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.”