About “Trace” (1966): a painting bridging two phases and seven decades of painting
by Jason Andrew
In a career that played out over seven decades, two phases become clear in the work of Jack Tworkov, which emphasize the artist’s progressive, conceptual, and humanist approach to painting. Throughout his career, Tworkov fundamentally reinvented painting for himself. The first phase connects Tworkov as one of the giants of the first generation of Abstract Expressionism. The second, often argued into silence, links him with the rising new dialogue of minimalism.
Called a Radical Pro by Art News in April 1964 for this shift in composing his distinct painterly mark, Tworkov had begun studying elementary geometry and it is around this time that the structure of his paintings took a cooler more measured approach. Emphatic about his desire to “paint no Tworkovs,” the aim of this second phase was to arrive at a painting style in which planning did not exclude intuitive and sometimes “random play.”
Trace, painted in 1966, straddles these two phases.
When approached by the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Thomas M. Messer, to organize a retrospective of his work at the museum, Tworkov, in a bold move of independence, insisted on a show that focused solely on the paintings made over the past fifteen years. “In an exhibition concerned with Tworkov’s lifework,” Messer wrote in the preface for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition:
“the absence of the production of the fifties and the first half of the sixties would be unthinkable […] the two Tworkovs ultimately comprehensible as one, stand to each other in a dialectic relationship that is close to the central meaning of his art. Our purpose, however, is to isolate Tworkov’s classic strain and to bring before the viewer works indicative of the range and the fullness of this geometric mode.”
Trace was the painting that opened this now historic exhibition at the Guggenheim in April 1982.
As indicated by an inscription on the painting’s verso upper left in pencil, the densely gestural, largely monochromatic, and seemingly spontaneous mark of Trace was actually composed after an untitled drawing dated 1958, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s interesting to note that the painting was made five years after the museum acquired the drawing. Tworkov must have either referenced a reproduction or recited the drawing from memory in the creation of the painting. The very title of the painting suggests a “trace” of Tworkov’s origin of a painting that spans the 1950s to the 1960s.
The drawing, and Trace as the subsequent painting that it inspired, relates to a series of works on paper Tworkov generated largely in the mid-1950s called “ACD” or “Abstract Charcoal Drawings.” These works not only focus on the unique mark of the artist but also what could be described as Tworkov’s “veiled procedures,” which owe debt to the dense drawing of post impressionist painter George Seurat (1859-1891). Writing in his journal, Tworkov explains this modernist source and influence on his current painting:
I believe that the rather black conté drawings of Seurat had some influence on me. I came to appreciate these drawings not as sketches for paintings, but for the quality of monochromatic grey and black and for the role stroke played in building up masses. I conceived the desire to carry over these qualities into the material and scale of paintings. My recent paintings go much further in approaching this point of view.
Tworkov’s journals and studio notes provide a unique understanding of his process. One such entry, written on June 22, 1966, perhaps alludes to the very making of Trace:
I’m trying to finish two paintings. I turn from one to another. Every time I pick one up, I hope it will be the end. It is like trying to land a great fish. You have to give it all the time that’s necessary. If you are too impatient, you lose it. I have to wait. Until I can call them finished. I can’t start anything else. In fact, it’s hard to leave the studio even when I can’t work. I stare and stare and consider every move. The picture is there and yet not there. The right five minutes will secure it, the wrong minute… and it swims out of my hands.
How come I am so attracted to the paintings as they are, yet I can’t accept them? Because I am still clothing them with possibilities. When the last possibility fits or is rejected, the pictures will stand. How long for that moment?
An earlier journal entry dated from March 2, 1959, is completely relatable to Trace:
The prevailing mood of these paintings suggest an action in a noiseless landscape (an effect of an action that is soundless as if seen by a telescope from a great distance—an action always in a thicket, ambiguous, as if one could not tell if it were murder or a love scene).
“Trace is a last reprise of the poetic ambiguity that Tworkov developed from his figure paintings of the late 1940s,” Richard Armstrong wrote on the occasion of Tworkov’s first posthumous retrospective which he organized at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in 1987. Certainly this is true. As with every painting by Tworkov, the artist offers the viewer experience of searching for meaning—the search for subject. And yet, it was Tworkov’s great aspiration and pursuit, especially realized in Tworkov’s rarely seen “second phase,” to produce an art that does not strive for any overt significance or meaning. “I have to believe in an art that does not set out to reflect the world or life,” Tworkov wrote in a letter to Andrew Forge, “I nevertheless feel some inner deprivation, some sorrowful regret that my art is not more explicitly some expression of existence outside and beyond myself.”
Perhaps this is the reasoning for the small red dot placed in the middle left of the painting. To remind us, the viewer, that in the end, the painting is emphatically a painting—it’s about gesture, surface, color, and texture.
Trace, is an example of the very greatest art in that it traffics between two extremes: the hot gesture of Abstract Expressionism and the cool contemporary mastery of minimalism.
Jason Andrew is the Director of the Estate of Jack Tworkov, a position he has held since 2002. He is currently overseeing the catalogue raisonné project as Lead Editor for the Estate of Jack Tworkov.