Exhibition News: Biala opens at PAAM (Provincetown)

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Opening reception: Friday, August 10, 8pm

Provincetown Art Association and Museum presents Biala: Provincetown Summers: selected paintings and drawings. This historic exhibition is the first to focus entirely on the paintings and drawings by Janice Biala (1903-2000), which were created or inspired by her summers in Provincetown and on Cape Cod. The exhibition opens with a reception on Friday, August 10 at 8pm and will run through September 30 at Provincetown Art Association and Museum (460 Commercial Street, Provincetown, 508.487.1750 ext.17 / www.paam.org)

Organized and curated by Jason Andrew, the exhibition features twenty-seven paintings and twenty-three works on paper ranging in date from 1924 to 1985. Highlights include the earliest painting by the artist titled The Violin (c.1923-23) painted as an homage to her mentor and friend, Edwin Dickinson; Portrait of a Writer (Ford Madox Ford) (1938), who she met in 1930 and remained at his side until his death in 1939; The Beach (1958), a masterwork from the artist's most gestural period; a group of whimsical drawings of her grandnephew's first steps in Provincetown Bay; and Pilgrim Lake (1985), a pensive and contemplative painting that sublimely captures a layering of water, dunes, and the sky above. Works are on loan from the Estate of Janice Biala (courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York), as well as several major loans from private collections, The Art Collection of the Town of Provincetown, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Mr. Andrew will give a gallery talk on Tuesday, August 21 at 6pm as part of the Fredi Schiff Levin Lectures.

An online catalogue with essay by curator Jason Andrew is available here by visiting www.janicebiala.org

 

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“I envy you going to Provincetown for the summer.
If only I had two lives—I’d spend one by the sea and the other traveling the world.”

These were the words of an artist who, at the time of this declaration, had already lived two lives: one, painting in France during the 1930s with her companion the English novelist Ford Madox Ford, and the second, as one of only a few women to gain critical acclaim during the male dominated era of New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
 
Biala (1903-2000) was a feisty and articulate painter whose career spanned eight decades and two art capitals: New York City and Paris. A Polish èmigrèe, born Schenehaia Tworkovska in 1903, she arrived in New York from her native Biala in 1913 with her older brother Jacob (who would later become the noted Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov). Opinionated and tough, the young brunette with a soft Eastern European face was a free thinker of the highest order. She had a passion for life that fueled a rather aggressive social independence. She was a true bohemian.
 
Provincetown loomed large in the life of both Biala and Tworkov having first hitchhiked their way to study with Charles Hawthorne in the summer of 1923. However, their intellectual attraction toward modernism had them rebelling against Hawthorne’s ridged traditional plein air approach. While Jack sought out the artist Karl Knaths, Biala sought out another highly respected and revered painter, Edwin Dickinson. It was through Dickinson that she received her earliest and most informed art training. Because of Dickinson, Biala said, she “found her true way.”
 
Although that first year spent in Provincetown would be the only time Biala would reside on the Cape with any duration, it would prove to be most critical in defining her path and sensibility. It was soon thereafter at the suggestion of William Zorach that she changed her name. “I decided to change my name,” she wrote, “My name is now Biala.”
 
The Cape was the place Biala returned to after a decade in France during the 1930s at the side of the English novelist Ford Madox Ford. Ford told Ezra Pound that Biala was “rather modern,” and introduced her to all the artists working at the cutting edge of modernism including Brancusi, Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Searching for a place to heal following Ford’s death and her heroic escape from the growing threat of Hitler’s regime, Biala spent the summer of 1940 with the Dickinsons in Truro. It was there that she plotted to re-establish herself in America while vowing to return to France.

Biala believed that “all art is sensual before it is anything else. The art of painting is for the eye first and last..." It was this statement that set her apart during the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Although she counted among her closest friends Willem de Kooning, she never fully embraced pure abstraction, as the attention to subject was paramount in her work.

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She exhibited extensively in the leading galleries of New York and Paris, and following the end of World War II, she boarded one of the first passenger boats to France in 1947. Despite the bond she had with Paris she never felt bound by ties of nationality. “I always had the feeling that I belong where my easel is,” Biala said, “I never have the feeling of nationality or roots. In the first place, I’m an uprooted person. I’m Jewish. I was born in a country where it was better not to be Jewish. Wherever you go, you’re in a sense a foreigner. I always felt that wherever my easel was, that was my nationality.”
 
As she settled into her full life in Paris, Biala became the person every American artist in France would come to see. These included Norman Blum, Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Bill Jenkins, Milton Resnick, critic Harold Rosenberg and the occasional run in with Joan Mitchell. And though the sea and the dunes of Provincetown and the Cape may have been miles away, they were only a step and a brush away when she was in her studio.

Biala’s paintings retained an intimacy rooted in the Old World. A sensibility that began with memories of her childhood in a Polish village, broadened by the community of immigrant artists that she discovered in downtown New York, focused by the very delicate hand of Edwin Dickinson, and lastly shaped by a calculated assimilation of French painters like Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and George Braque.

Provincetown and the Cape were an enduring source of inspiration as the sea and the dunes were among her favorite subjects, which included the bridges and architecture of Paris, the canals and facades of Venice, and the bullfights of Spain.
 
And so she returned at intervals to traditional themes of interiors, still-life, portraiture and landscape but did so with abstract flare, and directness. As critic Michael Brenson noted Biala was “a blend of intimacy and exile."

An online catalogue with essay by curator Jason Andrew is available here or by visiting www.janicebiala.org

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