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The Extreme of the Middle

The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov

Edited by Mira Schor
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 512
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  • Book Info
    The Extreme of the Middle
    Book Description:

    Jack Tworkov (1900-1982) was a significant figure of the Abstract Expressionist period. A noted painter, he was one of the first group of artists who defined the ideals of the New York School, along with Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Franz Kline, among others. This book, the first collection of Tworkov's writings, sheds new light on the lives and studio practices of Tworkov and his colleagues as well as on Tworkov's artistic theories and values.

    These enlightening and intimate writings-personal journals and letters, teaching notebooks, correspondence with other artists, previously unpublished essays, and published articles-are introduced and annotated by Mira Schor, who provides an informed account of an important artist and thinker. The book is enriched by photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, and Robert Rauschenberg; family photographs with Hans Hofmann, John Cage, Kline, and others; and reproductions of some of Tworkov's finest work.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18581-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Editor’s Note
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxxii)

    Anyone who ever heard Jack Tworkov speak will remember his voice, with its slightly cracked timbre and its distinctive mixture of cadences and intonations. Surprisingly strong traces of an eastern European accent were overlaid with more American tones, including something indescribably like a southern accent, most notably exemplified in his pronunciation of the wordverra—as in, “I find that verra interesting.” Although he was a much sought-after teacher and lecturer on modern painting, he was self-conscious enough about his speaking voice that he tried to improve it by reading Milton’sParadise Lostout loud alone in his studio.¹ His...

  6. Part I Identity and Identifications

    • “I Was Born Yakov Tworkovsky”
      (pp. 3-5)

      Most people are born with names. I had to acquire one. Indeed I was born with a name as usual but it was not destined to be my name for very long. The name I have finally acquired I have to grow into like a foot into a badly shaped shoe. Even tho I named myself I never really got used to it until it rebounded from the world towards me, on gas bills, WPA checks, contracts, divorce papers, and finally and most importantly on the birth certificates of my children. By the time I saw my name in the...

    • “Notes on My Painting”
      (pp. 6-14)

      In the studio I have the illusion of autonomy. I make sketches, drawings, plans and tack them on the wall. I consult preceding paintings and consider strategies for the next one. I make purely automatic drawings on scratch pads that take moments to do and make hundreds of them, saving a few, throwing most of them away. Out of these the seeds of paintings sometimes come. Some relate to what I’m doing, others are reserved as maybes. Maybe I get to them. Maybe not. I’ve also made whole series of paintings extending over a considerable period of time, several years,...

  7. Part II “Dear Pond Lilies”

    • Letters to Wally Tworkov, 1936–37
      (pp. 17-28)

      TUESDAY, AUGUST 4, 1936

      My darling,

      It is hot. It’s been that way for days it seems. The sweat accumulates in large beads and rolls into the hollows of your eyes, chin, throat, nape of the neck. On your body the clothes soak up the sweat. Everything is sticky. All this when you lie perfectly still. If you move it’s like walking through an invisible soup.

      I’ve been reading the newspapers, but not much of what I read gets into my head. Instead, isolated words or phrases, or the effluvia they throw off, suddenly strike up images in my mind,...

  8. Part III The Extreme of the Middle

    • Journals and Diaries, 1947–63
      (pp. 31-151)

      Style is the effect of pressure. A body of water is still or turbulent according to the bed, the course—obstacles present or absent, environment such as open or sheltered shores, etc. In the artist the origin of pressure is in his total life—heredity, experience and will (he has to will to be an artist)—but the direction flows according to the freedom he allows his creative impulse.

      Where a style develops that is not the effect of organic pressure, it is merely like an artificial pool with no capacity for self-renewal and development—the work is manufactured. When...

    • Published Writings, 1948–78
      (pp. 152-188)

      An artist tries to maintain within himself a center that is inviolate. He marks out an area from which he tries to keep out the world. It is a listening post for interior communication; his redoubt against the outside. There he brings together all the strength and original force he can to the solution of the problem.

      But his defenses are ever assailed and frequently overwhelmed by the wills and ideas of others. He is then forced to make forays into the exterior—to examine the ideas that assail him, from contemporaries, from history, from philosophy and psychiatry. Whatever he...

    • Private Criticism
      (pp. 189-200)

      I heard from Lewitin the story of Rothko’s last show. It seems 8th street greeted the show with a so what. As 8th Street saw it, it was just a repeat performance. This was openly expressed at 39 and not denied at 35. Worst of all Cedar Bar didn’t even mention his name. There over the beer they were adding up de Kooning’s earnings of the year. When Mummysink, the most noted painter journalist, asked what was the reaction to Rothko’s latest only Purearse who had come with him ventured an opinion to which no one listened. This sad state...

    • Color plates
      (pp. None)
  9. Part IV Tworkov as Teacher

    • Pedagogical Theory
      (pp. 203-207)

      It is appropriate to begin with an undated note in which Tworkov seeks to define the “student.”

      The “student” is often a state of mind, one that is dangerous to prolong too long. Some continue in it to a point where they can never quite abandon it.

      The student state of mind like adolescence can become not a natural transition to adulthood but a disease. The over-ripe student continues his “studies” under the guise of perfecting his means—actually he may be neurotically seeking to postpone the time when he must face himself and assume responsibility for whatever he is....

    • Lecture on Rhythm
      (pp. 208-217)

      There is in some quarters a passionate belief that there was an ancient secret mathematics governing the art of rhythm and proportion which was handed down from ancient Egypt to the Greek philosophers Thales and Pythagoras, and through them to Euclid, and so on down to Piero della Francesca and the Italian Renaissance, and was then lost to posterity, andthenrediscovered by various writers who claim to have thus found the ancient principles by which the artists of the past worked.

      To go into this subject would require a great deal of time. To discuss it at all you...

    • Lecture Notes
      (pp. 218-220)

      […] Subtlety is to profundity what prettiness is to beauty. Dark colors are not more profound than bright colors. Bright colors are not inevitably gay. Nothing is more melancholy than red. Sharp clean painting is not a sign of controlled technique, it may actually be the easiest way out. Crude, tough, splashy painting is not necessarily violent, emotional and subjective. Be suspicious when an artist too openly wears his character on his sleeve. The most repulsive artist is the one that wants to pass [himself] off as a no-nonsense honest John. The no-nonsense honest Johns are no artists. Esthetics of...

    • Tworkov at Yale
      (pp. 221-234)

      One of the last entries in this journal was a note “On teaching,” made as Tworkov prepared himself for his new position and the task ahead.

      On teaching: To define the aims of art teaching we must form a general concept of art. A task nearly impossible. For art is pretty much whatever the artist makes. If then we say the aim of teaching is to form artists we are stopped by the immediate apparent truth that the novels and movies to the contrary there is no such thing as an artist personality. The artist can be generous or mean,...

    • Contemporary Voices in the Arts, 1967
      (pp. 235-246)

      First day of triannual leave from Yale. Came back last night for four days of exhausting reviews. Saw C. this morning and talked about the evening last Monday when I went with Held, Martin, Jimmy (Rosati), Lytle to Jocko’s. Held and Martin ordered several double bourbons, and I had two martinis. The next night I joined the poker game at Chaet’s. It must be decades since I played poker or held a card in my hand. Speculated about male expansiveness, male companionship, etc.

      Went to the studio and took out warp fromSky and Duneand got it ready to...

  10. Part V Longings

    • “The Search for Meaning”
      (pp. 249-251)

      As between art and anti-art I am for art. Not that I want to make any inflated claims for art, and least of all for my own work. But anti-art simply fails to rouse my interest, it leaves me in a state of apathy. Perhaps I am not exact enough. It is perhaps not the work as such that makes me apathetic but that aspect of the work or act in which the intention is clearly understood as antiart. That intention, that attitude of the anti-artist is always too elitist for my stomach. A man who sends in fifty bricks...

    • Notes from New York Hospital, 1969
      (pp. 252-254)

      Personality has become a commercial commodity. A person on the make knows how to put it on. The new permissiveness has made personality synonymous with outrage. If one wants to preserve integrity one must hide ones personality behind a bushel.

      In theTimesthis morning announcing the Nobel awards in Physics occurs this phrase, “A second major discovery in 1961, found that the so called symmetry principle in mathematics could be applied to elementary particle physics.” What is the symmetry principle in mathematics? I must find out. […]

      […] Had a visit yesterday from Alice Morris. She brought meMy...

    • “The Subject Matter of My Recent Paintings”
      (pp. 255-256)

      The subject matter of my recent paintings is the contrast between the measured and the random activity, both subject more or less to the choice of sensibility. The measured activity refers to the measuring of the rectangle on which I am to paint. The measuring points to simple proportional relationships in the rectangle. But given a certain number of located points a variety of patterns and images become possible according to the manner in which they are related by lines. The choice of these patterns and images is the preference of the sensibility—in my case I favor some pattern...

    • Journal, July 1966–March 1975
      (pp. 257-258)

      A painting is not merely paint and work. It is brought into being by desire, by being desired.

      I’m trying to finish two paintings. I turn from one to the other. 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 lost 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...

  11. Part VI Family

    • “Dear Helen”
      (pp. 261-265)

      JUNE 15, 1956

      Dear Helen:

      I opened your present right away, it’s very pretty. You are a dear and thank you very much. I wonder why we don’t celebrate a daughter’s day. I suppose because daughter’s day comes every day. […]



      Dear Helen:

      I read your letter with a great deal of interest. Especially where you refer to Negro prejudices on the part of the girls in your dorm. Because of your letter we bought a copy of theSaturday Evening Post, October 22 issue, in the A&P today when we went to do our...

    • “Dear Hermine”
      (pp. 266-276)

      JANUARY 13, 1958

      Dear Hermine,

      We were just beginning to wonder why we don’t hear from you when your letter came. The bill for tuition was no shock to me, I knew it was due soon. However I do think you ought to speak to the school authorities about a scholarship. We had a little luck last year and so we had the money but one can’t rely on the sales of pictures. It’s really most important, I’d like to know sometime soon what chances you have of getting a scholarship at Antioch. Since you are there you must take...

    • “Dear Erik”
      (pp. 277-279)

      P-TOWN, JULY 11, 1971

      Dear Grand


      whom I hope to see


      in Provincetown.

      It was a pleasure

      to get your


      To read about the


      and the dog made of metal. But

      why do you


      Milk with talk.

      Next time

      try milk with spillk.

      We are getting everything

      ready for you:

      The sky and apple pie

      The grass and a big striped bass

      a flower and a brand new


      some oats for breakfast

      and some boats for after.

      In the meantime

      practice your rime

      and give your dear Pa

      and your dear Ma a big...

    • “Dear Janice and Alain”
      (pp. 280-346)

      DECEMBER 26, 1951

      Dear Alain:

      Here I’m writing the morning of the day after Christmas and I have that relaxed feeling like after moving a mountain. And I shall skip all apologies and explanations as to why I have not written to you before, since that would in itself be a long letter.

      I have a very strong inhibition about writing about art. It is the fear that my own painting might not be strong enough to sustain a large body of ideas. In a word I don’t want to crow about what I think until my painting is something...

  12. Part VII Work and Life, 1973–78

    • Diaries, 1973–75
      (pp. 349-362)

      […] During the first week in Dartmouth, ex-President Johnson died. (I confess I still have a good deal of admiration for that much maligned big Texan, as I had for Truman. They stand for something in the American character quite wonderful, like the best of country music.) Peace was announced.

      Sunday (January 20) the boy living on the floor above me invited me to dinner that evening. I was glad to accept as I was becoming somewhat bored rattling around in this crazy house alone. I went upstairs at six. We were seven at the table. Besides myself and John...

    • “The Medium”
      (pp. 363-364)

      If you were an innovator in tennis and dropped the net, exchanged the rackets for clubs, and the rectangular field for a diamond, I’d say you were thinking of baseball. Or change the court to table size, raise it to waist level and you’re getting into Ping-Pong. Radical innovation often merely crosses the border of one well-known game into another. We refer to all kinds of different things as “the arts,” as we refer to all kinds of different things as games: tiddlywinks, hide and seek, chess. […]

      People leaving painting for non-painting don’t change the balance of the world....

    • “The Critic”
      (pp. 365-366)

      The flight of a wounded bird is touching only in contrast to the perfect flight of the healthy bird. Here it is the critics who confuse us. They will build an art theory on the basis of one wounded bird and demand that all flights should be by wounded birds—or they hold to the opposite view and do not allow the drama of the wounded. Thus Van Gogh was first hissed—and then only wounded art was considered art.

      […] Scandal is still, however, the unsurpassed road to fame.

      Only you must take along your own art critic.


    • Diaries, 1976
      (pp. 367-371)

      I started working again, since I left Provincetown, two days ago. Have been working in charcoal on paper. My aim has been to work without reference to what I’ve done before, to work freely without preconceptions. But inevitably my previous work intrudes. I’ve so far made six drawings. I plan to continue working on paper as my first priority. Although I have about a half a dozen canvases all stretched and sized, which I hope to work on this winter. As far as the canvases are concerned I imagine I will continue the themes I worked last summer. The series...

    • “Blind Man’s Bluff”
      (pp. 372-373)

      Great art surpasses its limits; but since our culture is too sick to set any, the artist must create his own.

      The absence of a cohesive culture that attracts and holds the individual artist’s loyalty compels him to contemplate, evaluate and judge all cultural phenomena by himself, freely. In that process the heritage of the past, classic or however recent are not much help. The artist is thrown entirely on his own sensibilities, perceptions and feelings. He is in fact one playing blind-man’s bluff, hands outreaching, often reaching and touching nothing. When something is encountered he has only his own...

    • Diaries, 1976–78
      (pp. 374-390)

      This morning Wally and I called Erik to wish him a happy birthday. I asked him “how do you feel being ten.” And he said something about having two numbers to his age. And I said I hope you live to have three numbers to your age. Wow, he said, that means I’ll be 100 years old, I hope so, he said. And I said I hope I’ll be around to wish you a happy birthday on your 100th birthday, and we both laughed. I hope so, he said. And then I told him of the story I read yesterday...

  13. Part VIII Late Thoughts

    • “I Have a Certain Inclination to the Monstrous”: Undated Note, 1970s
      (pp. 393-394)

      I have a certain inclination to the monstrous, to that exaggeration which the ego indulges in, in its desire for self-expansion. As an example, you do not merely want to roll, you want to roll like a horse.

      There is in my painting a constant mourning, as if living meant standing by one’s own bier. Yet the bier is also the bed of all pleasure, all sensation, all mortality.

      I continually strive towards candor, to overcome the barriers of embarrassment.

      It is common to think of expression in connection with art and we miss how much is really suppression.


    • Diaries, 1979–80
      (pp. 395-404)

      Miraculously I cheered up the last day of the year, largely due to Wally whose affection and love that day changed my mood. She made a beautiful dinner party New Year’s Eve. Hermine and Bob came, Bob Kramer and Meg, Carol Ashley and Mike Webb, Georgio Cavallon and Zena, Betty Klavun, Elyn Zimmerman and a young painter from Los Angeles whom Bob brought along, John Miller. Somehow or other this disparate group of people just seemed right that night. Everyone stayed till midnight when we opened several bottles of champagne and toasted the New Year, everybody embracing and kissing. Nearly...

    • “Art Saves My Life”: Notes Made on the Train to Providence, RISD, April 22, 1980
      (pp. 405-407)

      […] I have doubts, worries about my present work. It’s true, system does not exclude spontaneity and fresh invention. But it does include an element of the mechanical, the predictable.

      My earlier work, although it also tended to resolve itself into a predictable style or method, nevertheless each painting was preceded (at least at the start) by a void, by the absence of any ascertainable direction.

      In contrast, the present paintings begin with exact drawings, almost equivalent to an architect’s drawing, and the paintings follow the exact surface divisions, proportions and the arrived shapes and forms. Only the actual painting,...

    • “A Nature in Deep Contemplation”: Diaries, 1980–81
      (pp. 408-416)

      […] I haven’t painted for a month. I have two unfinished paintings on the wall easels. I got into the studio for a few hours only to try to draw. I’m still not sure about standing. I’m again caught up trying to break out of the geometric systems I’ve been snared in and try a freer style. I even have difficulty in reviving my interest in the unfinished paintings. I might have decided to scrap them except for Wally who likes the paintings and urges me to finish them.

      I spent the day in the most indolent way. It’s a...

    • “Withdrawal into Silence”
      (pp. 417-417)

      … The withdrawal intosilencebecause the explicit becomes trivial …

      […] The exterior world becomes symbolic, achieves transcendent meaning, only in a cohesive culture in a bounded community. Individualism breaks down the boundaries and the bonds, achieves freedom but loses the largest meanings.

      In our social system individualism and freedom permit unlimited piracy in the economic realm but also in the art world, which has become part of the economic world, to exploit the individual will and ego to the irrational limit.

      What I would call spirit (I cannot find a substitute word) arises out of an acute awareness...

    • Prognosis: Diaries, 1981
      (pp. 418-419)

      Dr. Lovengood at 10:30 a.m. Lovengood’s prognosis was very optimistic. Said I recovered two weeks earlier than expected, told me he would see me again in August, and about every 4 months thereafter. Wally was delighted with the news and called everyone to tell them the good news.

      After Lovengood we went to see Alain’s show. I loved the paintings. Asked Sacks why Alain’s paintings don’t sell. He said people buy the worse art, unless the good art gets enormous publicity.

      Andrew Forge came for lunch and interview for the Guggenheim catalog. We arranged to continue the interview by letter....

    • Letter to Andrew Forge
      (pp. 420-423)

      About my thinking about the contrast between Cézanne and Picasso, I don’t think of Cézanne as a saint withdrawn from the world. But for whatever reason, perhaps out of frustration, he did withdraw. And his passionate search for an intelligible form was utterly free from attention-getting devices. What I treasure in his work is that the passion which I feel in it is not an overt psychological expression but derives from the intense concentration on the work itself. Its grandeur parallels the severity and seriousness of his search. Nowhere does Cézanne indulge in humour as Picasso did so extravagantly. Picasso...

    • Diaries, 1981–82
      (pp. 424-428)

      Wally and I went to the director of the cemetery. We bought a lot for two. Gave the guy a check for $400. The lot is just on the edge of what is the well-cared-for cemetery. But the director said they hoped to extend the watering lines, etc. Said we could plant a pine tree at the site. Got home glad that we got through with that. Got it off our minds.

      Very clear day. Too much involved in the painting of the 72 × 72 to go swimming. Wally went before lunch. In the afternoon Wally and I walked...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 429-461)
  15. Archival Sources
    (pp. 462-464)
  16. Index
    (pp. 465-478)