Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov | The Nation


Fever Charts: On Jack Tworkov

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It's somewhat surprising that a man so prone to curmudgeonliness should have been a good teacher, but apparently Tworkov was, most notably at Yale, where he chaired the art department from 1963 through 1969. A journal entry deliberately paints his decision to accept the position in the worst possible light. He was driven, he accuses himself, by "hurt self-esteem. The attacks in the press on my status as a painter, my failure to win the support of any important writer, the lack of interest in my work by the leading museums, the narrowness of my circle of supporters, the failure of my exhibition.... The Yale job then seemed for the time being to salve some of my hurt." Needless to say, these are the worst possible reasons for becoming a teacher, though common enough.

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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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Yet Tworkov thrived as a teacher because it appealed to his latent idealism. Years before, teaching one summer at Black Mountain, he had experienced something like the ideal anarchist community of which he'd secretly dreamed always: elders and youth, men and women working together in freedom and self-defined responsibility, without authority or hierarchy, squaring the circle of community and individualism that had always confounded him. "A bully could not exist here, everybody would allow that he has a right to be a bully, but no one would be bullied by him." One gathers that Tworkov would have liked to cultivate a similar ethos at Yale--the more fool he, albeit a holy fool. One can only wonder--from the perspective of today, when universities are assiduously burdening the world with a doctorate for artists--that in an "Annual Report for the Academic Year 1965-66" he raised the issue of abolishing the MFA in favor of "a school for advanced study where the student genuinely comes for just that and feels entirely responsible to himself"--no grades, no degree, just work for its own sake.

Tworkov had experienced something like this hoped-for community of individuals once before, in the early days of the Artists' Club, sometimes known as the Eighth Street Club or simply the Club, which (together with de Kooning and Kline, among others) he helped found in 1949. "I cannot remember any period in my life that so went to my head," he wrote. Here, everything was up for debate, and the sometimes pugnacious attitudes of the participants had a paradoxical effect: "The enthusiastic clash of ideas...destroys, or at least reduces the aggressiveness of all attitudes.... There is a strong sense of identification. I say to myself these are the people I love, that I love to be with.... How dull people are elsewhere by comparison." It wasn't to last. One of the saddest things about Tworkov's diaries, as he grows older, is his growing distance from the artists with whom he shared those years, the sense that these massive egos (his own no less than the others, despite his veneer of gentility) could no longer share the same space.

For Tworkov, painting was the cipher of this ideal community he had briefly glimpsed but could never hold on to. His life story was filled with episodes of failed identification. First came the loss of his home in Poland, though it had offered not even the protective warmth of the shtetl as he imagined Soutine had known it; because Tworkov's father was a tailor serving the officers of a Russian army regiment, the family lived in the gentile part of town: "I don't remember being at ease in either the Jewish or non-Jewish sections," he recalled. Then there was the comradeship of the '20s and '30s, including a stint on the WPA Federal Art Project, when he believed he could assert political agency as part of a larger social movement; and the Club, where a movement of artists "as fruitful and revolutionary as the Impressionism of 1870" was heralded. Both finally left him more isolated than before. The only freedom he'd discovered was one not worth finding, as he wrote the year before his death, the freedom "to be spiritually homeless."

When Tworkov was in his late 60s his art began to undergo a change nearly as drastic as the one that had happened some twenty years before, when he'd worked his way toward abstraction. Eschewing the impulsive gesture of Abstract Expressionism as he'd earlier eschewed the recognizable image, he introduced a geometrical armature on which to hang a dense field of smaller, less dramatic marks. In his essay on Soutine, who, as Tworkov asserted, seemed on the surface to be more of a traditionalist than he really was, he spoke of how his predecessor had managed "to liquefy the building blocks of Cézanne's art" to create "an art of movement" with "temporal overtones." This is not a bad description of what Tworkov himself would go on to do in his late work, which is when, I would argue, he finally came into his own as an artist. He uses his geometrical substrate for the same reason that Soutine used the simple everyday things he painted, to set "free his energies for a full and uninterrupted flow into his painting," such that the entire temporal process of its making becomes evident. It's one way to paint one's time, after some of its illusions have passed.

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