About the Exhibition
“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.
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 Jaffee, 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.”
This historic exhibition is the first of its kind to focus entirely on Biala’s work which was created or inspired by her summers in Provincetown and on the Cape. Curated by Jason Andrew this show features twenty-seven paintings and twenty-three works on paper ranging in date from 1924 to 1985. It includes works from the Estate of Janice Biala, as well as several major loans from private collections, The Art Collection of the Town of Provincetown, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
An online catalogue with essay by Jason Andrew is available at www.janicebiala.org