Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cy Twombly, Menil Collection, Houston

I sit alone in the Cy Twombly gallery in Houston, surrounded by silence and beauty. I can’t remember the last time I had the privilege and luxury of being alone with such magnificent paintings, just me and the paintings. I sit opposite Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) 1994 . The colors are brilliant–blue, yellow, red, yellow —complicated, rendered uncertain by the black scrawls that erase them, rethink them. I am struck by the echoes of Rauschenberg in this painting, the Rauschenberg I saw two days ago, Gilder. I often get close to Twombly via Rauschenberg, but today I realize it makes no sense to compare them. Still, I see the lines, the loose brushstrokes of the artist at work, in the process of thinking, just as I had on Rauschenberg's canvas a couple of days ago. The strokes, the dissolution and disappointment of color as it bleeds, drips, runs off the edge of the canvas are so like Rauschenberg’s Gilder. But the laying bare of the artist at work on this canvas is for me, today, where the resonance with Rauschenberg ends.

Over dinner last night, Sharon and I talked about the movement, the drift of Twombly’s sculptures. She noted their sense of journey, reminding her of boats, and vessels. Our conversation prompted me to think of the paintings through a new lens. The sculptures are usually made of found pieces of wood. I remembered their fragility, the vulnerability of their material, their structure. This massive Untitled painting echoes that sense of floating, of movement off a canvas, where everything is ephemeral, on its way to inconsequence, the quest finding solace in its failure. It’s this sense of disappearance and disappointment that, today, overwhelmed me about Cy Twombly’s paintings.

A triptych that moves from right to left. How unusual. I remember Problem I, II, III in the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst, a triptych that moves from left to right, as we would read words in a book. But, this untitled triptych in Houston is different, entirely different: it is so enormous that I must physically walk its length, from right to left. The two side panels could not be more opposite. The right is replete with intense color, where paint melts, its tears streaking and staining the white face of the canvas. With the exception of the top right hand corner, the canvas is full — with emotive eruptions of anger, sadness, grief, love, with writing, and Twombly’s familiar scrawls. Poetry, “How you gaze beyond …” and I cannot decipher the rest. “… and yet there on the other shore under the dark gaze sun in your eyes you were there the other side the other dawn the other birth and yet there you were in the vast time by drop.” Again, it is the sea that inspires and holds the tension of this right panel. On the other side of the center panel, far at the other end of the gallery wall, on the other shore, the sun no longer shines in the eyes of the lost and lonely, calm and forgotten. Only a few wax scrawls remain, and an intense explosive flesh, white and pink painted gesture over which the light of the graphite inscription floats: “Shining white air trembling in white light reflected in the white flat sea”. All the color has dissolved, the intense emotion has dissipated, the color left, paint finally has fallen off the bottom of the canvas, where dissolution becomes a gesture of the resolution to the journey. This movement and disappearance speaks a narrative that doesn’t necessarily peter out, but one that no longer needs to be told. It reminds me of the tide as it comes up on the beachfront, and then leaves its trace when it goes back out to sea, with more important things to do and to say. And so, I, the viewer, in the end, am left with a sense of peace and serenity, as if I lie restfully in the white boat that takes me to the white light on the white sea. I drift.

On the journey to this blissful state of whiteness, as I walk the length of the painting, I am challenged by the familiar Twombly coagulations of thick paint, some bounded by black crayon, others resiliently, yet precariously, stuck to the canvas. There are scribbles and scrawls in crayon and graphite, reworked in grey paint, sometimes erased by the same flesh color that reaches stillness on the left hand side. And so, I have been on a journey: I have been carried along, I drifted with the boat, following the cry from one shore to the other, the demand of a painting, triptych in form, that drags me along its length. I have become the driftwood that Twombly finds lost at sea.

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