he says, "I envy Cézanne living out his manhood in the same village where he was born.... I am sorry for Soutine living in a foreign land. He could never exorcise the terrors of his childhood, and so they possessed him all his life."

As for his own hometown, Tworkov never did see it again. In one peculiar way, though, it always stayed with him, as the adopted name of his younger sister, who was the first to encourage him in his art and who herself became a painter of considerable stature. Unlike her brother, Janice Biala spent much of her life in Europe, first as the companion of the writer Ford Madox Ford from 1930 until his death in 1939, and then again after the war. Despite the long periods of separation, it is clear from his letters that Tworkov remained devoted to her to the end of his life, and that she and her husband, the painter Daniel Brustlein (whose illustrations for The New Yorker were signed Alain, the name by which Tworkov always addresses him), were his most trusted confidants--with the possible exception, it seems, of Ilya and Resia Schor, New York artists now little remembered except among connoisseurs of Judaica, and the parents of this book's editor, Mira Schor. On Ilya's death, Tworkov said, "I had told Mira long ago that she had better adopt me as an uncle since I had already adopted her father as my brother." Her long and sensitive Introduction repays any avuncular debt.

A sense of being hobbled by some inborn weakness rarely seems to have left Tworkov for long. He constantly reflects on his neuroses, his diffidence, his social anxiety--which honestly never seem anything beyond the norm, but then what could be more neurotic than believing you're more neurotic than you really are? Of course, it's possible that the artist's journals are misleadingly one-sided, as he himself felt on rereading some of them in 1955 when he remarked, "They are like fever charts. I almost never write when I feel normal." Fair enough; he was not a writer by profession. But with well over 400 densely packed pages of journals, diaries and letters as well as published writings and lecture notes, the heft of this collection suggests that the painter felt abnormal often enough. Schor does not indicate what percentage of his private writings are represented here, but her statement that Tworkov "wrote incessantly, compulsively" suggests there could be much more; at minimum, she has not included a small book written in 1935-36 but then abandoned, Social Meaning of Art, described by the curator of Tworkov's posthumous 1987 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as "a fifty-page typed and edited manuscript."

It would be interesting to know if the typescript illuminates Tworkov's political views at the time. Later these would be deeply entwined with his sense of malaise. A Jewish immigrant intellectual in New York City in the '30s was a natural socialist. The fact that Tworkov had collaborated with John Dos Passos at the New Playwrights' Theatre in the late '20s gives some indication of his radical sympathies at the time. The earliest writings included in The Extreme of the Middle are letters to the artist's wife, Wally, composed during brief separations in 1936 and 1937. In them, demonstrations and union meetings are as important as high culture; the word "comrade" is a normal part of his vocabulary; he writes as an artist and an activist. So it comes as something of a surprise that when Tworkov's writings recommence ten years later, his attitude toward politics is very different: disillusioned to the point of pessimism. "The left in American letters, art, and politics," he advises his daughter Hermine, a college freshman, in 1958, "has become a cesspool of bad and stagnant thinking." It is a point he returns to again and again: revolutionary movements are merely symptoms of the sickness and rot of the civilization they pretend to oppose.

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