The painter Janice Biala (1903-2000), known to history primarily by her surname, was an integral figure in the art scene of mid-twentieth century Manhattan. Sister of painter Jack Tworkov, friend of Willem de Kooning and critic Harold Rosenberg, Biala was in the thick of a milieu that gave rise to the New York School. While not an Abstract Expressionist per se, she was shaped by its hardscrabble verities. Biala’s artistic process, whether embodied in zooming brushstrokes or an agitated flurry of ripped paper, is unimaginable without them.
Biala didn’t yield to abstraction. Things in the world–concrete objects we hold, traverse or trip over–were her art’s impetus and end-point. The ages old endeavor of working from life puts Biala’s achievement at odds with prevailing notions of avant-gardism, of forward momentum and innovation. But looking at her pictures of unapologetic domesticity—Biala’s immediate surroundings served as inspiration–you wonder why the improbable marriage of de Kooning’s hurly-burly and Edouard Vuillard’s intimisme shouldn’t, in and of itself, be considered radical. At the very least, it’s a tough row to hoe.
The tension between pure abstraction and the everyday accrues most bluntly in Biala’s collages. Forget Kurt Schwitter’s loving accumulations of detritus or Max Ernst’s adroitly choreographed absurdities–a Biala collage like Vitrine (c. 1961) storms with impatience; scraps of paper, roughly geometric in form, align along a barely discernible grid. Elsewhere, an arcing tumble of tawny swatches coalesce into a tangible shape–a seated figure. An abrupt swipe of rust-red oil paint coupled with rambunctious shards of tan paper ultimately reveals a parent and child. The collages aren’t strictly representational, but the specificity of motif is felt as underlying structure–Biala captures its heft and integrity, albeit in abbreviated or obscured manner.
At other moments, Biala was considerably more deliberate and the resulting images are readily apparent–a stately clatter of houses in Provincetown, say, or the blocky effigies of a pianist and a cellist in the whimsical Untitled (The Concert) (c. 1957). Whatever speed she was traveling or however brusque the composition, Biala remained true to the world out there.
Biala’s investigations into collage would never reach the same level of intensity as they did during the years 1955-1960. In this tight knit group of works, we see her channeling Matisse’s élan, Braque’s unassuming virtuosity and we feel her debt, grateful and profound, to Velazquez. In each of the collages, you experience the heady excitement of an artist tussling with process, precedent and the unexpected poetry of the everyday.
This essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Biala: Collages 1957-1963, a 2009 exhibition at Tibor De Nagy Gallery.