Cy Twomblyby Ben La Rocco
Gagosian Gallery: November 8 – December 22, 2007
Cy Twombly’s stubbornly poetic painting is on display in en exhibition at Gagosian Gallery entitled A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things. The Peony is his subject, a wildflower native to North America, Europe and Asia with scalloped, flaring blooms of red, yellow and white. These three colors inform Twombly’s palette, particularly in the form of languid, swirling blooms of runny paint sprawling from one four by eight panel to the next that gracefully occupy the generous wall space. Twombly invites our contemplation of the peony’s symbolic significance in East Asia by repeatedly scrawling lines from a Takari Kikaku poem about Kusunoki, a warrior hero in Japan:
AH! The Peonies
Took off his
It is a supremely horizontal exhibition and I start at my left as I enter and plod slowly to its end. As I do, I find myself wrestling with Twombly’s sensuous intransigence.
I realize that I am being corralled into abandoning my prejudices and encouraged to participate in the painter’s delight in his own senses. He seems to think of them as an ideal state in which the experience of beauty overcomes the will. Twombly’s art is oddly divorced from many of the trends that dominated the era in which it was forged and, at first, I am stymied by his failure to allow me these familiar aids to understanding. Take Elizabeth Murray as a comparison. Murray grappled with an ever expanding vocabulary of autobiographical forms and images as her career progressed, incorporating Pop art, cartooning, graffiti art and aspects of minimalism and post painterly abstraction without ever completely abandoning her affinity for the New York School. Part of what gives her oeuvre its drama is her continual efforts to address more and more of what was going on around her.
The scratching and written expletives Twombly has tended to insert are closer to children’s scrawl then street art. His connection to the work of other painters seems to have ended in the 50’s. It’s antiquity that interests him, not its forms so much as its feeling for the senses as an instrument for approaching divinity. When Twombly scribbles the names of gods and heroes it seems less an homage than an invocation. Antoine Watteau’s laconic Bacchanals and lonely clowns are the closest comparison I can come up with to Twombly’s yearning posture toward the past. The laconic wrinkle in the 18th century master’s flirtation with classicism is in line with Twombly’s hints and allusions and their sense of sensual indulgence. If the past and the heavens are inaccessible, we had better take delight in what we feel today – take off your arms, Kusunoki. If I let myself, what I feel before his paintings is a strong desire to let go.
Twombly demands that you leave your notions of what painting should be at the door and let your feelings guide you. This is a challenge and Twombly’s painting has garnered so much attention because it is challenging, probably among the most challenging painting legacies of the 20th century. If the comparison between the painting and the flower is taken at face value, the analytical mind can only be an impediment to a true experience of beauty in either guise. Twombly here joins company with his contemporary, Jasper Johns, in mocking those who guild the lily with linguistic attempts to justify painting. Both artists are notorious for not giving interviews. They privilege the space their paintings create above any space created for them by language.
It is funny that an artist so resistant to literal interpretation of his work should have generated so much explanation. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves and perhaps we can’t. The ineffable inevitably coaxes forth endless commentary yet Twombly’s reticence has hindered efforts to ascertain how he arrived at his ever more rarefied sense of immediacy. He must have taken something from the automatism of Robert Motherwell, with whom he studied at Black Mountain College. Eastern philosophy and art have clearly inspired him. But Twombly’s work is unabashedly his own and the double-edged sword of his insouciance both awes and confounds. If these blank expanses of untouched canvas punctuated by moments of inspired coloring and scratching are all that we need, then this and the mountains of similar articles and essays devoted to Twombly’s art have been gratuitous indeed.
ContributorBen La Rocco