For too long, Biala (1903-2000) was known more for her associations with other people than for her own accomplishments. In the 1930s, she lived in France with the legendary English writer Ford Madox Ford; her brother Jack Tworkov was far better-known as a painter; in New York in the 1940s, she was in the heart of the Abstract Expressionist scene (she’s the woman in the white blouse between Bradley Walker Tomlin and Robert Goodnough in a much-reproduced photograph of the “Studio 35 Artists’ Session” of 1950), but never gained much recognition for her own paintings.
The big problem with Biala’s work was that it seemed to belong to a bygone era. Despite her involvement with Abstract Expressionism, her paintings, especially after 1960, remained firmly within the School of Paris mode. Her interiors (some with figures) and landscapes and cityscapes feature blocks of color, spatial distortions and wonderfully loose brushwork, but always, ultimately, at the service of representation. For the last 40 years of her life she built on the legacy of Matisse circa 1910-1916 with more sensitivity and painterly intelligence than any other painter I know of. Unfortunately for Biala’s career, following in the footsteps of Matisse on the eve of the First World War wasn’t something than many critics, curators, dealers or collectors cared about at the time.
I met Biala a few times (through her long-time friend Shirley Jaffe), visiting the house-studio she shared in Paris with her painter-husband Daniel Brustlein. To my great regret, I never wrote about Biala’s work while she was alive. I could see that hers were wonderful paintings, but, like too many others, I was confused by their old-fashioned, School of Paris trappings. It was only with a posthumous show at Tibor de Nagy in 2006 that I finally could fully respond to her work and write about it, in part, because it no longer seemed so old-fashioned, as so many younger painters were discovering the kind of painterly abstracted representation that Biala made her own.