'Biala: Vision and Memory', 12 September – 26 October 2013, Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY, New York.
Martin Stannard, University of Leicester
Martin Stannard, University of Leicester
Last September I travelled to New York to meet Hermine Ford and Helen Tworkov, daughters of Jack Tworkov, Janice Biala's brother. Hermine and Helen are the executors of Biala's estate and were to be at the opening of probably the largest retrospective of their aunt's paintings in recent years. Curated by Diane Kelder in collaboration with Amy H. Winter, the Director and Curator of the Godwin-Ternbach, this show proved to be a revelation. 'I met Biala in 1980', Kelder writes in her excellent catalogue, 'and was struck by the force of her personality [...].' That force is immediately apparent in the paintings, although it is the force of multiple personalities, tracing her various styles over the years and complemented by other exhibits, notably the darkly penetrating 1924 portrait of her as a young woman by Edwin Dickinson. It is quite likely that she was in love with Dickinson, a married man, when they were both part of the Provincetown art colony and he her mentor. Biala stares out at us, beautifully melancholy and self-contained, on the brink of a series of unhappy relationships before she met Ford in 1930. In the catalogue, on the facing page of the portrait's reproduction, Kelder has cleverly placed Biala's 1925 black-and-white self-portrait which suggests that at that time she saw no conventional beauty in her own reflection, just unblinking intelligence and determination.
Most of the work in this exhibition of course dates from after Ford’s death because she lived for another seventy years. In the correspondence with her brother while she was co-habiting with Ford 1930-1939, one sees her struggle with pure abstraction. (Jack was an early member of the New York School alongside Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning et al.) And while her work never becomes entirely abstract, one can witness its steady gravitation from a representational impressionism towards symbolic and dreamlike canvases in which recognizable objects seem to float in blocked spaces of pale and dark pigment. One moves, as it were, from Cézanne and Utrillo to Chagall, although never with any sense of dependence on these masters. Acknowledgement, yes, but these are unique and arresting paintings in their own right, their sometimes child-like execution a deliberate engagement with the expression of a damaged innocence. There is always a certain bleakness about their celebration of landscape, cityscape, or even a vase of flowers. She bought de Kooning’s work when no-one else would but she didn’t want to paint like him. In the background of Biala’s Le Duo (1945, Two Musicians), his Abstract Still Life (c. 1938) hangs in pride of place but in a picture echoing a traditional European composition, and in a style which Kelder rightly describes as ‘semi-cubist’ – but only ‘semi’. The central figures – Biala’s later husband, Daniel Brustlein, and de Kooning’s wife Elaine – are quite recognizable at cello and piano respectively. It is a canvas about integrated interior space in which all objects are art objects, and all interlock harmoniously. It is about ‘home’, something particularly precious to Biala who had both known the terrors of poverty and exile, and embraced exile in Paris and Provence as protection from the stultifying gendered expectations of her parents’ home on New York’s Lower East Side.
This, then, is a life’s work, the great work of a great life, documenting years of struggle. Biala seems often to have returned to an architectural motif: the Parisian façade of windows and shutters, cock-eyed yet somehow regular in peeling walls. Kelder mentions that one of Biala’s early successes was the sale of Spring Rue de Seine (1936) to Duncan Phillips (the picture now hangs in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). It was the street on which she and Ford had lived. The shutters open onto vulnerable domestic space as in a stage set or after an explosion, yet there is nothing alienating about this exposure. It is hot. The windows are thrown back. Paris is welcomed in. Later work using the same subject seems cooler, suggesting one interior space regarding another with the glass in between. In Paris Façade (c. 1983) the shutters and windows appear like books on library shelves; in The Flower Pots (1985) we stand behind a female figure (Biala herself?) looking through a modern, sealed window, and out onto the old Paris of ramshackle shuttering. One can make too much of this kind of thing but the awkward negotiation between intimacy and privacy does seem to have been important to her, not least in her love for Ford and her unwillingness to speak about their life together. It was a grand passion, and she defended his reputation to the last. But it was private. No-one else’s business. Biala was neither sentimental nor confessional in her life or her art. But it seems that, despite a contented marriage with Brustlein, she missed Ford all her life because he had transformed her from the somewhat messed-up creature of Dickinson’s portrait into the mature woman and artist she became, laughing with Ford in the sunshine at Villa Paul in that famous 1934 photograph.
All images © Estate of Janice Biala, New York