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New York School Painter Janice Biala’s “Pendulating Spirit”

Beginning in 1948, the artists William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko held a public lecture series entitled Subjects of the Artist. Regularly attracting a crowd of around one hundred and fifty people, the series eventually disbanded in 1950. It was then that Robert Goodnough, a masters’ candidate in art education at New York University, suggested a separate three-day seminar, invitation only, to review and recapitulate the questions raised during the Subjects of the Artist lectures.

What resulted was an event critical to the history of the New York School of Artists. Referred to as “the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35,” the conference took place from April 21-23 in 1950 — one year before the landmark Ninth Street Exhibition, which was largely considered the public’s introduction to the work of the New York School Painters. Studio 35 was named as such for its location at 35 East Eighth Street—a few blocks away from Cedar Tavern, one prominent hangout spot of the Abstract Expressionist artistic community.

During the three days of the seminar, the critic Ana Finel Honigman writes:

“The participants grappled with questions about the conception and completion of their works, institutional and public reactions, artistic responsibility, interest or antagonism concerning mass culture, personal disclosures, professionalism, unions, emotional investment, and other issues fundamental to the act of creating and presenting work. [Robert] Motherwell may have posted the sessions’ most vital question when he asked, ‘What then exactly constitutes the basis of our community?'”

Despite the variety of creative and ideological differences illustrated in the transcripts of the Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35, the makeup of the group itself was majority white, and majority male. Of the twenty-five artists who participated in the sessions, only three were women. Along with counterparts Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist best known for her sculpture and installation art, and the Romanian-born Surrealist painter Hedda Sterne, the enigmatic and prolific painter Janice Biala offered her own bits of wisdom to the group.

The Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 (Biala background left). From The Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 (1950), edited by Robert Goodnough.

One memorable passage in the conference transcripts concerns the question: “How do you know when the work of art is finished?” To this question, the artists Richard Pousette-Dart, Seymour Lipton, as well as Biala, chimed in.

Pousette-Dart: For me it is “finished” when it is inevitable within itself. But I don’t think I can explain anything about my painting, just as I can’t explain anything about a flower or a child. When is anything “beautiful” or “finished”? I can’t discuss things about my paintings. The true thing I am after goes on and on and I can never completely grasp it.

Lipton: I think that we require time and intimacy and aloneness.

Biala: I never know when it is “finished.” I only know there becomes a time when I have to stop.

Indeed, Biala did not stop painting until she had to. Her expansive artistic practice spanned eight decades, from the 1920s up until 1997 — only three years before her death at 97. It stretched across three capitals of the art world: Paris, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and, of course, Greenwich Village. Though she is perhaps best known as the sister of notable New York School Painter Jack Tworkov, as well as the wife of the notable modernist writer Ford Madox Ford, Biala’s life and work deserves attention in its own right.

Born to a Jewish family in what is now Southeast Poland, Biala immigrated to New York with her older brother Jack and their mother in 1913. There, they joined their father, who owned a tailor shop. According to Biala’s niece Hermine Ford, the tailor shop had locations on Rivington Street and Eldridge Street, with Biala’s family living in the back of the store on Rivington. Biala’s parents spoke Yiddish at home; her mother never learned English.

Jack Tworkov and Janice Biala, wearing clothing stitched by their father. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Tworkov Family Archives.

Her New York upbringing provided the backdrop for Biala’s early artistic education. As Hermine states, Biala knew she wanted to be a painter at an early age — even before her brother, Jack. By around age 19, the young artist was already living alone in the city, working menial jobs at the Western Union Telegraph company and elsewhere (Biala did not earn a steady income until 1940) and familiarizing herself with Greenwich Village bohemia. She studied at the Art Students League, where she encountered the painter Edwin Dickinson, as well as at the National Academy of Design — under the tutelage of Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne and Dickinson, among many other artistic Villagers, were denizens of the up-and-coming Provincetown Art Colony on Cape Cod. Biala and her brother hitchhiked to the Cape in 1923 to join the community. They would return in 1935 to perform in one-act plays produced by the Provincetown Playhouse, a creative project with homes in both Provincetown and the Village.

Biala’s canvases, which her New York Times obituary described as “cryptic and luscious,” drew the attention of the art world. She exhibited at the notable New York artists’ collective the Stable Gallery, and her work is found in the collections of MoMA, the Centre Pompidou (much of her later life was split between New York and Paris), and elsewhere.

Portrait of Biala by Edwin Dickinson, 1924. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Her niece Hermine Ford (a visual artist herself and one of the first residents of the Westbeth Artist Housing community) recalls that Biala had to maintain a hard exterior in order to break into, and thrive within, the male-dominated New York School art world. Asked by an oral history interviewer if “it was particularly difficult to be a woman artist in the art world then,” Ford responded

“Oh God, yes, absolutely, and I had horrible examples of the women artists I knew growing up. They were all monsters. Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell was terrifying. My own aunt, Janice, was terrifying. I mean they had to behave like men in a way. […]”

True to the persona of the bohemian New Woman, Biala could be found “chain smoking and swearing and cursing and sitting any way she wanted.” A 2006 profile in Vogue paints a rich picture of Biala and her complexities:

“[she is] 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, and… in Paris after the war…”

She spent “as much of every day as possible at the easel,” but was also a vibrant hostess: her “table [was] renowned.”

Her life and work reflected “intimacy and exile,” in the words of Michael Brenson, containing both the “pendulating spirit” of Biala’s family’s early wandering years, as well as the rich community and sense of place she created in Paris, Provincetown, and the Village.

White Interior with Black Kettle. Oil on canvas, 1961. From the exhibit “Biala: Intimacy and Exile / Paintings 1952-1962” at McCormick Gallery.

To the lively group seated around the table at Studio 35 in 1950, Biala attempted an answer to the question posed by sculptor Ibram Lassaw, “What is art?”

“Like many of us, I was raised on the notion of ‘painterliness’ – that what is most moving in painting is just its painterly quality. But when I think of the art I love… I wonder if painterliness is not meant to serve something beyond itself?”

Click here for an interactive map of the Greenwich Village Historic District, which includes the site of the (now demolished) Studio 35, as well as numerous artists’ homes and haunts.

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