Owing to its timeless insights about artmaking and life, art teachers traditionally assign Ashcan School painter Robert Henri’s 1923 collection of writing, The Art Spirit, to beginning painters. The newly-released collection, The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, seems destined to be another such classic. Edited and annotated by painter Mira Schor, the 500-page book includes letters, lectures, journal entries, and published essays from the 1930s to the 1980s in which Tworkov intersperses unpretentious philosophical inquiry with progress reports from the studio. One of the primary players among the New York School painters in the 1950s, Tworkov recognized that his ideas were often at odds with prevailing theories. Nevertheless, he was committed to teasing out not what he ought to believe, but what he actually believed. The book is rooted in Tworkov’s era, which spanned the rise and decline of American painting, and manages to entertain readers with amusing anecdotes about his famous cohort while also imparting wisdom gained from a lifetime spent in the studio. Here are some excerpts.
“Every art can only say what the medium allows it to say. Every change in medium is a change in content. A painter knows that what was originally suggested by charcoal can never be said in paint. If you paint you say one thing. If you stain you say another. If you paste, you say still another. By the time you use a computer you will say an utterly different thing—that’s why painting will go on…” Feb. 12, 1967
“Among artists much more sure of their seeing, there is a much more instantaneous agreement on the worth of a painting than there is among laymen. It is interesting to note and compare the artist’s positive tone in speaking of a painting and the layman’s hesitativeness and vagueness. The layman is vague because he is guessing, because he does not see as fast, or at all [what], the artist sees….” October 16, 1961
“My main problem at Yale [Tworkov chaired the Art Department 1963-1969] was to establish the degree of my responsibility and authority. To smother the fights of the faculty, which mostly was between Chaet and Peterdi on the one hand and Albers followers on the other…” November 19, 1963
“A Mr. Slesinger from the Guggenheim Foundation called to say that I’ve been awarded a fellowship. Because of the mail strike they could not mail the award. So Wally [his wife] went to the office to pick it up. What is strange is that Motherwell and Geldzahler are on the jury, two people I have no high regard for….” March 20, 1970
“There was a time when painters could ignore what critics said about painting, since it was agreed that they did not know what they were talking about. Now it is no longer true. Critics have caught up with painting. They are talking sense about it. And that is perhaps what is wrong with painting. Painting needs once more to go beyond ABC.” Feb. 12, 1967
An exhibition of Tworkov’s paintings, organized by Jason Andrew and the Estate of Jack Tworkov, will be at the UBS Art Gallery, New York, NY, August 13-November 13, 2009.