Over the last half century the hierarchy of Abstract Expressionist painters has become solidified and rigid. At the pinnacle are Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Newman. Reinhardt, Kline and Mitchell occupy the next tier. Over the decades, various exhibitions have argued for the elevation of Gottlieb, Krasner, Pousette-Dart, Cavallon, Tobey, Marca-Relli and Frankenthaler. Yet only that master of shifting, ironic form James Brooks might arguably be raised above the pack.
AbEx is a sly formal mistress, so inviting in its claims for freedom of creation, yet quite judgmental when paint is realized on canvas. The latest argument lies in a beautifully hung retrospective at UBS Gallery of Jack Tworkov, a disciple of the movement's Abraham, Arshile Gorky -- who looms above any kind of ranking -- and a student of the great teacher and jester of AbEX, Hans Hofman, who also floats outside the box.
David Anfam's catalogue essay for the show usefully categorizes Tworkov's work as "thickets,” argues that the frequent muddle of Tworkov's brush was the result of "urbanization,” but basically concedes that Tworkov was never able to outwrestle his influences and rivals and find a unique hold on his own expression of abstraction. Tworkov looked like a wrestler: His majestic bull head recalls the actor Donald Pleasance. Indeed there is a possibility that the thickness of Tworkov's practice is a kind of self-portraiture which gets in the way of excellence like the sweaty forearms of an opponent on the mat.
The core of this show, for an artist who altered his style but not his overall obsession with dominating the picture plane five times in his career, are Tworkov's AbEx efforts between 1954 and 1960. Barrier, for example, from 1960, studiously blends the de Kooning of the period with Franz Kline's brushstrokes to form the suggestion of a threatening storm. From the same year, Thursday is a semaphore of orange splashes over pine green field, also redolent of Kline.
Transverse (1957) is an ugly blend of blue-grays and the pinks which often attracted Tworkov's eye, perfectly demonstrating Tworkov's utter confusion about the picture plane. The same is true of Blue Cradle from 1956, which overlays blues and grays for no apparent purpose. There is too much thickness in these thickets for quality to emerge. When Tworkov became the head of the painting and sculpture department at Yale in the 1960s, he seemed to realize the weakness of his output and disciplined himself with much better work.
Weirdly, the work of this period anticipates the future of a certain kind of abstraction. Crossfield (1968) is a sensitive play of grass and light over a thinly drawn grid which anticipates the painter Jack Bush, and Idling II from 1970 rains sheets of gray tinsel which point the way to Pat Steir. Partition (1971) is a small masterpiece of visual control, a frieze of green tree toads in a field of puke, for those who are anthropomorphically inclined. By 1975, Tworkov throws in the towel by using overlapping triangles in a forgettable series which seem to telegraph his surrender to the tyranny of the picture plane. His was a noble effort but one, like so many other in the grim roster of AbEx, that fell short of originality and grandeur.
"Jack Tworkov: Against Extremes -- Five Decades of Painting," Aug. 13-Oct. 27, 2009, at the UBS Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).