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

Essay: Hurly-burly Intimism: The Art of Janice Biala

Biala,  Table Chargee , 1963, Torn paper collage with paint on canvas, 25 x 51 in. (63.5 x 129.5 cm)

Biala, Table Chargee, 1963, Torn paper collage with paint on canvas, 25 x 51 in. (63.5 x 129.5 cm)

By Mario Naves

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.

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.