Review: Biala: Courage of Her Convictions

Edwin Dickinson Portrait of Biala, nee Janice Tworkov (1924) Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm) Private Collection, New York

The New York Sun

September 17, 2013

by Xico Greenwald

Janice Tworkov (1903-2000) changed her name to Biala to differentiate herself from her older brother, Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov. The artist-siblings, Jewish immigrants from Poland raised on the Lower East Side, lived divergent lives.

An action painter, Jack Tworkov played a leading role in shifting the center of the art world from Paris to New York after World War II. Biala, on the other hand, moved to France during the interwar period, where she socialized with some of the leading writers and artists in Europe, including Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Brancusi and Ezra Pound. There she embraced the modernist innovations of synthetic cubism, making quiet cityscapes and interiors that emit the gray light of Paris.

This Queens College retrospective opens with an arresting portrait of 21-year-old Biala by her teacher Edwin Dickinson. The darkly colored portrait is softly modeled with crisp contours; Biala’s gray eyes stare out in a confident, unflinching gaze.

Next to Dickinson’s portrait are several ink-on-paper illustrations for Ford Madox Ford’s “Great Trade Route,” published in 1937. Biala met Ford upon arriving in Paris in 1930 and the couple remained lovers until Ford’s death in 1939. Notable works from this period include dizzying paintings of bull fights, arena pictures alive with movement, and a roughly drawn portrait of Ford, with hash marks over rubbed graphite tones giving the writer’s head sculptural form.

But it is after World War II that Biala came into her own. In “White Façade,” 1950, the shuttered windows of Paris’ limestone buildings are abstracted into thinly painted olive and ochre rectangles. On the right edge of the canvas a tree’s foliage is also simplified into muted green geometry, as the blocky shapes and colors convey an overcast day.

“Nature Morte,” 1963, a tabletop scene, features loose strokes of black carving out a white tablecloth arrangement. The canvas presents a wonderful interplay of negative and positive shapes. In “Table Chargée,” 1963, Biala, working in collage, uses clusters of torn pieces of colored papers to roughly describe an interior.

In the 1980s and 90s Matisse’s influence on Biala seemed to grow as her paintings flatten and objects, including cups, fruits, books and even a cat, are isolated in fields of color.

Neither during her long life nor in the years since her death has Biala’s contribution to art history received the attention it deserves. Museum Director Amy H. Winter says “the politics of gender and style” and the fact that Biala “never fully embraced the mythic freedom and daring associated with abstract expressionism” left the painter “marginalized.” Making “intimate” artworks while living in Paris “rendered her ‘other.’” For Ms. Winter this overdue exhibition “serves as a tribute to artists who, like Biala, persist in remaining faithful to their personal vision.”

BIALA: Vision and Memory on view through October 26, 2013 at Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY, 405 Klaper Hall, 65-30 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, NY, 718-997-4747, www.qc.cuny.edu/godwin_ternbach

Biala and Brustlein, a concurrent exhibition featuring works by Biala and her husband, cartoonist Daniel “Alain” Brustlein is on view through October 27, 2013, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 212-262-5050, www.tibordenagy.com

More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com

Review: Bohemian Rhapsody: Paintings by Janice Biala

Biala, “Vue despuis de la Giudecca,” 1985, Oil on canvas, 77 x 59 in.

The New York Sun

December 13, 2007

By John Goodrich

One of the tangential intrigues of art is the Bohemian lifestyle that often attends it — that liberated, marginal existence that feeds upon and nourishes creative intensity. The painter Janice Biala (1903–2000) lived such a life and lived it to the very fullest.

Her résumé sounds like a potboiler: Overcoming a precarious childhood, she pursued a seven-decade-long career that spanned the art worlds of both New York and Paris, and befriended many of the giants of art and literature on both sides of the Atlantic. Generous but tough — and always opinionated — she produced a unique body of work reflecting her peripatetic life in the limpid, graceful style of French modernist painting. Her geographical and stylistic distance from the New York School meant that she never achieved the fame of some of her contemporaries, but recent shows of her work at Tibor de Nagy Gallery — where her paintings are currently on view until January 5 — have brought her some long-overdue attention.

Biala was born Schenehaia Tworkovska in a region of eastern Poland historically subject to pogroms. By 1913, she left with her Jewish family for a tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side. (The young girl was later to take her hometown’s name as her own. Her older brother Yakov changed his name, too — to Jack Tworkov.) As a teenager, Biala worked various jobs in order to attend classes at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, where she studied with Charles Hawthorne. Edwin Dickinson and William Zorach became her friends and mentors. After a brief and unhappy marriage, Biala left for Paris in 1930, where her encounter with Ford Madox Ford was to change her life.

At age 26, she was less than half the author’s age, but their romantic relationship endured until his death in 1939. For both it marked a time of emotional nourishment and artistic productivity . Through Ford, Biala met such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, Joyce, and Pound. She later wrote that in living for Ford, she had found herself: “He found a little handful of dust and turned it into a human being.” The comment tells not only of the poignant depth of her love, but also the forthrightness of her self-image. Perhaps, though, she undersold herself: When they met, Ford, an inveterate womanizer, was in a deeply depressive and lonely state. Under Biala’s attention, he regained his writing stride, while Biala managed his contracts and illustrated several of his books. After his death, she became his literary executor, staunchly defending his reputation against the insufficient praise of critics.

When Ford died in 1939, Biala barely had time to secure his papers before the Nazi onslaught. She departed for New York, where her brother Jack Tworkov, now well-connected in the New York art world, introduced her to de Kooning and other future Abstract Expressionists. In 1943, Biala married the French artist Daniel Brustlein, best known to New Yorker readers as the cartoonist Alain. Again, theirs was a mutually supportive relationship, as Biala collaborated with Alain in two-person exhibitions and on a number of children’s books. The couple shuttled between Paris and New York for many years before settling permanently in France.

Over the years they befriended Saul Steinberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Mitchell. Biala’s work, regularly exhibited in Paris and New York galleries since the 1930s, appeared in numerous museum shows. She continued to exhibit to the very end, with her final show at Kouros Gallery in 1999. She died the following year at age 97.

Biala lived as she wished — simply but thoroughly, and in the company of remarkable artists and writers. Spanning nearly 40 years, the paintings and mixed-media collages now on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery reflect her unpretentious pleasure in her visual surroundings: the street scenes and monuments of France, Spain, Italy, and Morocco. Her admiration for Matisse shows in her simplified descriptions and planes of bright but subtly adjusted colors. In “Bateau sur la Seine” (1980), myriad grays and greens convincingly catch a river’s surface, alternately absorbing and reflecting light. Just two condensations of color punctuate its expanse: a patch of warm white, perfectly capturing a houseboat’s buoyant weight, and the rich, opaque green of a tree’s foliage rising from the near shore. “Open Window” (c. 1989) records a scene reminiscent of Matisse: a window view framed by vertical notes of curtain, wall, and the glass panes of the inward-turned sash. Biala’s hues beautifully convey the illumination of the interior and do so with a self-satisfaction quite alien to Matisse, whose unease disclosed itself in more compulsive contrasts and more swiftly cutting lines. All of Biala’s paintings seem touched by a tough ingenuousness — never sentimental or naïve, but slightly nostalgic in their playful intimacy. Suffusing them is the outlook of a painter who has found what she needs and knows what she wants to do. The results glow with a wondrous candor.

This review accompanied the exhibition Biala: I belong where my easel is… at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, NY, November 15, 2007-January 5, 2008.

From the Archive: Biala in VOUGE Magazine (Jan 2006)

Detail from "The Flower Pots", 1985

Detail from "The Flower Pots", 1985

by Jean Nathan

published: VOGUE, January 2006

I first saw a Biala painting many years ago at the New York apartment of a woman whose friends and intimates included such blue-chip names as de Kooning and Noguchi. Their work was well represented there, but what really dazzled me was a large winter landscape hanging on the wall behind the dinner table. It was a partial view of an evergreen tree, a snowdrift obscuring its roots and, beside it, a bird feeder inhabited despite the season. Something about the painting gave me the uncanny sensation that I was looking at a self-portrait. I knew I risked appearing ignorant — its prominent placement was surely no accident — but I had no idea whose work it could be, and I became increasingly curious. “Biala,” said my hostess. “I’ll tell you about her someday.” Although I would return often to that apartment, that day never came.

That was, until last winter, when Biala’s name seemed to surface everywhere I turned. First she showed up in my mailbox in the form of an announcement from New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery that they were representing her estate — a show of the late painter’s work is to be exhibited there from January 5 to February 4. Around the same time, her name jumped out at me from a biography of the writer Jean Rhys — actually Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams until the writer Ford Madox Ford, best known for The Good Soldier, convinced the young Ella that she was a writer, to change her name, and to become his mistress. When their affair ended in 1927, Rhys replaced him quickly, but, I read, “Ford had to wait until 1930 for his last love.” It was Biala. And there she was again in the Pulitzer Prize-winning de Kooning biography by Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens. She was married to her second husband and stepped in to give the then-penniless artist an impromptu wedding lunch when he married Elaine in 1943.

Who was she? I was determined to find out, and my inquiries conjured a stormy, abrasive, and extraordinarily poetic woman, tough and intensely feminine, practical and fanciful, whether painting with a towel thrown around her neck like a prizefighter or dining out with a white fur flung over her shoulders. A tailor’s daughter from Poland, she had lived among the greatest writers and artists of the twentieth century, first as a Greenwich Village Bohemian, then as an accomplished painter and a captivating hostess in Paris after the war, with two profoundly happy partnerships along the way. “She was quite an amazing character,” said her niece Hermine Ford. “And no one was more amazed by her life than she herself.” But the story of Biala (1903-2000) had somehow slipped between the cracks.

Talking to those who knew her well, including my long-ago hostess, Priscilla Morgan, and the daughters of Biala’s brother, Jack Tworkov (a New York artist who had been an original member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism), reading about her in the many Ford biographies, and looking at her art, I discovered a painter whose work had been widely exhibited and praised by everyone from John Russell to John Ashbery but whose reputation had been all but washed away on the tides of a movement back and forth between Europe and America. This life in constant motion was partially the consequence of the very worst events of the last century, from pogroms to Nazism and war. But it was a result, too, of her restless and uncompromising nature and her insistence upon finding a place that felt like home, even if she had to paint it into existence. “I belong where my easel is,” she once said in answer to a journalist’s question about her incessant uprootings.

The story begins in 1903 in Biala, the Polish village near the Russian border where Janice Tworkovsky was born a Jew “in a place,” she later said sardonically, “where it was better not to be one.” Poland was left behind, though, when Janice and her family fled to America in 1913. By the time they arrived here, as her older brother Yakov — later Jacob, then Jack — would write, their early life had “fallen off… like a dead branch, especially that part which is merely data.” Settled into a tenement apartment on New York’s Lower East Side and without documentation of even so much as a birth date, the children were refused admission to public school until their father, struggling to navigate red tape in a culture he didn’t understand, simply made up the missing facts.

Even before completing high school, Jacob and Janice were searching for a way out of the mean life that, despite every effort, was all their parents could provide. It was Jack who first discovered the art scene in Greenwich Village but Janice who felt the first stirrings of a sense of belonging and the desire to become an artist. To pay for classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League she took jobs at the Western Union telegraph office and as a shopgirl. And as if to signal a new start while keeping a beloved place and her past with her always, Janice decided to take “Biala,” which means “white” in Polish, for her name. She kept with her, too, an enormous hostility toward the Poles, who had forced her from her homeland and taught her of “the ferocity of men to men,” which, she wrote, “staggers my mind and fills me with such horror and disgust.” But these feelings also galvanized a young immigrant to make an extraordinary life, surrounded by what she called “the redeemers, all those people who by their thoughts, their works, their actions, or their lives have redressed the balance a little of ferocity, injustice, and cruelty.” She would later say that her life didn’t really begin until she met Ford. “In living for him — I became myself,” she wrote. “He found a little handful of dust and turned it into a human being…” But she sold herself short. By the time they aligned, when she was 26, she had already done the hardest work.

In the spring of 1930, Biala headed for France, a place she had longed to visit ever since she first read The Three Musketeers as a girl in Poland. According to her niece Helen Tworkov, she was also anxious to find a way out of an impulsive early marriage to Lee Gatch, a fellow artist. Just days after her arrival, she met Ford when a friend invited her to one of his Thursday “at-homes.” Biala had never heard of him and agreed to go only when she learned that Ezra Pound, who she revered, was a regular.

At 56, Ford was a literary titan, having by then published 68 books and countless articles and edited two of the most important literary journals of the time. “Practically every writer of serious substance in Britain or America moved through his life and gained from his mind and presence,” wrote Eudora Welty. As did a long chain of lovers. Although not handsome, he was always irresistible to women. Long after the bitter ending of their nine-year alliance, the Australian expatriate painter Stella Bowen, the mother of one of his three daughters, could still write of the “tremendous attraction of his gorgeous mind…”

Ford had led a life of broad womanizing, his changing lovers both ancillary and critical to his creative output. But when Biala met Ford, he was a womanizer — and consequently a writer — in a dry spell. His affair with Rhys had rocked his relationship with Bowen, who finally threw him over when she learned of his next dalliance, with St. Louis socialite Rene Wright. And in a one-two punch, Wright — having divorced her husband only to find Ford wouldn’t marry her — did, too. Never shy, Biala’s first words to Ford were to express her disappointment that Pound was not there. But by the time they had spent the next night at dinner, followed by a tour of Paris boîtes, where they danced until dawn, she had forgotten all about Pound.

Her friends expressed shock when they discovered she had taken up with a man twice her age. “I have looked all my life for a man with a mind as old as my own,” she blasted back. “And what difference does it make if, when I find the man, he has a potbelly!” Ford’s friends were sooner amused, an amusement shot through with perhaps more than a trace of envy. When James Joyce, the godfather to Bowen and Ford’s daughter, Julia, was introduced to this latest conquest — five-foot-two, slim-hipped, and very coquettish — he raced to report his findings to a mutual friend. He said he was unsure whether this was Ford’s “eighth or eighteenth wife,” but he was sure of his friend’s sexual prowess, to which he paid tribute by rejiggering the words of a popular song: “O Father O’Ford, you’ve a masterful way with you / Maid, wife, and widow are wild to make hay with you / Blonde and brunette turn-about run away with you / You’ve such a way with you, Father O’Ford.”

Ford was more than just a sexual predator, though. As one of his characters says in Parade’s End: “You seduced a woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can’t otherwise talk. You can’t finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing-rooms. You mayn’t be in the mood when she is in the mood — for the intimate conversation that means the final communion of your souls.” In Biala, he found that communion, and in Ford, “humane, generous, kind,” she found a redeemer — and the best mentor imaginable.

While Ford’s previous loves had played the role of “consort to another and more important artist,” as Bowen had described herself, Ford and Biala fell naturally into an equal partnership that extended beyond their respective careers to housework, cooking, gardening. It helped that neither cared much for bourgeois comforts. Ford liked to say that he hated comfort but loved luxury. They owned no house, had little in the way of possessions and were always strapped for cash. Food and wine, however, were taken very seriously. A famously good cook, Ford taught Biala to be one also.

When they weren’t traveling all over Europe and America, where Biala would paint while the couple tried to generate income from Ford’s teaching and writing assignments, they lived mostly in Cap Brun, outside Toulon, subletting the ground floor and garden of a rundown villa whose best feature was a “long terrace, giving over the foam of the Mediterranean.” Ford admitted cheerily that the living conditions at the Villa Paul, with no indoor plumbing or electricity, were “troglodytic.” But if the constant houseguests groused, it didn’t stop them from coming.

Seeing Biala’s work around this time, the writer Katherine Anne Porter described her as a “really serious good painter,” a judgment seconded by Theodore Dreiser, who wrote a catalog essay to a show in New York in 1937. “This Biala is doing things,” he enthused. “Nothing escapes… her revolving, camera eye.” Indeed, the subjects for the show’s portraits and figurative landscapes were all that came before her lens in her life with Ford — Ford himself, his daughter Julia (a portrait Porter bought), and scenes of Paris, New York, and other places they had traveled to.

Porter was less certain what to make of the woman herself and described all the contradictions with which Biala’s character was etched. “Janice is a little creature, thin, young, and too much acquainted with hardship and trouble for her years, abrupt, courageous, and baffled. Very mature in her feelings, uninformed, full of Jewish melancholy… She hasn’t an atom of frivolity in her but a very caustic and clever humor…” Except for the point about frivolity — Biala could be playful and great fun to be around — Porter got it right. Regardless, Ford embraced Biala’s idiosyncratic nature and was transformed by her presence in his life. When the poet Robert Lowell came to call, he found a Ford who could not have been happier to be “the old master still in harness… Bohemian, newly married, and in France.”

Quite a lot about this woman whose love had so reinvigorated him would find his way into the eleven books Ford would publish during their time together. She flourished, too, as he filled up her life and canvases, including one in which her model lay in a hammock, potbelly in high relief, reading a book on her hero Cézanne.

“He wanted us always to be together, side by side in everything, before the world,” she wrote. It was Ford who arranged her first solo show in New York, and Biala who took over the managing of his often messy affairs with publishers. “Your letters,” she chided one, “are in the tone of a person repelling beggars. This is not the way to write to a person of Ford’s standing…” “The fact that she had that kind of self-confidence is mind-boggling to me,” says Helen Tworkov. “She was so young and so far out of her league.” Biala never seemed to think so. “Anyone could talk to Picasso,” she said. And she was equally unfazed when everyone from Joyce to Pound showed up for lunch. She never hesitated to speak her mind, excoriating Pound when he became a Fascist sympathizer, and pronouncing Gertrude Stein “an angry bitch.”

“Biala was a woman of declarative opinions,” says Helen. “There was not a lot of gray. She could be sassy, overreactive, dismissive.” But her abrasiveness coexisted with a capacity for kindness, generosity, and loyalty. And her warmth and charm came through in her work and friendships. Ford considered her “an unexpected and undeserved gift” for which he was full of gratitude. But their “long passionate dialogue,” as Biala expressed it, came to an abrupt end in June 1939, when he died in Biala’s arms at a Deauville hospital at the age of 66.

In that instant, “grounded in pain,” as she described her feelings in a letter, Biala nonetheless knew she would have to get on with it, if only because her beloved would have wanted her to. She snipped off a lock of “his beautiful hair”, tossed a bouquet garni on his grave, and tried to think where to turn. The intensifying Nazi threat made the decision for her. With the pluck and good luck that often attended her, she found passage on what she said was the last ship out of town, which she risked missing when she detoured to the Villa Paul to rescue Ford’s papers and manuscripts. He had made her his literary executor, and for the rest of her life she would remain the faithful keeper of Ford’s flame.

She arrived this second time in America in the wave of refugees fleeing Hitler. Her brother, Jack, by then a well-established painter in New York, could provide comfort — and entrée. He helped with gallery connections and introduced her to his circle, which included de Kooning, whose studio was next door to his on East Tenth Street. “I can only say how fresh and bright and swift I find her total magic,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carl Van Doren of her first New York show after her return. But if she was professionally on track, emotionally she was reeling — from the loss of Ford, the world at war, and her struggles to readjust to life in New York. That was what led her, longing for sea air, to take a sketchbook and a bottle of whiskey to Coney Island one afternoon. As she drew, a man, tall and very handsome, tapped her on the shoulder. He only wanted to say that he, too, was an artist. She had turned around to meet her next “redeemer.”

Born in 1904 in the Alsatian town of Mulhouse, Daniel Brustlein was a descendant of George Frideric Handel’s sister, his closest claim to fame. Having come to this country in 1925 after studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, he brought Handel’s cello, which he had inherited, a minor musical talent, and a major artistic one. Originally a textile designer, he later worked as a commercial artist until 1931, when he was hired to draw cartoons and covers for The New Yorker, which he signed “Alain.” Alain, as almost everyone called him from then on, proved himself a master at the art of the cartoon, the clean black-and-white line, the one or two facts that can be manipulated in a comic way. Having successfully mined the carnival atmosphere of Coney Island’s beach and boardwalk for ideas in the past, he was again seeking inspiration on that day.

Alain and Biala were married at New York’s City Hall on July 11, 1942, and, as soon as they could after the war ended, they left for Paris. From the moment they arrived, Biala said, “I felt as if I had come home.” It reminded her of her native village, she said, “the same smells of bread baking, the dogs going around in a very busy way…” But they could not yet put down roots. Postwar immigration laws kept them shuttling back and forth between New York and France for the next decade. In 1960, finally legally free to stay, they bought a house at 8, rue du Général Bertrand, in the seventh arrondissement, actually a converted stable reached through a courtyard hidden behind an apartment building. They added a second floor for side-by-side studios. “This wonderful, magical, strange little house just reeked of all her history and genuineness,” recalled Nancy Rosen, an art adviser and close friend. “It was just beautiful in a very real and modest way.”

Every inch of the house, from a pot of flowers on the table to the dishes in a breakfront, found its way into the intimate and lyric works Biala painted there, reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard but also seemingly inflected with Paul Klee. In the early years her subjects had been mostly landscapes and interiors; she veered into more abstract work in the fifties. But with this first real home it was if she had finally found a place to come inside, to look in but also to gaze out — into the courtyard, to capture the conifer she had transplanted outside the front door, or from the window of the The Blue Kitchen to turn her imaginative scrutiny to the Paris housefronts that John Russell called “small encyclopedias of European life” in a New York Times review of Biala in 1985.

When not painting, she collaborated with Alain on a half a dozen well-received children’s books and traveled through Egypt and India and all over Western Europe. In Paris they were surrounded by what they loved: books, music, cats, good food, and friends. “They lived simply, but it was gracious living,” recalled Shirley Jaffe, an American expatriate painter who knew Biala for more than 40 of the Paris years. “Mealtime,” she added, “was essentially important.” Guests marveled not only at the impressive quality of her cooking but at how she was able to produce it in so tiny and ill-equipped a kitchen.

And, too, they marveled at her work. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who befriended the Brustleins in 1947, had this to say in a catalog essay he wrote for a 1977 show: “I like Biala’s attitude — her sense of color, of form, her aesthetic rigor, her perpetual disquiet. Her painting… has a gravity and exaltation.” He was among the writers, artists, next-door neighbors, friends, or family members from America who all crowded in for dinners around the rickety table. “She attracted people,” said Jaffe. “They flocked around her. She had a presence that you didn’t ignore.” Alain, more retiring, loved it when Biala held the stage.

“Theirs was an old-fashioned Bohemian life in Paris,” said Helen. “She couldn’t have cared less about comfort to an astonishing degree.” Her nieces urged them to make home improvements, but this held no appeal. Luxuries, though, as Ford had taught her, were another matter. Biala visited the dressmaker next door to have the hotly colored silks she brought back from India turned into blouses and dresses.

When she donned her featherlight white broadtail-lamb coat for an evening out and enveloped herself in a cloud of her favorite perfume, Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, the effect, said her niece Hermine Ford, could be quite seductive. But even in the more no-nonsense pants and shirts she usually wore, with her dazzling smile and girlish figure she remained attractive and always intensely feminine even into old age, as recalled by the director Arthur Penn, who became a friend and collector, and who spoke at Biala’s memorial service. The critic Michael Brenson describes her as “the sexiest 90-year-old I’ve ever been around.” He was also deeply impressed to see a woman of her age painting and doing housework, shopping and cooking — and without complaint.

This, too, was part of what Ford taught her early on. She had followed his credo, taken from a Spanish proverb, that the only way to live was to “do what you want and take what you get for doing it and no complaints.” Asked to participate in a 1995 documentary film about American women artists living in Paris, Biala, then 92, who in eight decades as a painter had never painted a self-portrait and hated being asked to go over the past, finally stood back to assess the canvas of her life. She pronounced it a good one. “I lived the kind of life I wanted to live,” she said, her smile widening, her blue eyes twinkling, “and where I wanted to live it.”

From the Archive: Obit: Biala, 97, Whose Paintings Were Cryptic and Luscious

Biala, 1956. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt, © Rudy Burckhardt

Biala, 1956. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt, © Rudy Burckhardt

The New York Times

By Roberta Smith

published on: October 12, 2000

Janice Brustlein, whose painting career, pursued under the name Biala, spanned two art capitals and several generations, died on Sept. 24 at her home in Paris. She was 97 and had lived in Paris since 1958.

She was known for cryptic, lusciously painted interiors, still lifes, landscapes and street scenes that hovered between abstraction and representation. They belonged to a trans-Atlantic tradition that included French painters like Matisse, Bonnard and Marquet, as well as Milton Avery and Edward Hopper. She might also be grouped with artists like Loren MacIver, Fairfield Porter and Anne Poor, who borrowed from the abstract tendencies of the New York School while concentrating on their immediate surroundings.

Always carrying a sketchbook, Biala drew her subjects from her homes and studios, the cities she lived in and the places she visited, including Cape Cod, Venice, the French Riviera and Fire Island. Although she preferred to live in Paris, her career was based in New York, where she had regular gallery shows beginning in the 1940’s.

Biala was described by her niece, the New York painter Hermine Ford, as a ”uniquely wonderful, widely beloved character” whose house in Paris ”would fill in the late afternoon with all kinds of people — writers, artists, next-door neighbors.” Her close friends included the photographer Cartier-Bresson, as well as the expatriate American painter Shirley Jaffe. She knew literary Paris as well, having lived there with the English novelist Ford Madox Ford from the late 1920’s until his death in 1939, during which time she illustrated some of his novels.

Biala rarely revisited her complicated past — refusing several offers from potential biographers — and as a result its facts are not always clear. Neither Ms. Ford, or her sister Helen Tworkov, a founding editor of Tricycle magazine, remember the name their aunt was given at birth. She was born in 1903, the daughter of a Jewish tailor named Tworkovsky in Biala, a village on the Russian-Polish border. Her father soon left for New York, where he set up a shop on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side; Biala, her mother and her older brother Jacob, who would become the Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, followed in 1913.

While both nieces contend that Biala knew she wanted to be a painter from a very early age (before her brother did, in fact), all they know of her artistic education is that at the age of 18 or 19, after a brief period of study at the National Academy of Design, she went to Provincetown, Mass., to study with the painter Edwin Dickinson, whose painterly representation was especially influential on her work. By then she was already living on her own, supporting herself with menial jobs and becoming familiar with Greenwich Village bohemia. Sometime in the mid-1920’s she was briefly married to the painter Lee Gatch. After that, a wealthy couple interested in art paid her expenses on a trip to Paris, where she met Ford and became a Francophile.

In 1943, having returned to New York, Biala married Daniel Brustlein, an Alsatian-born painter who contributed cartoons to The New Yorker under the name Alain. Over the next 15 years the couple split their time between Paris and New York. (The McCarran Act did not permit naturalized citizens to live abroad for more than two years at a time.) Their New York circle included Jack and Wally Tworkov, Harold and May Rosenberg, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne and Rudy Burckhardt. Mr. Brustlein died in 1996.

Biala’s first exhibition was at the Passedoit Gallery in Manhattan in 1936, by which point, it is thought, she had already taken the name of her birthplace. She exhibited at the Stable Gallery, an important artists’ cooperative, in 1954, 1956 and 1961. In the 1970’s and 80’s she was represented by the Gruenebaum Gallery in New York and in the 1990’s by the Kouros Gallery, where she had her most recent show in 1999.

Despite her love of Paris, Biala never gave up her United States citizenship. She was at home everywhere. ”I never have the feeling of nationality or roots,” she once said. ”I always had the feeling that I belong where my easel is.”

Article: Biala paints a picture

The Bull, 1956 Oil on canvas, 43 x 54 3/4 in. (109.2 x 139 cm)

The Bull, 1956
Oil on canvas, 43 x 54 3/4 in. (109.2 x 139 cm)

ARTNews

by Eleanor C. Munro

published: April 1956

Once in the course of each of Janice Biala’s paintings occurs that sudden change of process which, in Romantic art, signifies the emergence of insight through layers of reason. “Only in death,” she says, “do you find life” — rephrasing the Romantic gesture of Nietzsche, Wagner and others whose esthetic turns on inspiration. At some point she must “risk the loss of the picture in order to rediscover it,” in its decisive form. This moment took place midway in the evolution of Biala’s latest work, The Bull.

Biala’s creative life, like that of many other artists, swings between polar attitudes. Not unexpectedly, these contrasting moods engender contrasting methods of work, styles and subjects of concentration.

In one world, comparatively serene, Biala paints interiors, still-lifes and beaches. Here compositional balance is of first importance. Long brush strokes, unbroken and graceful, are combined into clearly distinguished and placid areas of dark and light. Behind this style is the commonly accepted tradition of Matisse and Braque.

In the other world, and the one from which The Bull emerges, the key symbol is the bullfight. This is a Romantic world: brush strokes here are broken, coursing, jagged, disconnected, rapid. Colors clash and vibrate: black, red, chalk white, smoky blue. Balance is thrown off; forms lie oblique; the motif itself is swollen with importance, fills the whole canvas.

But even standing in the midst of this world, Biala expressed her discontent with it, and with the Expressionistic, subjective viewpoint in general, with the artist who “sees the world from his own point of view.” Surrounded with the sketches, trials, early stages of this turbulent work-in-progress, she expressed a nostalgia for Classicism and for the style epitomizing for her synthesis of worlds: Chinese painting, where the expressive brush stroke rests in perfect equilibrium. At the same time that Biala was working out her dramatic image in a handwriting completely of the contemporary moment, she made a faint rationalization for this contemporary by quoting Delacroix: “The artist must speak the language of his time… but woe unto him if his time be vulgar.”

In our time, more than one artist of Romantic impulse has found in the bullfight a ritual with suggestive emotional overtones. Hemingway has of course given the bull ring its most famous modern interpretation. Biala, who saw the sport for the first time twenty-odd years ago with her first husband, the author-critic Ford Madox Ford, has returned to it repeatedly since as a subject. She sees in the duel a self-renewing symbol for many conflicts of conscience.

Whatever emotional wellsprings the image taps, it is certain that in this representation of it, many familiar Romantic manners — the spontaneous gesture, the impulsive search for idea, the accidental progress through stages to a revelatory inspiration — were called into play. This canvas was not thought out before it was begun on canvas; it was not approached through a reasoned process of preliminary drawings and transpositions to the canvas. It progressed by apparently disconnected insights.

During the past two years, suggestions of the motif had been several times brought to Biala’s attention. She visited the caves of Lascaux, where the huge prehistoric wall paintings of bulls and other animals made a strong impression. Something of the scale and imposing profile posture of The Bull may stem from those images. Last year in Spain, Biala carried her notebook to the bullfights and made rapid pencil sketches. These were quick and imprecise renderings of shadow and mood; none of them was used directly in this painting, but the spirit they conveyed and the visual memories they called up bolstered the imagination during the course of painting.

When she had selected the motif for this painting, Biala first made a large, quick outline in paint on the canvas, with one of the Chinese brushes she uses for such fast, calligraphic strokes. This outline fixed firmly in her eye the scale and position of the animal; both elements remained unchanged throughout the subsequent four months’ work. They were the architectural piers underneath waves of color and broken forms which swept the canvas surface until resolution was achieved.

Biala next made several rapid and heavy strokes with a wide brush and pure color: strokes which were initial statements of the disposition of masses and accents on the canvas. Like many painters — and their fellow artists before the typewriter — Biala recoils from the empty canvas waiting blank-eyed for the perfectly modulated statement. These first, speedy accents laid the ghost of that fear.

So much achieved, Biala turned from the canvas to pencil and paper. There followed a series of more or less careful pencil studies on paper. These broke the realistic form of the bull down to its component forms in traditional Cubist technique: by analyzing its weights, masses, flanks, planes and lines; redisposing these elements to intensify the patterns and isolate key areas. The disposition of spaces and forms metamorphosed during the studies, until both edges of the area were left more or less empty, while the central forms were strongly broken into angular and sharp patterns. It was at this point that the starlike motif at the top of the bull appeared. Actually a cluster of bandilleros, or spears used to goad the animal in the ring, the star remained a focus or nucleus; and the theme of a sharp, brittle intersection of lines is, in the final composition, stated and varied several times.

Several forays were now made onto the canvas itself, redeveloping the broken forms worked out on paper, developing color relationships and, in particular, distilling the various arabesques which sweep the entire work. On the canvas Biala uses her paint fairly thin; impasto effects are of less interest to her than the richly worked surface of subtly modulated tones. She grinds her own colors in linseed oil, thins them with turpentine and lays them out on a glass palette. During these early stages, when the layers of paint over the canvas are still comparatively few, she tests ideas freely, erasing when necessary with a palette knife, razor blade or sandpaper.

Simultaneously with these excursions on the canvas, Biala experimented with the image in collage. “A collage is meant to come apart,” she says; perhaps for this reason she feels exceptionally free to put one together. Something in the informality and almost infantile insubstantiality of the medium liberates her from restraints self-imposed when she is pace to face with the canvas. The clear, patchy colors of snipped-out paper give her special pleasure, juxtaposed in accidental and suggestive combinations. These subsidiary studies seem to give Biala a chance for pure play; many suddenly arrived-at accents find their way from these papers onto the canvas.

At the same time, whenever a formal problem perplexes the artist, she turns back to the small sketch on paper in pursuit of the solution. Throughout weeks of work, as the broken masses of the bull’s body took form, as the progressions of torn, ripped brush strokes assembled across the lower portions of the painting, the area of the head remained unresolved. Turned in a bland, direct stare outwards, it seemed “too peaceful.” Outweighed by the deep gully across the back, the dredged turbulence of the flanks and the ground on which the bull stands, the area of the head seemed out of balance both formally and emotionally.

Suddenly the problem was solved in one of the subsidiary sketches, when Biala obliterated the features with an extension of the dark mass of the haunches. Taking courage to assault the face with a gash of black, she rediscovered the potency of the image. And in the final analysis, it is a peculiarly menacing, eyeless aspect of this bull which gives the painting its impressiveness.

Thus far, Biala’s technique in achieving the broken, gashed image paralleled her responses to the subject itself. She relates the ritualistic bullfight to the anthropological concept of rites de passage: here, the human step into the realm of unknowable hazard and destiny.

But from the moment of its resolution, the canvas was changed never again in form, but only through minor and isolated color transformations to enrich and intensify its surface. And here Biala protected herself against hazard by a special maneuver: a piece of cellophane pinned over the canvas takes trial passages of color, so that the most subtle relationships can be established before they are transferred to the canvas.

Slight transformations continued to be made on the canvas surface until it was shipped to Biala’s Manhattan gallery. According to her, the painting will “never be finished.” As in free musical improvisation, minor fluctuations of tones can endlessly rove over the surface.

It is possible that some of the pendulating spirit which inhabits Biala’s esthetic is carried over from the early wandering years when her family left Bialystok, a small city in Poland. Even today she is restless: moving between Europe and the United States; moving between her sunny, herb-filled kitchen and the cramped, ex-pony stable, now a studio shared with her painter-cartoonist husband, Daniel Brustlein (Alain of The New Yorker); moving between their middle-class New Jersey community and the artistic world of Manhattan where her brother, the painter Jack Tworkov lives; moving between her dedication to the European models of decorative style, and her embroilment with contemporary New York styles. She is a hard worker, spending as much of every day as possible at the easel; but she takes time off to faire la cuisine like a good French bourgeoisie, and her table is renowned. Her home is neat, to the point of austerity: brown grasses and bowls of dry leaves sift the sunlight into corners of her white living room; but her studio and palette are a jumble of old brushes, pin-ups from art magazines, tentative sketches and works in progress.

Perhaps a good symbol is that heap of crusty brushes: ragged Western ones to stir up the paint surface; sleek, clean Chinese ones to skate blue arabesques across the Bull’s flanks.