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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.