January 20–March 4, 2023
Never forgotten, Cy Twombly is currently in vogue, with a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and this spectacular panoply of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper at Gagosian on Madison Avenue. The differences between the two shows are worth noting: in Boston you can see Twombly’s works in conjunction with ancient artifacts, both those belonging to the museum and others belonging to Twombly, himself an inveterate collector of antiquities. At the gallery, Twombly is his own context. Juxtaposing Twombly with works from the past, all plucked from some irrecoverable context, does seem to generate an explanatory narrative for his work. We know Twombly was fascinated by ancient culture, but how far does that obsession go toward making his esoteric and hermetic images comprehensible?
His “Coronation of Sesostris” series (2000), shown at Gagosian in 2018, clarifies Twombly’s relationship with antiquity. Sesostris was a mythical pharaoh who supposedly conquered the world, so for Twombly the past is actually myth or fiction he can translate into painting—we are speaking of an impulse to re-mythologize, not necessarily an interest in hard fact. The artifact, as the Surrealists thought, is a fetish that may function as a bridge into an imaginary realm. The ancient artifacts accompanying Twombly’s work in Boston, then, may be aids to reflection, but they in no way constitute a key to Twombly’s oeuvre.
The thirty-four pieces from the eighties, the nineties, and the early twenty-first century (Twombly died in 2011) at Gagosian tell several stories, none of which are necessarily rooted in antiquity. First and foremost is eschatology: death, as fact and as artistic subject. In a vitrine on Gagosian’s fifth floor, we encounter an unbound book of drawings on paper, Untitled (Contemplation of the Chrysanthemum) (1984–2002). Not all the pages are visible, but those that are evoke a specific flower, the chrysanthemum or mum, which is linked to death. A fall flower, so evocative of the end of life, it constitutes in Twombly’s work a memento mori, a reminder to us and to himself of the fleeting nature of life and the artist’s need to salvage what he can in art. To contemplate the chrysanthemum is to accept death’s inevitability and to both find (for himself) and provide (for us) solace in creation.
The chrysanthemum opens a path to the many other flower-related works in the show. Notable among them is an untitled 1990 acrylic on paper that depicts a green flower shape with two erect stamens. The drawing is curious in that Twombly’s signature “C. R MAR 90” dominates the upper third of the page, leaving us to wonder if the phallic stamens are an affirmation of sexual vitality or if the entire piece is a gravestone. The ambiguity may be a deliberate allusion to seasonal gods like Adonis, who are virile but short-lived, or it may be an autobiographical note. The funereal aspect of flowers vanishes in three untitled acrylics, two on plywood, one on paperboard, from 2003. The swirling reds and yellows in all three are life at its most frenzied. Smallish, the largest 29 by 23 inches, these works seem to be on fire.
It is in the sculptural works where the multifarious possibilities of Twombly’s flowers manifest themselves most strongly. Scent of a Rose (2000), only 22 inches tall, is a four-part megalith, its three lower levels in turn rectangular, cylindrical, and irregular, like some improvised monument. Capping these is the circular “rose,” which of course has no scent at all. In fact, the entire piece seems like a visual artist’s ironic rejoinder to Mallarmé’s famous statement: “To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem which is made up of gradual discovery: to suggest it, that is the dream.” The sculpture is there before our eyes, so the only “gradual discovery” entailed in looking at it involves figuring out how its parts coalesce into a whole. In this case, and in others (for example Madame d’O, ) the anomalous element is a wedge here shoved between parts two and three, as if to steady the rock holding the rose. That of course is a fiction, the wedge possibly announcing the presence of the artist who, like God, keeps the whole thing from falling apart. Untitled (Funerary Box for a Lime Green Python) (2002) brings back the funerary link with flowers, or in this case, leaves. Here the python’s coffin (bronze painted white) is a simple box capped with two long stems, themselves topped with oval palm leaves. A salute to Egyptian sarcophagi, perhaps, with the palm as victory over death, or in Twombly’s case, the provisional immortality offered by a work of art.
One thing that makes this show so delightful is the scale of the works included. We are not overwhelmed by monumental painting, as in the “Sesostris” or “Lepanto” series (2001), and the more intimate scale here invites close contemplation. The six panel Untitled I–VI (Green Painting) (2002–03), for example, is an opportunity to see Twombly’s drip technique at work, the combination of chance and intention that characterizes so much of his production. Finally, two untitled, dark-hued, winter pictures, both from 2004, exploit that intimacy of scale to move beyond the elegiac and solemnly commemorate the ending of things. There may be a latent sadness in late Twombly, but it is a sadness charged with grandeur.