Monday 23 January 2017


Note: I originally posted this at my irregular art blog, Untitled: Perspectives (On Art 
back in August 2008. I should have migrated it here before now, but as I am headed to Houston soon and hoping to visit the Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection, I thought it would be nice to reacquaint myself (and you) with the artist now. I will also be writing about him at some point soon in connection with the recently finished Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy.... 

The best art exhibitions are those which open your eyes to something you haven't seen before, and Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, at the Tate Modern through 14 September is one of those. It forced me to re-think and come to a whole new appreciation of Twombly's art, which was never as strong for me as, with hindsight, I can see it probably should have been, given his background at Black Mountain College, and his close association with so many people whose work I have found centrally important.

Part of this is context. The single Twombly encountered in a gallery may seem pleasant, but often gives off an unfinished, almost fragile, quality. A single Franz Kline can overwhelm you. But seeing Twombly's works in groups, in rough chronological order, and watching what he does with the elements of squiggles and words, with colour and with the physicality of brush and pen strokes, reveals the powerful emotion which becomes more explicit in some of his later works, particularly the two Four Seasons sets on display.

It's easy to see in Twombly's work the theoretical foundation of Black Mountain poetry, as articulated by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, that 'form is never more than an extension of content' (which I've always taken to mean 'should never be more'), and that 'one perception should lead immediately to another'. Although his pencil stokes are often seen as subverting Pollack's calligraphic gestures, some of the paintings in the exhibition's first room, notably 'Tiznit' (1953) suggest something halfway between Creeley and Kline, with whom Twombly studied at with Black Mountain. The heavy whites and blacks give way to seeming doodles, as if Creeley had stopped by to write a short poem on a Kline canvas. By 1955's 'Criticism' the marks actually do seem like writing. 'Poems To The Sea' (1959) carries this even further, and I found myself again thinking of Kline, this time crossing his work with Olson's more epic writing.Kline worked in black and white for most of his career, and there's sense here in which Twombly seems wary of colour, as if not trusting, at this stage, its intense, uncontrollable emotionalism.

By the start of the 1960s 'Crimes Of Passion' and 'Murder Of Passion' move in a different direction, discarding the pencil-strokes for smears of paint which suggest both passion and anxiety, and not a little eroticism, expressed in hints in representational painting, reminding me of DeKooning. Perhaps it was a reflection of Twombly's move to Italy, set free of American context, and confronted with the heat of Italian summer in Rome. Within this, references to classical works, like 'School Of Athens' homage to Rafael, suggest an elegance that somehow doesn't seem to fit. When 'Ferragosto' (1961) adds a rusty red to his palette, it seems more than thousands of miles removed from the effects of pencil lines around strong blacks and whites. All these elements begin to merge in his 1969 paintings, made in Italy, whose calculations reflect his experience as a cryptographer in the 1950s, while celebrating the moon landings. It's a mix of American pragmatism and European classicism, and it works brilliantly. There are graphs, diagrams, geometric forms, but there is still an overarching asceticism which suggests someone learning from the past while being overcome with the future.

There is an element of challenge involved here too. Twombly's was the generation immediately following the abstract expressionists. Their emotionalism was replaced by the cool stylings of pop art, and have evolved into the heavily ironic commentaries of the modern world. Twombly, in sense, reminds me of Richard Diebenkorn, convinced the concerns of the artists he grew up with were valid, and looking for new means of executing them.

But the real fulcrum of the show comes with the next two series, starting with 1970's 'Treatise On The Veil'. It is minimalist, a grid structure of repeating rectangles, adorned with measurements; one in black and the other, opposite, in gray. It suggests the music of Philip Glass, and apparently were influenced by Muybridge's photos of a bride in motion. But looking at the shades of gray and black, and the strong brushstrokes, I was reminded of late Rothko, and it struck me that these slabs on their ends were like drawings for a Rothko mural, and that they may have been inspired, or influenced, by Rothko's suicide. Certainly they carry the same kind of quiet impact of the Tate's Rothko room, which at the moment is closed while the major Rothko retrospective is being prepared.

My feeling of elegy continued and was amplified in the next room, which contains 'Nini's Paintings', a response to the death of his Roman dealer's wife. Their mood takes the melancholy of the 'Treatise On The Veil' and transforms it to a sense of frustrated rage, like someone scribbling lines that make no sense because there is nothing useful to say. There is nothing minimalist or repetetive about them, there are no sombre grays or blacks. The brush strokes that were backgrounded in the Treatise, creating a deep atmosphere, are now in the foreground, like chaos released.

If I find those works a peak in Twombly's career, it's also evident that his work progressed on both the intellectual and emotional levels, and his white sculptures of found material seem almost like a relief. 'Two Squares' recalls Joseph Albers, another leading light of Black Mountain, and when the exhibition returns to painting, there is a greater exuberance, a more daring sense of control. By now living on the Tyrrhenian sea at Gaeta,his work begins to engage heavily with the sea, both in 'Hero and Leandro' where the waves become ever-increasingly harsh strokes of the paintbrush, and 'The Wilder Shores Of Love', whose sea effects in gray Turner might even admire.

Although the nine paintings of 'Untitled' were done for the Italian pavilion at the 1988 Biennale, and reflect 18th century Venice, they mark a progression from light to dark, in which again I find echoes of the Treatise, almost an allegory of life. Something that makes sense in light of the two versions of 'The Four Seasons' which move from the energy of Spring to the gathering darkness and pale light of Winter. Oddly, all the reproductions at the Tate are of the later version (1993-95), but I found the earlier one (1993) more powerful, particularly in the dying bursts of yellow that drop through the blacks on one side of 'Inverno' (Winter). (It's the later version of 'Inverno' which is pictured at the header of this essay).

The exhibition's end, Bacchus (2005) with its estatic vermillion ooze, came as a sort of winking coda to this, confirmation that the viewer had completed the kind of emotional journey those late paintings describe. It's a journey that reflects the progress of Twombly's art; an art concerned with perception and expression. Twombly's work, seen as a progression, takes on a modest, intellectual sort of power, unmistakably a searching for the right way to give emotional power to his apprehension of the world around him. It's a brilliant show, from a painter who's now the last,and maybe just being recognised as one of the greatest, of a crucial American generation.

Footnote: A couple of days after seeing this exhibition, I sat in as the analyst on Channel Five's Major League Baseball show. I mention this because Cy Twombly's father, also named Cy, was a pitcher in the major leagues, probably the second-best ever named Cy. The best, Cy Young, lends his name to the award for baseball's best pitcher. Baseball was surprisingly important to the people at Black Mountain, see Fielding Dawson's writing, particularly 'A Great Day For A Ballgame' (he also wrote 'An Emotional Memoir Of Franz Kline'). The abstract expressionists were always trying to prove they were red-blooded Americans, not longhaired eggheads or effete artistes. Moving to Italy was certainly a way for Twombly to get away from that need, perhaps from his own legacy. My own expat experience has been the opposite, as I always keep getting drawn back to sport as a profession, or part of it. As it is, moving from Cy Twombly to Cy Young doesn't seem unusual, their coexistence doesn't strike me as unnatural, though lots of people out there still think it should be!

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