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ART REVIEW

Not to be repeated

Doubts animated the fascinating, restless Tworkov

Jack Tworkov’s “Crossfield I’’ features rhythmically repeated marks over geometric structures. Jack Tworkov’s “Crossfield I’’ features rhythmically repeated marks over geometric structures. (Collection of Ms. Beatrice Perry)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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PROVINCETOWN — When a talented artist ends up being regarded by posterity as less than great, it’s often because he or she never came to be identified with a single style. At least that’s the excuse that’s often proffered. The implied critique of some who are remembered as great — that they allowed their creativity to be reduced to the factory-style production of signature images — hits a nerve: Think of Mark Rothko’s endlessly repeated rectangular lozenges, Clyfford Still’s jagged shapes, Barnett Newman’s “zips,’’ and so on. How many vertical strips against monochrome backgrounds are needed to make a point?

Jack Tworkov, the subject of a fascinating career retrospective at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, was one of those artists who was not interested in signature images. He seemed to regard self-doubt as a strength, rather than a weakness, and he was correspondingly good at changing aesthetic course.

“My hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude,’’ he wrote, “to have no program and, necessarily then, no preconceived style. To paint no Tworkovs.’’

Was he great? The answer — there’s no need to evade the question — is no, but it’s somehow of less moment than it might be in the context of this show and the courageous, insightful, talented man it celebrates.

Tworkov was born in 1900 in Biala, Poland, 50 miles southwest of Krakow. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 13. Although he enrolled in drawing classes at his high school on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, he was for many years more interested in writing, specifically poetry.

“I had to make up my mind that I wasn’t a writer,’’ he wrote. “I drifted into becoming an artist without ever making any really conscious decision.’’

Tworkov majored in English literature at Columbia University. The “drift’’ into painting — partly inspired by encounters with Matisse and Cézanne, and with American teachers such as Ivan Olinsky, Karl Knaths, and Guy Pène du Bois — led to a long association with Provincetown, beginning with a summer he spent there in 1923, and his first full year there in 1929.

“Iconoclastic rebellion was never Tworkov’s bent,’’ writes the art historian David Anfam in an essay in the show’s catalog. Tworkov himself was adamant that “Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero.’’

This skepticism in the face of the heroic rhetoric that so defined his time was related, perhaps, to Tworkov’s own susceptibility to influence. And no bigger influence is evident in the early part of the show than that of his mentor Willem de Kooning.

The two men met during their time on the WPA Federal Art Project, and occupied neighboring studios in the 1940s. In Tworkov’s works such as “Seated Woman (Wally),’’ an image of tense anxiety in surprisingly soft, undefinable shades hovering between chalky mustard and pink, you can’t miss the signs of de Kooning’s pre-Abstract Expressionist phase. In Tworkov’s 1950-52 canvas “The Sirens,’’ we see the influence of the Dutchman’s developing idiom of layered and scraped back surfaces, and his notion of content as “a glimpse.’’

Incidentally, the exhibition includes, in addition to photos of Tworkov taken by the likes of Irving Penn and Arnold Newman, a display case with archival material relating to Tworkov’s life. One of the items is a letter from de Kooning from Provincetown. “Dear Jack,’’ it begins in a confident, looping scrawl, “I am stuck here. Could you send me $50?’’

In contrast to his Abstract Expressionist peers, who spent the war years making major breakthroughs and getting entangled in competitive jealousies, Tworkov stopped painting from 1942 to 1945 to help the war effort, working 60-hour weeks as a tool designer.

When he resumed, it was with a sense of returning to the fray, stirred by fresh excitement and a sense of communal discovery. A movement was afoot. “1949 was for me the most exciting year,’’ he said, explaining: “Suddenly we realized that we were looking at each other’s work and talking to one another, not about Picasso and Braque.’’

Admittedly, his own best work of this early period — an untitled still life showing a blue pitcher, a carafe holding deep red wine, gray grapes, a green apple, an unripe banana, and two oranges — is an amalgam of School of Paris innovations (Picasso’s sharp angles, Braque’s flattened space, Matisse’s intense local color). And yet it thrives on its own terms — one of those rare works which seems to transform pleasure into visual intelligence and intelligence back into pleasure.

Tworkov’s interest in expressing himself verbally never left him. His journals (selected and edited by Mira Schor in a Yale University Press volume last year) contain some of the most eloquent and insightful writings of the period. They are blessedly free, moreover, of the bombast and prolixity of artists like Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Newman.

“The artist who acts as if he could have conceived his art by himself, sealed off from other artists and their work and their thoughts,’’ he wrote in 1958, “is stupid — he merely tries to conform to the idiotic romantic image of the artist as a primeval energy, as a demi-urge.’’

For more than a decade, however, Tworkov did pursue a style of painting that seemed, like the productions of Franz Kline, de Kooning, Pollock, and Motherwell, to tap into something primal, if not quite primeval. This was full-blown Abstract Expressionism.

Caught up in the snowballing excitement, Tworkov produced big canvases with vigorous swipes of the brush, decentered compositions, and drenching painterly effects. And yet, none of his Abstract Expressionist paintings here have quite the authority and conviction of Tworkov’s more celebrated peers. There’s something flaccid and oddly washed out about them.

“As if revolting against the sogginess of my feelings,’’ he wrote around this time, “I’ve been trying to make a series of light, very trivial, almost facetious paintings.’’ The result of this endeavor was a series of large abstract paintings restricted to the colors red, white, and blue. Some kind of ironic reference to the flag seems to have been at the back of Tworkov’s mind, but it was hardly the point. As paintings, they’re hit and miss, but one of them, “Spring Weather,’’ in which an intense crimson color streams from the top of the frame, is a stunner.

During this period Tworkov was honored with two solo shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was a founding member of the Eighth Street Club and he showed with Leo Castelli.

But his painting, he felt, “had reached a stage where its forms had become predictable and automatically repetitive. Besides, the exuberance that was a condition of the birth of this painting could not be maintained without pretense forever.’’

Where Pollock’s response to a similar apprehension seems to have been a steep increase in alcohol intake and a suicidal car trip, Tworkov was able to switch to a lower gear. And so around the time he took up a teaching post at Yale (where he transformed the art program into one of the best in the country) he started making works that were based on straight-lined geometries, especially grids.

He liked, he said, the sense this kind of painting gave him of a connection with “something that exists besides, outside, myself.’’ It was “less hypocritical,’’ he felt, to paint this way than to fake the “ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for.’’

Many of the resulting canvases, including “Crossfield I’’ from 1968 and “Idling II’’ from 1970, feel like real victories — rhythmically repeated marks over geometric structures, resulting in commandingly harmonious orchestrations of what Tworkov called “measured and random activity.’’

Tworkov kept painting compelling works into the 1980s. According to his friend, the poet Stanley Kunitz, he admitted near the end of his life to having “misgivings about my present work.’’

Well, he was nothing if not candid. But misgivings and doubt are animating. They put Tworkov, at any rate, in the same company as that other great doubter, his hero, Cézanne, about whom Picasso famously said, “It is his anxiety that forces our interest.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

JACK TWORKOV: Against Extremes: Five Decades of Painting At: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown. Through Aug. 22. 508-487-1750, www.paam.org