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Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov | The Nation

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Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov

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Between 1937 and 1947 something happened to profoundly shake Tworkov's faith in political action generally. Nothing in this book gives the reader any glimpse into what occurred--and yet the depth of his disgust, and the consistency and vehemence with which he expresses it, suggest that there must have been some definite event, or perhaps a series of them, rather than a gradual drifting away. But what distinguishes Tworkov from so many others--his erstwhile comrade Dos Passos, for instance--is that his loss of faith in the left did not lead him to the right. When asked at a public forum in 1960 what he considered to be the most important cultural activity in America, he answered "the Negro sit-downs in the South." Though professing himself "emotionally sad but placid" about the Vietnam War, he supported Eugene McCarthy for president and felt that "under Reagan it's America that has become the greatest danger to the world, not even less than what Hitler was." One of his last diary entries, seven months before his death from cancer in 1982, notes a meeting "to organize a committee to organize visual artists against nuclear armaments."

About the Author

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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Tworkov had not renounced his ideals. But he had lost hope in the fight for them, and this loss was directly related to his ongoing sense of unease with himself and others. "Revolution of whatever kind," he felt, "leads to authoritarianism, to suppression, to dictatorship. Inevitably everyone must serve the revolution or be regarded as its enemy--thus no one can speak, reason, think or paint who does not directly serve the revolution.... The word has come to fill me with disgust." Tworkov's tone in this letter to his sister and brother-in-law, its personal yet categorical note, suggests that he'd met revolutionary demagoguery in person and felt in it a threat to his very existence as an artist. In any case--as this book's rather unattractive title, taken from one of the artist's journal entries, suggests--Tworkov was allergic to any form of extremism or intellectual absolutism. Thus his animosity toward Ad Reinhardt, whose pose of sublime certainty and exclusive possession of the truth must have been infuriating; Reinhardt's statement "Art is art. Everything else is everything else" seemed to leave all his colleagues on the side of everything else. "He thinks that there is a kind of Chinese wall between experience and painting," Tworkov complained publicly in Reinhardt's presence; in his private notes he added, "It is obnoxious to take a position that leaves you the only artist around." All the more so since, as Tworkov had declared years before, "No artist is by himself an artist. He is an artist only by virtue of the fact that he voluntarily permits other artists to act on him and that he has the capacity to react in turn.... There could no more be one artist than there could be one human being."

More broadly, Tworkov was repulsed by all self-conscious avant-gardism as well as the cult of genius or any insinuation that art might somehow be beyond good and evil. In his eyes, revolutionary politics and the nihilism of an all-consuming aesthetic mirror each other: "Pure esthetics, like pure sociologies (Utopias) lead to pure (without guilt) murder." "Picasso is the first of the modern artists who treated art neither like one treats a beloved or a mother who nourishes, but like a land to be conquered even if it had to be burned or destroyed. He prefigures the ruthless dictator." Both exemplify the "aristocratic pretensions" of all who claim "the autonomous character of the individual who is a law to himself." For this reason, Tworkov felt sure that the extreme avant-gardes, clinging to aristocratic values against the bourgeoisie, were actually reactionary and antimodern.

What's curious is that despite his professions of anti-avant-gardism and anti-extremism, Tworkov was extremely attracted to certain grandees of the avant-garde of his time--most notably, John Cage, "one of the most intelligent people I have ever met." Perhaps it was the composer's ability to embody a nonviolent, playful avant-gardism that beguiled Tworkov, although he shrewdly remarks that while "Cage associates himself with Zen and the absence of ego...an egoless Cage is unthinkable to me." Despite his ostensible quietism, "in a conversation Cage uses you as if you were an instrument from which to fetch a sound." In the end, Tworkov classified Cage's work as farce.

Tworkov was equally attracted to two younger painters who were close to and much influenced by Cage, Robert Rauschenberg (whom he met during a brief stint teaching at Black Mountain College in 1952) and Jasper Johns. He even bought a small, early flag painting from Johns, but he never really warmed to the work of either of them. Johns's flag "was a subject that posed a paradox: Was it an object? Was it a painting? The paradox is literature. As such it was interesting but soon exhausted." (Around 1961-62, Tworkov would paint his own variations on the American flag, retaining its colors while, in contrast to Johns, distorting its composition--"perhaps unconsciously an ironic comment," he mused, on his own "growing patriotism.") Rejecting avant-gardist pretensions to operate in what Rauschenberg famously called "the gap between art and life," let alone to heal that breach, Tworkov was even more disdainful of Modernist claims to strict aesthetic autonomy as articulated by Reinhardt or by Clement Greenberg. On the other hand, as an abstractionist he refrained from an art that approached reality as something to be represented. True, his first abstract paintings, in the early '50s, had been full of figurative reminiscences, but from the middle of that decade on he tried to eliminate them--not always successfully in his eyes, since even as late as 1963 he was still telling himself, "I've never quite been able to shake off figurative elements, but I must."

Still, he never ceased to envy representational painters from afar. In part this is accounted for by his intense admiration for his sister and her husband, both of whom pursued a modern form of stylized representation in the École de Paris tradition. He seems always to have wondered if he'd made a mistake but was convinced--in contradiction to Greenberg's view that Modernism was essentially a distillation of what made for quality in the painting of any time--that between abstraction and representation he had crossed a radical divide. He even speaks of being "trapped" in abstraction. Recalling to Alain the exaltation he'd felt in the Prado, he had to admit, "I cannot associate my experience in front of these paintings with what engages me in the studio." Seeing the work of younger representational painters, he remarked, "I shared not one thing with them except canvas, brushes and paint and the desire all artists have to fill their lives with something meaningful." In both spirit and technique, they might as well have been practicing different arts altogether. (A survey of Tworkov's art, "Jack Tworkov: Against Extremes--Five Decades of Painting," is on offer at the UBS Art Gallery in New York City, through October 27.)

Perhaps this is why, as critical as Tworkov could be of his colleagues among the Abstract Expressionists, he had to be acutely skeptical of succeeding generations of artists. Having with great difficulty and considerable regret made what he saw as a fundamental break with tradition, it must have been galling to find himself cast in the role of a traditionalist whose revolution had not been thorough-going enough after all. Having paid the price of that revolution, he must have thought the successive ones looked cheap and facile. It's a problem that the critic Leo Steinberg was talking about in the early '60s; although the article he devoted to it was called "Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public," he meant the plight of its makers just as much as of its viewers--that is, of the artists who might continually feel themselves in danger of being left behind. Steinberg evoked his own feeling on first encountering the work of Johns: "The pictures of de Kooning and Kline, it seemed to me, were suddenly tossed into one pot with Watteau and Rembrandt and Giotto." The reason, according to Steinberg, is that by comparison with Johns they all seemed equally "painters of illusion." A few years later, Johns was to be shown up as an illusionist by Donald Judd, and then Judd, a few years after that, by Mel Bochner. It was a period in which illusion was found to be bottomless, since more of it could always be discovered retroactively through a process of elimination. Steinberg goes on to report the responses to Johns of two unnamed Abstract Expressionists: "If this is painting, I might as well give up," said one; "Well, I am still involved with the dream," said the other. Both those painters could have been Jack Tworkov.

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