Jack Tworkov’s Figural Drawings Illuminate his Legendary Abstractions

One of Abstract Expressionism’s defining figures, Jack Tworkov helped to develop mid-century abstract painting, and later turned from gestural painting and began to lay the groundwork for future movements of geometric abstraction. Nonetheless, representational drawing was essential to Tworkov throughout his life and continued even as he painted amorphous fields and hard-edge Euclidean forms. A new show of his figure drawings at Valerie Carberry Gallery in Chicago provides a view of his working process and his life outside of abstraction.      

Elements of figuration can be seen in Tworkov’s abstractions and vice versa, and seeing these studies, drawings, and finished works provides a richer, deeper understanding of his oeuvre. Two works, one called Untitled (Seated Figure) (ca. 1945-50), another called Untitled (Seated Woman) (1953), are quick gestural drawings in energetic black ink. The former is executed wet and dripping, the latter in dry brush marks. Tworkov constructs these figures in varying degrees of abstraction, forming dynamic compositions from coalescing and arching lines that resemble some of his abstract expressionist paintings from this era. On the whole, his work tends to retain the semblance of the natural world, no matter how nonrepresentational the individual works may first appear. An earlier gouache painting, his 1938 Untitled (Street Scene), shows a Cubist image that is legible as a crowd and buildings when read as a development between a realist mode and one of expressionism, with riotous swaths of color jostling each other like pedestrians.

Some works, such as One-Minute Drawings of a Model (1963), show his working process. Many artists, no matter what kind of work they do, will often draw quick, but detailed, sketches from life, warming up their hand and eye—drawing the two essential organs into close relation before taking on studio work on more developed paintings, sculptures, prints, or the like. These rough, developmental figures are a unique look into the artist’s working methods and studio practice.

One can see the near-culmination of these studies in Untitled “Study for Athene” (ca. 1949), which comes close to the finished composition of his oil painting Athene, made in that same year. The reaching figural form in yellow against a ground of blue and black was made possible by concerted study of the essential relationships of the body in movement, its vitality lent to abstraction through an understanding of the realism of the human form. Such keyhole glimpses provide an invaluable insight into the artist and his work.

 —Stephen Dillon

Jack Tworkov: Drawing the Figure” is on view at Valerie Carberry Gallery, Chicago, Nov. 13, 2014–Jan. 10, 2015.

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