Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cy Twombly Untitled

Untitled, 1970, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

In the Cy Twombly Gallery of the Menil Collection, Houston, I sit, once again, surrounded This time it is the grey blackboard paintings from the late 60s and early 70s. The room is darker than the others; it is the only one not lit by the sun. Is this a conscious move on the part of the Menil, to emphasize the grey of the paintings? Does it mean these paintings are darker, less luminescent than the white-grounded, Rilke inspired images of water, the sea, and other natural phenomena? Perhaps it is Twombly himself who made the decision to display the blackboard paintings in artificial light? I know he was very involved in the exhibition of the works here at the Menil. They are not dark, but the lay of light on their surfaces is very different to that of the white-grounded works.

Untitled, 1969, Menil Collection, Houston

I had seen two grey paintings in the storage of the main collection across the road. It was difficult to see them: they were on racks, in storage, the lighting not ideal, the length of time I could spend with them was minimal. Nevertheless, I cannot forget them. Neither can I forget the comment of the young woman who accompanied me around the storeroom. “They are really spare”. On the contrary, they were, like all Twombly’s other paintings, filled, but perhaps not in the way that she would have expected. She was referring to the sparsity of white lines, of wax markings on the expansive grey canvas. But this sparsity of line only allowed for the richness of grey paint, its intricacies, its importance, Twombly’s love of grey paint, to be brought to the fore. The difference between the greys of the two Untitled works, from 1968 and 1969 respectively, in storage and those of the three on exhibition in the Twombly gallery is striking. The two in storage are almost white, luminescent, while those on display move towards black. The grey paint of Untitled 1968 and 1969 is intense, in places it is dragged across the canvas, with splashes and drips, layered, thick, in opposition to Rothko’s layers of paint made thin. And the Twombly’s in the gallery are anxiously filled with intense repetitive lines, scribbles, patterns in wax crayon, white paint. Grey becomes less a subject of painting and more like the support of the circular motions of Twombly’s hand as it reflects his mind in motion.

Untitled, 1967, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

On reflection Untitled, 1971, Untitled, 1970, Untitled, 1967 might, like Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor remember the rolling waves of the sea. Untitled 1970 sometimes reminds me of a storm: I could juxtapose it with one of J.M.W. Turner’s storms, also in grey. Alternatively, it might be a shipwreck, the wreck that might turn up the debris Twombly uses for his sculptures. This said, I prefer not to see them as representational or figurative in any way, even if this is how they are meant to be seen. Freed of the necessity of narrative, I am able to see that Untitled, 1970 is troubled, it expresses anguish, but perhaps it is merely executed with the left hand? Untitled, 1971 reminds me alternately of rain, of music, of doodles, but I prefer to see it as ethereal, ephemeral, and fleeting. Untitled, 1971 has a movement from the top left hand corner to the bottom right. In the same way that the triptych, Say Goodbye Catullus, gradually dissolves as it runs across and off the canvas, so does Untitled, 1971, the white lines disintegrating, both in the forms they create and their very definition. I am faced with the dilemma of how to describe them, hold onto them, if I do not narrativize these three grand canvases? I might liken their movement to that of light, beams of light. This can definitely be said of Untitled, 1967: the intense, firmly pressed white lines forming a beam as it travels and cuts through a pitch black night. At other times I watch the lines oscillate between doodles on piece of paper by the telephone, some kind of secret mathematical language, a script on its way to formation. I let my mind wander, mesmerized by what these circles, waves, pulsating white lines might mean, what they make me feel, what they represent.

Untitled, 1971, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston

And as I let go even further, I find still stronger connections to Say Goodbye Catullus. The stopping and starting of all three resembles the hesitation, disappointment and disjucture of the triptych. Likewise, certain places on the canvas are darker, more intense, more deliberate than others, always for no apparent reason. There is also a continued sense of motion, of movement velocity, insanity, the desire to create order, logical patterns, the obsessiveness of patterns as they fade off into insignificance. And in true Twombly style, erasure is everywhere the central character of these canvases, an erasure made familiar by the fact that nothing is ever fully erased, just as no line, no stroke of paint is never fully realized. I don’t understand why the blackboard paintings are so often thought to be different from the rest of Twombly’s oeuvre when, afterall, there is so much continuity.

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