Jan 1971: An interview with Jack Tworkov, Part 1 of 2
An Interview with Jack Tworkov, Part 1 of 2
by Phyllis Tuchman / © Phyllis Tuchman
Artforum, January 1971, pp 62-68
(The following interview was originally published in the January 1971 issue of Artforum. The interview appeared just months before Tworkov's new paintings would open at the Whitney Museum of American Art and French & Co.)
Do you think that your experience or observation as a student in the Art Students League during the 20’s was very much different from (or like) your experience as chairman of the art department at Yale during the 60’s?
Well, I think the whole scene has changed. No one at the time looked to the university for an art education nor was there any effort to incorporate art into a university system. A student didn’t go to Art school to get a degree. There was only the relationship between the student and the teacher and student to student. The student really went to school to get what he thought he needed. Whereas I think there are an awful lot of people going to school just to get a degree. Art is one of the ways to trudge through college. If you’re not sure what you want to be, maybe you take art courses. So there are really an awful lot of people taking art in the schools for not terribly valid reasons. On the other hand, universities, in trying to incorporate the schools into their general educational system, have imposed degreed and grades which, in a way, make very little sense in an art program. You can justify degrees in those professions where, say, the degree means some protection for society, like medicine or engineering or accounting. But it certainly doesn’t make any sense to have that kind of criteria applied to an artist. As the century has progressed, it has become more and pore impossible to teach art at all, in the ordinary sense of teaching. The art teacher now acts as sort of critic and understanding audience. But if you are confronted by a class of students, each one going in a different direction, there is very little of what is called basic art that will make any real difference.
Except for some schools where they insist purely on drawing and painting from life and landscape, there’s no other school that I know of which has a coherent program, has a coherent curriculum that it can teach. So the teacher ends up discussing current art trends and analyzing them for the students, interpreting them for the students in the best way that he can. The student takes what he can out of it and then the teacher perhaps criticizes his work on the basis of the direction which he himself indicates, often a direction that isn’t even sympathetic to the teacher. It’s a very loosely structured thing. The university doesn’t really know how to absorb such a thing as a modern art school into its system. The administration is bedeviled by the idea. And the school in turn is bedeviled by the demands that the university makes for grades and for systematic qualifications for a degree. Actually though, its not as Anarchic as I seem to indicate, but there is a loose structure. And I know a good student manages to get a good deal out of the school, but there’s also an awful lot of dead wood which moves through the university schools, ending in an MFA.
I think that everything depends so much on differences of sensibility. For myself, I don’t see how you can be an artist without valuing art, which means, in a sense, without valuing the tradition which art inherits. I don’t believe that every generation can completely invent art or that such an invention would have much meaning. I think that the best of what we have in Modern art derives from a tradition, derives form a past and is as strong as that tradition is strong. If that tradition is weak, then our art is weak. If the 20th century is adjudged a good century, then our art will have some meaning. If the 20th century is adjudged a bad century, then it won’t.
How did you come to see or use composition in your paintings, lets say, in the fifties and more recently?
In the fifties, I was not thinking in terms of composition. In fact, I was thinking more in terms of anti-composition, not composing. There was a naïve point of view involved. The idea was that if you did not circumscribe yourself with ideas about composition, if you permitted a kind of direct flow, just following clues as you worked, then you would come to a certain amount of more true painting. That sometimes these things were frustrated is absolutely true. I think that quite a good deal of bad painting was made that way. But I think the instinct to go that way was a good one, especially for the period. But every painter who has followed that track of unpremeditated approaches to the canvas, searching all the time, never allowing himself to fall into clichés of his own making, finally realizes that what is possible to the method is very circumscribed. The revelation that you constantly hope for doesn’t necessarily happen.
The subconscious seems to produce more or less the same material all the time, does not seem to throw up terrifically new revelations. Why it doesn’t, I don’t know. Maybe a grown person is already too circumscribed. A grown person is already too established before he deals with painting. The only other way in which you can open up the path is by permitting the mind to work on the material the subconscious throws up. And therefore you really need a kind of unique process, a combining of the unconscious, unpremeditated search with the conscious use of the material which comes up. So, I have deliberately turned towards planning, towards working from drawings, and to following drawings. There too, I have to eliminate a lot of things and settle on some choices that seem to be more necessary than others. What astonishes me is that while the instinct of the painter is to constantly widen his experience and horizon, somehow it always becomes necessary also to discard things, and to limit one’s self in order to achieve anything. This is a paradox in the artist’s work and it is a very painful one, but I think it’s absolutely true. On the one hand, you’d like to break out; on the other hand, you cannot achieve anything without narrowing the way to go, without limiting yourself to some degree as to what you can do.
Why have you limited your palette so much recently?
I don’t know if there is a single answer to that. The simplest answer would be that I became interested in a certain kind of drawing, and that by my limiting my color interest I was able to concentrate on form. Some of the paintings for me became like the extension of drawing. I saw no great difference between drawing on a piece of paper and drawing on a canvas. If the esthetic experience was valid in one, then it was in the other. And yet, that’s not quite the answer. I developed a kind of distaste for color, precisely because color had become so much of an emphasis in painting – for the idea that color had to always be primary colors, clear, singing primary colors. It became very distasteful to me. Essentially, I see anything as color. Anything that you can see is color. I also reject certain psychological connotations in connection with color. Someone asked me today if in painting I get suggestions from nature, from the thing I look at, especially where color is involved. The question struck me as being rather queer because it suddenly occurred to me – and it had never occurred to me before – that my own inspiration for colors are the colors on the painting table. It’s the way they affect me rather than anything exterior. My attitude towards color is the same as my attitude towards charcoal. Its simply something I can make a mark with. To some degree, my gray paintings are the result of my charcoal drawings. My charcoal drawings preceded my paintings. For a long time I was making dark, gray charcoal drawings (since 1956 or earlier). For a long time I didn’t paint these drawings although I wanted to, because I always thought that I had to translate those drawings in terms of color, until it occurred to me, why do I have to interpret them in color? My whole fascination was with the charcoal drawings as they were. Then it became a problem to come as close to the charcoal drawings in color as I possibly could.
On this level, I could say this is my conscious thinking about it. Unconsciously, perhaps, there are other reasons. I have sometimes wondered if the emptying out of the painting -- whether it is of drawing or imagery or, as in my case, of color – is not a historical thing, has nothing to do with personal psychology. I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I have sometimes thought that abstract painting generally in the 20th century is, perhaps, on the social level (rather than on the individual level) an expression of despair. It’s very difficult for me to crow about modern art. I feel that whatever gains have been made (I couldn’t name them, though I know what the losses have been), the losses have been tremendous.
Well, for instance, I have occasionally set problems for myself deliberately. Like, for instance, a green painting. I painted a number of green paintings because I was really curious why green was such a difficult color to use in painting. To use almost unmodulated reds and greens in painting was difficult and so I tried to use them. I think it’s natural for a painter to sometimes search out problems that pose difficulties for painting or for himself personally and try to find out why they are difficulties. So I, for a long time, worked with a few but primary colors. I made a number of monochromatic yellow paintings. I think just simply because some aspect of my paintings present some kind of challenge that I would like to find out something about. I have a kind of aversion for what I call decorators colors. But I always thought of color as a kind of structural element (I don’t know how else to describe it). Simply, a means with which to structure. I think that color, the texture of the pigment, it’s flow, the canvas itself, the shape of the rectangle, are all structural elements – all equally structural elements in the making of an essentially abstract painting. So that for me, the idea of making a painting in which color is the sole effect is not an appealing idea.
How have you dealt with scale through the years?
There are some phrases, some words used in connection with painting, that are always ambiguous to me. for instance, the word scale, space, movement, sometimes people use the word “time” in referring to painting: they all are ambiguous words. I take scale always to mean the relationship between things. In the case of painting, I find it very hard to apply the word scale to it because its come to mean large, it’s come to mean size, rather that a relationship to something within the canvas or exterior to it. The only time that you can really speak of scale is if you paint for a specific site, if you have a specific site in mind. If you were a mural painter, than the question of scale would enter in. but I don’t see where the problem of scale enters into most studio painting. So the result is people now speak simply of scale when they mean large. They mean size. Now how large to make a painting today, I don’t know. It largely depends on the condition of your studio. Some studios permit you to make very large paintings; some studios limit the size of the paintings. The only other sense in which the word scale can be used, as far as I can see, is that there does seem to be a relationship between how full the surface is in relationship to size. It seems to me that as the painting empties out, it does seem to call for larger and larger size (as we’ve seen throughout the recent history of painting). The more you take out of the surface, evidently, the larger the painting becomes merely to achieve some sort of presence. You could make a landscape on a very small scale, in a very small size, and still achieve the illusion of a very large space. Whereas with modern painting, so often the kind of space implied is exactly equal to the dimensions of the canvas. In other words, the illusion of space, in that sense, disappears, does not exist.
For one thing, I think that there’s a natural situation. If you put the canvas on the wall when you paint, as I do, so that you always approach it from the front, its just a matter of biology in that way that you brush the canvas. There is a top and bottom. There is a way in which the paint flows. Of course, if you eliminated all paint and brush sensations and all drawing, I suppose you could get to a point where the viewing angle would be the same from every position; or if you spray the canvas, maybe there is no necessary top or bottom. I use the brush. While there is a good deal of random activity in the brushwork, I do know what I want from the brush; I do know what I want from the paint. Anyone looking at the painting would know what the top was and what the bottom was. I’ve also watched students sometimes paint and in order to achieve a greater randomness of effect, they would paint the picture from all sides. They would revolve their picture, resting it at first on one edge and then on the other. I always felt that there was already enough confusion, that this adds even more. I know the areas where I want to leave the painting to random qualities, I also know where I want to insist on the few things that I can insist on.
In the fifties, did you pile paint as much for surface effects as for random activity?
Oh yes. I think that the idea – it all goes back to – if you eliminate subject, if you eliminate references to nature – then I feel that one of the significant things left is the trace of the hand. I know that there is an argument against the trace of the hand in present-day painting. This is the argument that has been made by a number of contemporary painters. But I believe that is among the few things left that can still be serious in art, this trace of the hand. It is the way a man reveals so much of himself, just precisely by the way he handles the paint, the way he treats the material, by the way he permits its flow, or contains its flow. There is a whole range of thought and feeling in that process. I wouldn’t want to erase it. I played around for a while with the elimination of surface of that kind. But I think that its just one more significant element that is taken out of painting which points constantly to zero painting.
I know I’ve eliminated an awful lot in my own painting, maybe urged on by the same things that have urged on other artists who have reduced the content of their pictures. But I find myself pushed on in that direction somewhat unwillingly. I go along up to a point out of curiosity, out of a desire to find out. But if I could, I would like to increase the content and weight of a picture, rather than reduce it anymore. Certainly, I don’t want to go towards zero painting. One aspect of abstract painting was to examine itself; that is, to examine painting itself as a subject. I think that part of this examination was paint, pigment, really. People speak about it as color, but pigment involves something else besides color. And I think there was a real interest in paint for its own sake because it was the medium, the medium that you work with. There was a tremendous amount of curiosity about what you could do with the medium, what the medium is. And I look upon medium as a writer or poet would look upon words, to experiment with its range, what is possible to the medium.
Again, in a sense, it is dictated by the idea of what is possible to abstract painting. I think it is also important to remember that abstract painting is not terribly old as painting goes and part of this experiment was due to the fact that this represented something new in painting. It needed that kind of experimentation. Of course, at this point, almost anybody can ask: Why do you have to insist on abstract painting? I do think that is an extremely serious question. I’ve battled with that question ever since I turned toward abstract painting. In my case, certainly, it was not because I had a distaste for representational painting (there was too much there that I loved and that I like. And, also, I was not altogether unskilled in it). I could have developed in that direction. It’s just really that I could not see, for myself at any rate, that references to nature had that kind of serious implication anymore. It fact, it seemed to me that in some cases, references to landscape, to figure, had for some painters created a more decorative picture than the abstract styles had. If you take the word decoration as representing a less serious attitude in art, a more ingratiating kind of picture, then it seems to me that the references to figure and landscape sometimes are, in that sense, even more decorative, more ingratiating. And I don’t have to point out that as far as conveying information is concerned, representational painting is vastly inferior to other available media.